Linda Seed, author: Plotters vs. Pantsers, or Just Cut the Lady in Half Already

Plotters vs. Pantsers, or Just Cut the Lady in Half Already

If you're in the online writing community at all, you know about the big Plotter vs. Pantser debate. The question is whether it's better to plot out a novel beforehand, with detailed outlines, character sketches, and notes—a clear roadmap for getting from Chapter 1 to the end—or to simply write and let the story take you where it will.

Each side has its vocal proponents. I've read articles that claim your novel is bound to fail if you don't outline it beforehand, and other articles that insist you'll suck all of the mystery and magic out of a story if you plan it too much.

I've always been a pantser (though I dislike the term, because it puts one in mind of bullies pulling down some poor kid's Toughskins on the playground). About a year and a half ago, though, I had an experience that decided the issue for me.

I'd been working on a novel for some time (and by "some time," I mean ten years, give or take), and I'd been doing what I've heard called "organic writing"—just letting the story wander where it would, willy-nilly. The story really wasn't going anywhere, and I was no closer to finishing it after years of trying. Then I attended a writers' conference at which I heard a speaker argue compellingly in favor of outlining.

Might as well try it, I thought.

So I outlined my story. I broke it down chapter by chapter, including plotting so careful that you'd think I was trying to pass a final exam on the eight point story arc. At first I was encouraged. Surely this would lead me to finish my novel, thus ending the angst I'd been feeling about my inability to do so. Surely this was a breakthrough that would lead me into my long-awaited career as a novelist.

Well, not so much.

As I tried to translate my outline into an actual manuscript, I realized something: I was bored. I already knew what was going to happen, so what was the point in continuing? It was like watching a movie after someone's told you all the spoilers. Not much fun, and a little irritating. And if I couldn't keep my own interest, how was I supposed to keep the interest of a reader?

Since then, I've been a pantser all the way. I know it sounds New-Agey, but I can't hear the characters talk to me if I'm busy forcing them to say things they don't really mean. And I need to hear the characters talk to me. I can't know them, can't flesh them out as real people, if I'm putting them through a puppet act to conform to some artificial plan I've got in some outline.

I know outlining works for a lot of writers. And good for them. We all should do what works for us. But for me, writing is a lot like magic. And planning, plotting, outlining is like showing everyone how the magician saws the lady in half and then puts her back together again good as new. Knowing how it's done ruins the trick. I don't want to think about the mechanics of the box and the mirrors and whatever the hell else they use. I just want to enjoy the wonder of it. I want to enjoy the illusion.