Are you a plotter or a planner? Well? Do you plan things or do you wing it? Are you organized or spontaneous? Do you structure your books or do you wait for the muse to take you by the hand?
You’re one or the other! Choose!
If you’ve been writing any amount of time, you’ve heard this approximately five million times. And like most things that separate people into groups, people can get tribal about it.
And you know what’s nuts? It’s nonsense. There’s no black-and-white line between plotting and pantsing. I don’t even know how we got here. Who decided that the only choices available are to write a story completely blind or to plan everything ahead of time?
When it comes to planning a story, your choices aren’t “plan everything” or “plan absolutely nothing.”
Here’s the problem with plotting and pantsing. If there are only two choices and you have to choose one, you might think there are only two ways to write: you plan everything in advance or you plan nothing.
This is so, so limiting.
I’ve seen people commit to planning, try to figure out every scene in their book, then despair when they come up with new ideas mid-story. They act like these unplanned-for ideas mean they did something wrong.
And I’ve seen people try to pants a story and hit a creative wall. They don’t know what to write next. Nothing seems natural, the characters could go a dozen different ways, and they may not know where the story is going. But they’re so bought into the idea of creativity as spontaneous experience that they feel they are not allowed to plan ahead at all.
These people have squeezed themselves in tiny little holes. They’re a “planner,” so innovating in the writing phase is wrong! They’re a “pantser,” so planning ahead is forbidden!
Why do people do this to themselves?
Plotting and pantsing is a continuum, not a binary choice.
OK. So let’s throw away the idea that you have to be in either Camp Planning or Camp Spontaneity. Let’s think of it like a continuum.
Imagine a line. On the faaaaaaaaarthest left side is “plan absolutely everything in your story.” And on the other end, the line ends with “plan absolutely nothing.”
And in the middle is a great, vast expanse. What belongs there, you ask? Everything! Anything! Because you know what? There are degrees of planning and degrees of spontaneity.
- A really hardcore planner might map out all ~40ish scenes in their book before beginning.
- …But they could still give themselves permission to deviate from it if they come up with a better idea when they’re writing it. They may even end up with a totally different book than what they planned.
- Or you could do a lighter outline and sketch out bullet points for each scene (or chapter!), but go into the story not specifically knowing how all those events will happen.
- Or hey, you could do some really light planning and go in only knowing your Inciting Incident, Midpoint, and Climax, and wing everything in between!
- Maybe you like to plan your characters and world, but not your plot? That’s good, too!
- Or you could jump in without an outline, pants the story, but “micro outline” one or two chapters ahead of where you are, so you never start a writing session “blind.”
- Or you can wing the story, but have a backup plan in case you ever hit a wall. Maybe you can be spontaneous until you really don’t know what to do, and then you can brainstorm some ideas, write down the best of them, and see how to integrate them into your work.
Or maybe you have your own technique! That’s even better!
And you know what? These are all perfectly viable techniques. You can plan a lot or a little. You could write an outline and also write organically. You can wing a story but still plan certain parts of it. You can make your own system, where you do the things that work for you and don’t do the ones that don’t.
And you know what? I’m willing to bet that most people do this. The people who pants an entire story and start without knowing anything that will happen? They are the panstiest pantsers there are, but they certainly aren’t the majority. They’re just as much an outlier as the people who plan 100% of their stories in the outline phase and never, ever deviate from it.
And if you’re not trying to cram yourself into a box, you can take advantages of BOTH ways to be creative.
And that’s the magic: planning can be useful. Letting the story guide you in an unexpected direction can be useful. So wouldn’t you want to give yourself permission to do both? It just gives you more tools to use.
And who wants to cram themselves in a box, anyway?
So, seriously: why is this a thing? Why are people so rigid about it? Can’t we treat plotting and not-plotting like techniques we can all use, and stop telling ourselves that we “have” to be creative in a certain way?
Just do whatever works for you.