#5: Plotters and Pantsers: How Different Brains Attack the Manuscript

It’s no secret that different people think differently. So it stands to reason that different authors approach their manuscripts differently.

Some of us are linear writers and we are often referred to as “plotters.” We start our stories at the beginning, write the scenes in order, and push straight through to the end. Then we know the storyline is coherent. It’s challenging. And it’s hard work.

However – the most amazing scenes appear out of nowhere because we have to get Joe Hero from Plot Point A to Plot Point B so that he and Ann Heroine can have their juicy confrontation, a scene that we can’t wait to write.

But we do wait to write it, and that’s what makes us plotters. We power through the connecting tissue rather than jump ahead to the meat. That’s where us plotters have the most unexpected fun: making the humdrum… well, hum!

This isn’t to say that I have a complete scene-by-scene outline when I begin. I do have a basic plotline which includes a beginning, middle and end. Endings are rather important, after all. Some new writers get stumped when I ask them, “So – how does it end?” That is a part of the plot, remember.

And I do know all the main characters’ goals (what do they want/need/ache to accomplish?), motivations (why do they want/need/ache to do so?) and conflicts (how many seemingly impossible obstacles can I throw in their path before they accomplish the goal?). These fundamental plot elements are abbreviated as GMC, by the way. So if you see GMC in any writing context, that’s what they mean. Not your car.

On the opposite end, a large percentage of writers are “pantsers,” indicating that they write by the seat of their pants – which isn’t strictly true. They know their main characters’ goals, motivations and conflicts as well. They just write their scenes in random order when the muse provides inspiration. Then they stitch their scenes together later.

The author continuum extends from “I make a complete outline of every scene before I start” through “I have no idea where I’m going when I start – I just start!” And successful authors are represented by every point on that line. It’s a matter of how your brain is wired to work, not of your commitment or your talent or your creativity.

One caveat: Plotters seem to churn through manuscripts faster than pantsers. It takes more time to stitch together scenes that were written weeks (or months) apart and still maintain continuity. And when all you have left to write is connecting tissue, that can be daunting. Many new-author-pantsers get stuck at that point; don’t let yourself be one of them!

I have an extremely critical reminder before you get too far: always always always back up your work in more than one place. Always. And  often. You can save it on flash drives, load the document onto an online server, or even email it to yourself – if you use email online (not Outlook – if your computer crashes, it’s gone too).

You don’t want to risk losing your WORK. I shudder even writing those words…

Anyway, I hope this helps you define your own approach, your personal method. Or your personal mix of methods! Remember the most important concept: what works for you is what works.

Happy writing!

1 Response to “#5: Plotters and Pantsers: How Different Brains Attack the Manuscript”

  1. 1 Rebecca 12/14/2009 at 10:26 AM

    Very interesting topic today. I was just thinking about this… I vacillate between being a plotter and a pantser, depending on the project. In fact, I was just getting frustrated with myself over not being a “plotter” in this one particular project I’m working on, but I didn’t have a word for it. Now, I do!

    On a side note, I’ve found that my other author friends who are either plotters or pantsers tend to line up pretty swiftly into their Myers-Briggs types, which could be why I’m so on the fence between the two. I was so close to being a “J” that I was almost right on the fence between “P” and “J”. So although the other ENFPs I know are all pantsers, I tend towards being a plotter, like my ENFJ/ESTJ friends. But there’s something really exhilarating about waking up in the middle of the night and writing a scene in the middle of the book. But my inner J-plotter dutifully goes back to whatever page I’m really on after I write that scene, and continue to trudge through the scenes I don’t want to write at that moment. The up-side is that I tend to be enough of a plotter that I know where (even sometimes what chapter/page) this pantser scene will be on, so I’m sort of stitching together ahead of time. Does that count?

    Anyway, great blog. Thanks for letting us know about it at CHRW. It was a great way to start my morning…

    Now back to my plotter ways.

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