I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as a pantser when it comes to writing. And I say this as a self-confessed pantser. I’ve stood up and defended the position of writing from the hip against those pesky planners. I’ve defended the greater creative purity of the unplanned writing session. But it’s all bollocks. And you know what? There are no real planners either. This is a bell-curve, so there will be those outliers, but I’ll get to them later.
Firstly, in case you’re the one person who doesn’t know what a pantser or a planner is, let me explain. When it comes to writing fiction, there are two primary camps – people who plan everything and decide on each detail of the plot before they start writing, who are called planners, and people who plan nothing and just let the story all pour out au naturel, called pantsers. These people have also been referred to as architects and gardeners, and in that post I talk about being a bit of one and a bit of the other. But here I intend to make the bolder statement that we’re all a bit of both.
I’ve always identified mostly as a pantser. I don’t like to know everything that’s going to happen in a story before I start to write. What’s the point in writing it then? It’d be like writing it twice – once in note form, then again in detail. But I do make some notes. I have a good idea where things are going and what major events are going to occur in a story. I sometimes don’t know exactly how a book or story is going to end, but I have a good idea where I’m going with it and the ideas I’m playing with. The process of discovery that accompanies the writing then, as my subconscious tells the story through my characters, is the thing I love most about writing. So I do write a lot by the seat of my pants. But I plan too.
It’s the same for planners. Any great writer, no matter how strictly they might plan a book, will gladly let a new idea or an unexpected turn take the story somewhere else. That may mean that they stop and re-plan, based on the unexpected revelation. Or they may just roll with it. The bits and details in between their carefully planned markers will still need filling in, and they will have to cover those transitions and interstices with writing from the hip.
So no pantser never plans, and no planner never pants. Like I said above, it’s a bell-curve. I think it’s more a case of where on the curve you sit. Not whether you’re a pantser or a planner, but to what degree you plan. We’re all plantsers – we all sit down with a story idea and we work on it. We have to. There needs to be some ideas in mind of what we’re writing about, who our characters are (at least in their most superficial incarnation to begin with) and where we’re going with it. That’s planning. But the degree to which we plan that, or how much we leave open, is the only thing that separates our writing styles.
Kim Wilkins is a writer with something like 24 published novels and she is quite vocal about being a very detailed planner. Whenever you raise the subject with her, she will simply cry, “Two million words in print! I rest my case!” and she does kinda have a point. But really, all she’s saying is that she plans a lot, not only a little bit. There’s a case in her argument that everyone should plan a lot. I disagree. I don’t plan in anything like the detail Kim does, but I do plan to a certain extent. We all do. And no matter how much Kim plans, no matter how much of an outlier she is on one side of the bell curve, I bet there’s some pantsing in there too. Just like the person who pretty much pants the whole way will still have a small amount of planning, somewhere in the back of their mind. And even when someone pretty much pants the thing entirely, there comes a point when they need to pull it all together at the end and that requires a bit of planning.
There’s no such thing as a pantser or a planner. There’s just the degree to which we plan.