The great plot vs pants debate

Two paths, one destination

It is common wisdom that there are only two ways to write a novel. The first, an approach favoured by such trivial scribes as Stephen King and Ian Rankin, is to start writing with little or no idea of what’s going to happen, or to whom. Known as ‘discovery writing’, or more commonly in the US as ‘pantsing’ (from ‘writing by the seat of your pants’), to a degree it allows the writer to share the reader’s sense of anticipation as they literally watch the story unfold beneath their fingers.

The twists and turns of pantsing

The second is the polar opposite. ‘Plotting’ involves mapping out the story’s points to completion, long before any ‘once upon a times’ or ‘dark and stormy nights’ take flight from the author’s imagination. Moderately-successful writers such as J K Rowling and John Grisham adhere to this method, potentially because their heads would be at risk of exploding if they didn’t.

Pros and cons of pantsing and plotting

Pantsing, as mentioned, injects writing with a sense of wonder, unbound by strict arcs, character journeys and points which must happen for the story to make sense. For the writer, every page can feel like a cliffhanger, and the pull of being forced to exercise that spontaneous creative muscle can be an irresistible one.

On the downside, a draft produced by the pantsing method runs the risk of requiring considerable rework once complete. If the writer started off with little idea of how things were going to work out, early chapters may have plot holes, inconsistencies or even not make sense at all. Likely too, the novel’s themes wouldn’t necessarily have become clear until partway through the draft, meaning the tone of those early pages might be way off the moody mark.

The plotter is less likely to miss those points. With sometimes every single scene of the novel worked out beforehand, themes, foreshadowing, emotional journeys and the like can be woven in from the very first page. Characters and events will obediently go where the story needs them to go, rather than allow themselves to be written into impossible-to-escape corners.

The straight and narrow path of plotting

The main disadvantage – and criticism – of the plotting approach is that it stifles creativity, that its structure suffocates all chance for the story to breathe, to take unexpected turns, to evolve. If, partway through a plotted story, the author has a brilliant story-serving idea for how things need to be different, the plotted approach disallows it: at worst, it could even be a case of back-to-the-drawing-board.

One approach to rule them all?

As is always the case with writing and with creativity in general, there is no ‘right’ way. Some writers seek to strike a balance, plotting little more than a one-page synopsis, then pants their way through the detail, using the plot as a lodestone to guide things where they need to go. Others are strict adherents to one or the other, and – having based successful careers on their chosen method – they’ve made the right decision (for them).

As for me, I’ve tried them both and I know where my allegiance lies.

The first novel I ever seriously tried to write was a meandering pantsed mess. Though I had a rough idea of the sort of story I wanted to tell (something about exciting adventures in a mythological circus), I had none of the detail worked out about what was going to happen. My poor characters were left wandering round a monstrous big tip with no idea what to do. The draft of that disappeared in the Great Macbook Crash of 2011, and trust me, that’s best for everyone.

Next time, I turned my hand to plotting. I took an approach which has evolved into the one I use today: plotting out each scene or chapter, making sure I know who’s involved, what they’re feeling, what they do and what the resultant impact of their actions is. The first novel I produced using that method went the same way as the incomprehensible circus of pants, but at least I finished it, and – within its pretty amateurish context – it made some kind of sense.

An incomprehensible circus, yesterday


I’ve stuck to that over the years, learning more about craft, structure, character and generally evolving with every word I write. Today, I can’t imagine writing a novel without having the whole thing mapped out (and using Scrivener, I literally can see a map of it, which helps that dominant visual side of my brain immensely). I may not experience the thrill of discovery, but I relish the comfort of the known and the knowable: and enjoy being led by the helping hand of my plot through the narrative.

Without the worry of writing ever-increasing circles of nonsense, that allows other aspects of the novel room to breathe and grow. And there’s still room for spontaneity and surprises, particularly I’ve found when it comes to the dialogue between characters. It works for me – though that doesn’t necessarily mean it works for everyone else.

Finally, there is probably now some bizarre analogy I could make about pants, but I shall valiantly resist.

After all, doing that wasn’t in the outline I created for this post before writing it.

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