Planning and Pantsing: Sliding along the spectrum

Flying by the seat of your pants, or meticulously planning every scene in detail? Which way you write (and which way you should write) has apparently been something of a heated debate between writers for some time. Somehow I missed much of it, because recently I discovered that my understanding of the two labels is quite different to most. 

See, when I was introduced to the concepts, it was explained to me as being either end of a spectrum. The two weren’t separate, people just naturally prefer one side or the other. The same way being right-handed doesn’t mean your left hand is useless – it just gets used less. 

 Which is why I was surprised to find a bunchof articles on the revelation of the ‘plantser’ – a hybrid of both. That was when I discovered that the view I had been taught – one in which all people are plantsers – is not the norm. Seriously, if you haven’t already, Google it. People get real fired up over it.

So much arguing when we could be writing!

But just because it isn’t the norm, doesn’t mean its not useful. Being on a spectrum means that you, as a writer, can moveup of down that spectrum as you require. Planning and pansting are therefore accessible at all times, with emphasis on whichever is most appropriate at any point in time. You are not restricted to a fixed position, and the ability to consciously move along that spectrum changed pantsing and planning from inherent traits to usable tools, and can make a huge difference to your writing. Of course, this isn’t  a’must do’. This is just my opinion, and to go back to the left-hand-right-hand comparison, most people get on just fine with becoming ambidextrous. But it can’t hurt either.

First, we need to look at thestrengths and challenges of each approach.

The Plotting Panster

Generally speaking (caveat: this is just GENERAL. It might not apply to you. I’d appreciate your indulgence anyway) pansters have character driven stories.

It makes sense; they find a character, and follow them wherever they go. This means going all sorts of places that in the end, have nothing to do with the story. But it gives that character experiencesand perspectives outside the plot, which informs them as they go on theirjourney. They are rounded, real characters.

The struggle becomes making the plot makes ense. As the character bumbles their way through, there may not be clear and distinct checkpoints; foreshadowing, beats, and signposting are hard if you don’t know where the plot is going. It can also be difficult then for readers trying to understand and work out what is happening and it can distract from the character.  Planning out just a few points, or back-planning (discussed later) can get that little distraction out of the way leaving the reader to fall completely into the character you have wonderfully crafted.

The other point? Pantsing takes time. If you don’t know the shape of the story, it can take some time to find it. A(nother) general rule, pansting gets words down quick. But editing thse words to nail the plot takes much longer.


At the other end of the spectrum, we unsurprisingly see strong plot-driven stories. Well thought out and well planned, but running the risk of characters specifically designed to accommodate the plot.  Planning the perfect character for the journey might sound great, until the reader realises that the character has no thoughts, emotions or feelings outside their Great Quest. They have no other life. They are flat, and one they have fulfilled their purpose, they have no reason to exist anymore.

This is not every planned character of course. But it is a risk. I’ve never been a natural planner, but from what I’m told it appears to be harder for a planner to shift towards pansting that the other way.

But that isn’t a reason not to try. By writing a character in a situation that does not pertain to the plot, and seeing how they react might be difficult, but it helps you get into their head and write a fuller version of them into the story, then it’s worth it.

In both cases though, it’s about strengthening your less familiar side. The more you try it, the better you will be, and the more powerful the tool at your disposal.


The best authors don’t just have a multitude of tools; they know how to use them to the best effect and efficiency.

Enter Natasha Lester. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Natasha recently (read: I had a one line interaction with her on Twitter, and that was enough for me to *squee*) in which I discovered she has a similar approach to names as I do. A name is critical to her. It’s a reader’s first impression to a character. It is also very much a discovery trait. Get a name, extract character.

BUT if you have ever seen her ‘What is Known’ chart, you will see she has a very strong plotting game too. Strong indiscovery, strong in plotting. But she does not necessarily use both at one.

 Her planning tool – the Chart – comes into play on revision. After writing all her amazing and full characters, the back-plans the novel to ensure a tight control of what information is placed where, the order in which it is presented to the reader. It’s a full and conscious swing from one end of the spectrum to the other, and the results speak for themselves.

On the planning side is Brandon Sanderson. Brandon is very much a planner, through from the way his past has been described, I get the impression he was once a pantser. That alone shows the ability to slide along the spectrum.

But his characters are generally well rounded, which is even more impressive given the cast of thousands he tends to write in.

How? Well, he writes a number of short stories. Scenes that don’t go into the novels, but inform characters. Also, when he knows a scene isn’t going to work, he continues to write to see where the character goes. Why doesn’t it work? Why won’t the character do that? Let the story take over, and learn the character better.

The other advantage of using both methods is the speed of writing. Sanderson admits that he isn’t a particularly quick typist, but the rate at which he produces quality books is largely due to planning them out, and the reducing the amount of meandering his characters do in finding the plot.

Now, limiting the meandering can still lead to undeveloped characters, just as some pantser-written stories will refuse to fit a plan (my first novel, my baby, never to be published for this exact reason). Sometimes as a writer, things just don’t work. But by looking at pantsing and planning as tools rather than traits, as well as taking the perspective of a sliding spectrum between them enables you to utilise the right amount of each to give your story the best chance. It can emphasise, control, and build elements as to the strength of each, at the very worst at least lifting the restrictions of categoric labels. That kind of freedom can only help your writing.

~ Nathan (Proud Panster)

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