Authorial Intrusion: Pantser vs. Plotter

Plotter |ˈplätər| noun: 1. Someone who makes plans; a writer who maps out her story before she begins. 2. A sensible, logical person.

Pantser |pants*er| noun: 1. A person who works by the seat of her pants, esp. a writer. 2. Said person who writes dozens, maybe hundreds, of pages only to delete them. 3. Someone who will, in the wee small hours of the morning, weep into her computer keyboard because she realizes this %^&@ story is boring, the characters have no purpose, and the plot is going nowhere.


I confess. I am a pantser. I know. I can hear all you plotters out there. Life is easier when you’re a plotter. If you’re a plotter, the story would have a road map, a rough outline. You can avoid writing your characters into a metaphorical corner, where the only way out is to dump hundreds (yes, hundreds) of pages. When you’re stuck, you can go back to your outline and get unstuck. You know What Happens Next. I know all this. It’s exactly what I tell my writing students.

Yet something kept me from writing an outline. In the first flush of excitement for a new story, I don’t want to pull momentum away from development.  I like having the spark of an idea and exploring, seeing what the story is about, who the characters are. It unfolds for me as it appears on the page. There’s something magical in that.

Plotting uses a different part of the brain. It’s like fitting puzzle pieces together or playing a game of Tetris. It requires focus and planning. Plotting feels like someone asking me what I want for dinner next Tuesday.

Some authors are devoted plotters. John Grisham: “I’ve learned that the more time I spend on the outline, the easier the book is to write.”   Katherine Anne Porter: “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last line, my last paragraph, my last page first.” And this is what J.K. Rowling calls her “basic plot outline.” I’m starting to get hives.


J.K. Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapters 13-24

But I understand that you can’t write a series of books as complex as Harry Potter without keeping track of the subplots and characters’ relationships to each other, and I also get that suspense/thrillers like the ones Grisham writes need to have a certain plot progression. Outlines help with both of those things.

A few months ago, I gave it a shot. I had come to a point in my novel in progress that I needed to know how the main conflict was going to play out so I could start leading my characters there. I went old school and did the whole Roman numeral style thing with little indentations and everything. It was a long, tedious mess. If the characters could come to life from the page, even they would complain how bored they were.

Fast forward to last week. I had to write a novel synopsis for a workshop I’ll be attending this summer. I wrote a paragraph and a (muse/bolt of lightning/demi-god) gave me some inspiration to keep writing. Before I knew it, I was writing an outline. But it didn’t look like an outline, it was a stream-of-consciousness, free-form paragraph that went on for a page.

It needs some tinkering and a change of focus, but now I have a much better idea of where the story is going and how to get my characters from point A to point B. Dare I say it, I am now officially a plotter.

Let me know if you outline. I’d love some suggestions. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The Loft A little plug: I’ll be teaching my popular creative writing class this summer through The Loft Literary Center, beginning June 15. It’s eight weeks, all online.






  1. I tend to stay away from outlines (it reminds me of law school) and impedes my creativity. I sit down, write and revise later. Not a perfect practice, but outlining is too restrictive for me. If you enjoy plotting, consider Stuart Horwitz book, Book Architecture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the book recommendation, Rudri. I will check it out.
      Since you don’t outline, do you have any tips for overcoming plot limbo? Do you feel stuck if you’re not sure where the story is headed?


  2. Hi Jackie,

    First, sounds like you found your Aha moment for your novel, which is an enormously satisfying place to be once you’ve been hanging out for a while in that messy creative writing process.

    Love this word panster! Now I have a new name for my writing and editing process.

    Something an author said at a signing event in 2013 about her process still sticks: She wrote some 250 pages of a diary for one of her characters to get to really know the character. She ended up tossing about 80%. One was inspired by a true story, her friend; this other character was the one she needed to get closer to. Both felt so real. The novel is The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth B, by Nicole Bernier. Lorraine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s comforting to hear how other pantsers are able to move forward in the process of learning the characters and the story progression. From talking with other pantsers, I think we end up writing a lot more to get to what is useable. Nicole Bernier is a good example of that. What a dramatic way to get to know her character. It certainly paid off for her!


  3. I can’t imagine writing fiction, but if I did, I’m sure I’d be a pantser. Don’t like writing outlines at all. But I also can’t imagine deleting hundreds of pages–too painful!
    Rowling’s outline is amazing…what an imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved JK Rowling’s outline too! It showed me that outlines don’t need to be formal, super detailed things. They can be handwritten in broad strokes to keep you on track and make sure that the story is unfolding at the optimal pace. That gave me hope for myself. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That was one reason I’d always resisted writing an outline. Once it was on paper, I felt I had to stick with it to the end. Now I’m going to try to use the outline as a guide. If the characters lead me in a new direction, I can rewrite the outline.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love all this, Jackie! As a fellow pantser (I am cracking up over your descriptions) I prefer the mystery and the spark when writing, but this can lead me into a brick wall. And it certainly has with my novel. But to be honest, I think the best “outlines” are ones that may not look like an outline (like yours) and are flexible. I’m considering a loose outline of sorts for my memoir (and even more my novel if I choose to rewrite someday) but the key word for me is loose. It does help to have an idea of where you’d like to end up, even if that destination changes along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a revelation to realize that an outline didn’t have to involve Roman numerals. 🙂
      As a recovering pantser, I think it’s a great idea to outline your memoir. Even though you know the chronology of events very well, it can be a help to know which moments to include and which to leave out. Good luck!


  5. Like you, I am a pantser who is trying to plot. So far, I’ve had the most success with thinking through the “mid-book” crisis point for each character and working from the beginning with that in mind. But I am convinced that I need to give my writing animus free rein to surprise me and be true to my characters!

    Liked by 1 person

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