Planning Versus Pantsing
From The Midnight Writers’ Podcast, Episode 3
Adapted by Brittany Thurman
Planning and pantsing are two popular techniques writers use when preparing and writing stories. You have most likely heard of planning your stories, but the term “pantsing” may be new, although the concept is probably not.
When planning a story, you try to outline it ahead of time, getting as much of the structure built as possible. Before writing the story, you may plan out the plot, subplots, world, characters, or any other part of the story. The plans you make for a story can serve as waypoints that need to be reached to keep it on track for the ending you imagine.
Pantsing is NOT writing without pants…although that is an option when you’re at home…alone. It comes from the term “writing by the seat of your pants,” and is the opposite of planning: You do not build the plots, characters, or world prior to sitting down and writing the opening scene. It is also known by the more professional term of discovery writing.
Is Planning Better?
When planning your story, you may be devising outlines, creating character sheets, or developing scenes, among other methods. Preparing your story in these ways helps you get into it quickly and build momentum, especially if you are trying to crank out a large number of words in a short time, such as during NaNoWriMo. Even if you do not go into depth, you can just plan a few main ideas that will serve as markers along the way to get you where your story needs to go. Then, you can get there however you need.
Beware, though, that sometimes plans do not work out to our exact specifications, and the story may come out differently than imagined, leaving those markers unreached. Another thing to be conscious of is the possibility of taking too much time referring back to extensive notes, which can pull you out of the story and make it harder to keep the momentum you have gained.
Or Does Pantsing Take the Trophy?
Pantsing a story allows you a lot of freedom when writing your story; you are not limited to following the track you set before you had gotten into the story. You can allow the little twists and turns to occur naturally. When you haven’t already considered all of the details, it can be easier for your brain to make connections between things as you are writing that may never have come about if you had tried to plan them. You can spontaneously bring things into your story that you wrote earlier,making your story even better.
When you pants your way through a story, it is easier to get stuck in a spot and have to think through it to find your way back into the story. This can sometimes result in somewhat disjointed writing. You are also limited to writing straight through the story, so when you feel stuck on a scene, you have to push through it, instead of being able to skip around and write another part you have planned.
The Results are In
There is no one right way! Both options have their pros and cons, and neither one takes any less time than the other. When planning a story, you spend a good amount of time prior to actually writing the story making those plans. At this point, you are putting a lot of the meat into the story. When pantsing a story, you are likely to spend more time editing, because things may not come out as smoothly. You may have to add in more details to the story, such as foreshadowing certain events that turn out to be important to the story.
You need to determine what works best for you. You may use planning and pantsing in different ways throughout your writing career; you do not have to choose just one. Different projects may call for different methods. Whatever gets you motivated to write and keep writing is what you need to do. If you need to know where your story is going in order to write, plan it out. If knowing the details of the story makes you feel trapped, pants it.
**If you have a contract, your publisher may require some planning to be able to market the book.
A Revolutionary Idea
Use both methods! You can plan the basic structure, plot, and characters of your story out, but make up the rest to fill in the story as you go along. Even with a lot of planning, you may still need to do some pantsing to flesh it out. The story may change direction away from your plans as you write it out; this can be a good thing, as it may take you in an even better direction. Pantsing the story at this time might be the best option. If you have the main concepts of your story down, you can let the characters take control of the story. When writing a series of books, your methodology might change between the first and second books—you may have to plan more in book one to get the world and character established, but may be able to pants it more in subsequent books, since you are already in a familiar setting. Try them both, and see what works best for you.
Stephen King: In his book On Writing, Stephen King notes that he is all about discovery writing (pantsing).
Brandon Sanderson: According to resident expert Jon Zenor, Brandon Sanderson plans his plot, scenes, and world, but discovery writes his characters.
J.K. Rowling: According to Jon, was huge into planning every detail of the Harry Potter series.
Ben Weilert: Ben prefers a mixture. He started as a planner, but has added pantsing into his writing in his more recent stories.
Jon Zenor: Jon uses a mixed methodology. Opposite Ben, he started more as a pantser, but has adding more planning as time goes on.
Lena Johnson: Lena also mixes up her planning and pantsing methods. She planned her short stories, but pantsed her way through her novel.
If you would like some help planning out your story, check out Dan Wells’ 7 Parts of Story Structure, which can help you come up with a hook, plot turn, and more. The video series is shared on our forums or YouTube!