To plot or not to plot

Discussions about plotting and structure can be divisive in the writing community.

Some people see plotting and structure as the enemy. Critics say over structured plots stifle creativity and choke the authors’ spirit. They point to Hollywood movie mills that churn out mindless, soulless formula fiction each blockbuster season. These stories exemplify nothing of the human spirit and are forgotten once the popcorn is gone.

Fair enough.  I’ve certainly seen enough of those movies. I’m just glad I can’t remember any of them.

I want to draw a distinction between Hollywood fluff and popcorn movies.  I know I was a bit harsh on our film studio overlords, but there’s absolutely a place for stupid fun in our media.  Everything we watch or read doesn’t need to be based on a haiku.  There’s something to be said for simple escapism, and I want to acknowledge that.

Let’s look at the Transformers series. I loved the first movie and I still do.  It was pure escapism at its finest and it was great.  Aliens, robots, a world made of explodium, and you left the theater feeling good about the world.  Who could ask for more?  If you went into the theater looking for deep commentary on the condition of the human soul, I’m sorry but you were barking up the wrong tree.  I even enjoyed the second movie.  No one asked for it, but it was still as fun as a popcorn movie sequel can be expected to be.

Then the third movie happened.  Then the fourth.  I haven’t seen “Bumblebee”, and I don’t even know if I’ve seen “The Last Knight.” You know a series has become generic when you can’t even remember if you’ve seen an entry in the franchise or not.

That’s what I mean when I talk about the difference between Hollywood fluff and popcorn movies. Even a popcorn movie can endure when it’s approached with zeal, love, and good structure. The problem is when studios find a cash cow, kick the calf to the curb and suckle at the udders ‘til the milk runs dry. That’s what I mean by soulless formula fiction.

But there’s another side of the story. I see no reason why structure needs to stifle creativity at all. Does an application of structure stifle the creativity of architects and builders? Or can you build a house without a frame? As someone who’s done some framing, I can answer both questions with a resounding “no”. You can’t build a house, or any structure, without some underlying framework. Understanding the basic principles of framing doesn’t stifle creativity; it unleashes it! Once you understand how to frame a structure so that it’s sound, you can play with that structure to great effect. You could create a cathedral or colosseum to inspire hearts and minds for generations.

Or you can build rows of little boxes made of ticky tacky. But this has less to do with your form and more to do with why you’re creating in the first place.

Your writing is no different. Understanding good story structure doesn’t stifle your creativity, it unleashes it. A proper application of craft can offer inspiration, guidance, and demolish writers’ block. You could write a comedy, tragedy, or a grand opus that gives hope and inspires the young.

Or you could churn out another “Transformers” sequel no one asked for. It depends on whether you want to create something new to inspire humanity or deuce out content for cash. Even popcorn movies can endure if made with care. Good form and structure can get you there, wherever “there” is.

My bias is clear. I prefer a story to have a good set of bones. But in this article, I don’t want to get dogmatic and preach one philosophy over another. I want to expose you to both sides of the argument so you can make your own decision on which approach is right for you. And whichever one you choose, if you think it through, will be right.

The pros of pantsing

Unleash your creativity

There’s something to be said about just writing for fun.  I go over this in greater detail in my article, “7 reasons why you should write for fun and not worry about publication,” [LINK] but writing for fun is great stress relief.  A YouTuber I like named ShaelinWrites recommends writing for fun, also called freewriting, because it’s a good way to recharge your batteries after a long writing session.  If this is your default method of writing, you may feel less stress than your plotting counterparts.

Pantsers who free write often feel as though they are a part of the story, enjoying it for the first time along with their readers.  Instead of clogging up your time with charts, scene cards, and spreadsheets, you’re involved in the story, living it.

For pantsers, freewriting allows you to develop your authentic author voice faster than plotting. The pantsers’ “full steam ahead” approach lets them bulldoze forward.  They find their voice, and those of their characters, faster and more organically than plotters.

Meet your characters for the first time

As a pantser, you don’t do the same in-depth character building beforehand. So in many ways, you’re meeting your characters for the first time like your audience. This allows you the same sense of wonder as your audience as you explore the world and the people who inhabit it.

You can also have more familiarity with your characters than a plotter who may approach them more clinically. They may appear more autonomous the more familiar you are with them. You’ll often be surprised by where your characters drive the story when you give them the wheel. One author I read claimed it can take 30, 000 words for a character to find his voice and seem truly autonomous. The pantsers “full steam ahead” approach can help you reach this goal faster.

Stephen King, the undisputed Poohbah of all pantsers, has a quote that sums up this point quite well:

“I think that plotting is a last resort of bad writers, as a rule. I’m a lot more interested in character or situation, where it goes. The last thing I want to do is spoil a book with plot.”

Stephen King

Freedom to change

The nice thing about pantsing is that you may be more willing to change things than if you are sticking to a rigid plot.  If you see something isn’t working, there’s no need to re-work your entire outline to fix it.  It’s worse for plotters who discover something isn’t working and affecting plot points down the road.  Then they will need to either re-work their story to get it back on the plot or re-work their plot to adapt to the story.  This can be frustrating if attempting to plot a series.

Having the ability to change gears and go off-road in your story will also make you more likely to finish your draft.  You won’t get bogged down in the details as much as a plotter might.  Use this to forge ahead and finish your draft before fatigue sets in.  Plotters may spend so much time focusing on the minutiae of their stories that they burn themselves out before they ever get to the end.  You may also find yourself surprised by your own plot twists as you never saw them coming.  It feels like you’re participating in the story more than observing it.

A little literary spelunking isn’t just exciting for you, but your reader as well.  Pantsed, or “discovered,” characters and stories may also seem more organic and authentic than plotted ones.  Characters can tend to change their motivations through the story, as people tend to do in real life.

Gauge your story development

There are many ways to gauge your story progress in writing. If you gauge your progress by your word or page count per day, pantsing can give you a good metric to measure by. Freewriting is a great way to unleash your creativity maximize the number of words per day you can lay down. Time flies when you’re having fun, and so do words.

When you set your daily word or page count goals and achieve them, you’ll leave each writing session feeling as if you’ve accomplished something. If your preferred measurement method is to focus on word count, pantsing is a good option for you.

There are tools you can use to help. I like Scrivener [LINK], especially for long-form content like eBooks. Scrivener [LINK] has adjustable session targets that show you how close you are to your goal. If word counts are your jam, you might also consider a word processor called Hemmingway. Hemmingway isn’t as full-featured as Scrivener, or even Word, but it has another interesting feature. The programs AI can score your work and assign a grade level to it. This will help you make certain your writing is accessible to your audience. And it has a handy word counting feature in a sidebar to the right so you can track your word count in real-time. 

Richer prose and scenes

For some, the process of writing the scene is important to understanding the scene. It’s the difference between experiencing the scene and remembering the scene. Every time you remember something your memory changes it a little. True pantsers claim the same is true for writing. Because they “experience” the scenes instead of “remembering” them, pantsers feel that they can write richer, more engaging scenes than plotters.

More confidence

Sometimes pantsers plot because it’s what some well-meaning plotter said it’s what they had to do. The result is that you try to force yourself to write in a style that’s foreign to you. It’s like living in Houston and insisting on speaking French while everyone else speaks English.

When plotting, some pantsers push themselves with unreasonably high word count goals. The result is that they tend to punish themselves for writing in a style that isn’t native to them. If pantsing is your native style, you will be able to navigate the manic writing process better and feel more comfortable with each writing session.

The cons of pantsing

More frequent blocks

Many pantsers tend to write themselves into a corner.  I’ve been there.  With my manuscript for “The Bereavers Tale,” I didn’t plot as well as I should have for my style and found myself blocked often.  There were points where I knew where my characters were, where I wanted them to be, but I didn’t know how to get them from A to B.  A little more structure could have helped me find my way out.

High highs and low lows

Pantsers can find their progress erratic since their writing is dependent on inspiration and feelings.  They often experience a honeymoon period where their creativity flows like water.

But when the honeymoon ends, they can experience a time of blockage where their inspiration dries up.  These periods can last for extended seasons and can be especially frustrating when working under a looming deadline.

More likely to encounter plot holes

It’s extremely easy to fall headlong into a plot hole while pantsing.

Without a guide, it’s easy to leave plot strands dangling, have others pop in from nowhere, change characters’ appearance out of the blue, or even forget characters’ names.  This happened to me when I tried writing a novel at 16.

My protagonists’ name changed from Michael to Mitch, to Matthew within the space of 2 chapters and I didn’t even notice.

Extensive rewriting process

The trade-off to your burst of unbridled creativity is that you will spend more time in edits afterward.  Pantsed stories tend to be full of rabbit trails and loose ends that go nowhere, and nonessential characters who pop in and out of the story at random. 

This isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, but it’s a drawback of the method you should be aware of.  If you find yourself in a directionless story with too many meandering dead ends, the solution is to approach the story with a critical eye and do some pruning.  See if you can identify a theme in the work and then trim it to suit. 

If this sounds daunting, it shouldn’t.  Just remember, whether you’re a plotter or pantser, books aren’t written, they’re edited

The pros of plotting

Focus and clarity

The writing process for plotters tends to run much more smoothly than pantsers.

Since plotters know where they are going beforehand, they tend to arrive faster than pantsers.  Since you’re doing more work ahead of time, you will also have less work to do afterward.  For the plotter, this means fewer edits. 

Plotted stories also often have better pacing, narrative momentum, and less dross to be cut in edits.  Another benefit is that plotting can help you insert clues or key elements in a series as well.  Pantsers often miss key opportunities to insert foreshadowing moments in their work.  By the time they think of a cool foreshadow for book one, they are already on book three.

Better character focus

Since plotters plan everything beforehand, they often have complete character profiles for their entire cast.  This means plotters have every aspect of their characters nailed down from their physical description, personality types, tastes, etc.  They also tend to be much more individually distinct from the start since more thought has been put into them beforehand.  This leads to much more authentic, three-dimensional characters.

Demolish writers block

Since we know the beginning from the end, writers’ block doesn’t hit that hard in the first place.  If we do get stuck, we can consult our notes for advice and get back on track.  Or we can always trust our craft and our favorite plotting device to get us out of the mud.

Less Revision

If you’re using good structure, a good theme, and a comprehensive outline, your edits should be relatively minor.  Relatively.  There are always edits.  Like I said before, books aren’t written, they’re edited.  This is even true of plotted books.  A well-plotted book can give you a strong foundation to build your book on when you get to edits.  You can spend your time improving your piece instead of repairing it.

Simplifies writing a series

It’s much easier to plan a series if you plot.  For a pantser, it’s incredibly difficult, nigh on impossible, to plant small details and Easter Eggs into the early installments of a series.

By the time you get this cool foreshadowing idea for book one, you’re already on book three. 

A good example of a plotted series would be “Harry Potter” [LINK].  Because she’s a master plotter, J.K. Rowling was able to plant seemingly insignificant details into book one that appeared irrelevant until book seven.  Plotting made this possible.

A good example of a pantsed series is the “Myth Adventures” series by the late Robert Aspirin [LINK].  Rather than having a clear beginning, middle, and end, such as the Potter series, Aspirin’s books are more of a rolling, episodic series of installments.  They’re still good, and they can develop a richness of their own as the story develops over time.  But there’s no chance of inserting clues in the early books because you don’t know where the story is going.

The cons of plotting

Info dumping

When you spend so much time developing your own cultures, history, geography, and lore for an entire world, it can be hard not to share.  Plotting can help with what ShaelinWrites on YouTube calls “Information Management.”

This was my mistake in “The Berevers Tale.”  I spent so much time explaining the awesome world I created that I forgot I had a story to tell.  I even invented an entire language for the book.  It was called Calderan and was mainly used in magic and communicating with a native people I called the Patris.  I was so proud of it that I had characters deliver entire lines in Calderan, even though the reader had no idea what was being said.  That was a mistake I’m going to need to fix in edits. 

I think it’s important to remember that you still need to create that expansive world.  Without that history, the world doesn’t have much reason to exist.  But understand that your readers will only ever see a sliver of it. 

Plotting may seem daunting to some authors

Creating a world and plotting your story is a lot of work and it’s daunting.  It can be so daunting that it puts some authors off writing altogether.  Now, I like worldbuilding.  But for those who don’t, I think it’s important to remember that the work we do now will mean less work in edits.  It can take time, but I’ll be showing you some plotting strategies later in this series on plotting that should save you time.

Harder to gauge progress

Some people find it difficult to gauge their progress while plotting.  To those who don’t enjoy worldbuilding, plotting can seem like a thankless job.  Especially when you consider that most of the world you create is going to be in the background, never seen by your reader.  Writing isn’t the same as plotting and it can feel like you’re spinning your wheels when you’ve spent weeks plotting and haven’t written a word of chapter one yet.

 Lose your focus

Despite your best efforts, maybe your story gets away from you.  Your characters may develop a mind of their own and go rogue.  As a plotter, you have a few options.  One option is to go back to where things got away on you and do a rewrite.

It’s annoying, but you can do it if you’re not too far along.  Another is to rewrite your outline to suit your new timeline.  Again, annoying, but you can do it.  Or you could run with it.  Just see where it goes in a freewriting session.  If it doesn’t go anywhere, scrap it and try again.  This leads me to my next advice, make another piece out of it.  If it’s good enough, try making another article, short story, or book about it later.

Derivative plot

When you rely too heavily on structure, your novels can seem less like stories and more like scenes checked off a list.  They may lack spontaneity and life.  Your story might be technically good, but overly mechanical and cold.  And if it’s too structured, you may spoil your ending.  Nowadays, people have seen the same story so often that, without a pinch of originality, they may see that twist ending you’re so proud of a mile away.  It can also lead to your character’s victory being convenient and manufactured instead of hard-won. 


Let’s sum things up.

The pros of pantsing are:

  1. Unleash your creativity
  2. Meet you characters for the first time
  3. Freedom to change your story
  4. Gauge your story development
  5. Richer prose and scenes
  6. More confidence

The cons of pantsing are:

  1. More frequent blocks
  2. High highs and low lows
  3. More likely to encounter plot holes
  4. Extensive re-writing process

The pros of plotting are:

  1. Increased focus and clarity
  2. Better character focus
  3. Demolish writers block
  4. Less revision
  5. Simplifies writing a series

The cons of plotting are:

  1. Info-dumping
  2. The work of plotting may seem daunting to some writers
  3. It can be hard to gauge your progress while writing
  4. You can lose focus
  5. It can lead to derivative plots

There’s no right or wrong way to write.  Just write.  There are no hard and fast rules here.  Or if there is one, it would only be, “The only way not to write, is not to write.”

There’s nothing wrong with being a plotter or a pantser.  We have many successful examples of each.  On the pantser side, we have the likes of Stephen King and C.S. Lewis.  On the plotter side, we have J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Plotting and pantsing are part of a spectrum, not opposite ends of a minefield.  I know people on the fringes can get a little shrill, but don’t let them tell you any different.  Your job at this point should be to understand the costs and benefits of both sides and decide where you want to be.  You can study as much as you like but, at the end of the day, it comes down to your taste as much as anything else.  Whatever you choose, find ways to double down on the benefits of the style and mitigate the costs. 

Let me give you a yardstick to get started in your pondering.  If you’ve read this far and realized, “I love worldbuilding, and I want the kind of structure a good plot will bring me,” congratulations, you might be a plotter.   If you’ve read this far and realized, “I bet I could write a really funny story about cake this afternoon!”  You may be a pantser.

What?  Not enough?  Okay, I’ve prepared a few resources for you below.

Tips to help decide if you are a pantser or plotter, from Will Soulsby-McCreath at  [LINK]

Dianne Callahan, one of my subs on YouTube, has a great video on the plotting spectrum and breaks the spectrum into five different types of authors.  [LINK]

According to a YouTube video by editor, Ellen Brock, (coolest name for an editor ever, by the way) there are 4 different categories of writers who occupy four quadrants, instead of a spectrum.  Very interesting.  [LINK]

I hope that helps.  In my next article in the series, I’ll be going over the basics of composition, talking about the 3 Act structure and some of its alternatives.  See you then.

Good writing and Calamus Gladio Fortior