Pantser or Plotter?

Do you write ‘by the seat of your pants’? No plan or plot? Author Nora Roberts says she never knows where her story is going. She sits down at her computer to find out.

Panster or plotter

Do Your Characters Write Your Story?

Some writers hate to plot saying they would rather discover the adventures along the way. I can agree to that to a point. I may not have the whole story in my head, but there’s a certain idea of how I want the story to go. But like most writers, once I start writing, the characters have a way of taking over – and that’s where the fun begins!

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

Writing by the Seat of Your Pants

Pantsing can lead you into wild adventures and then leave you wondering where you are and how to get out of them. There become so many possibilities for solutions in the playground of your mind, it makes it hard to choose the best one. On the other hand, in defense of pantsing, that means you can take a different twist on that same story and write another one with a new slant; just change the title.

story bible

There are many ways of pantsing, and if it works for you – then go for it. When I began writing my first novel, everything went down in a notebook -ideas, thoughts, names, places – anything that came to mind. I found out it had a name – a STORY BIBLE: a place for everything. It’s a catch-all. The problem with this method is that it becomes hard to find anything. mind mapsOther writers have used a MINDMAP. This one used by Norman Mailer (Harlot’s Ghost – 1991) looks very confusing to me. Bubbles of ideas here, there, and everywhere. Could you figure it out?

[Need help? See the story generator].

Tools of Plotting

All writers must agree a certain amount of planning must be done. You have your character(s) and must set the stage/place, the time span, and the era.

Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) used a DIAGRAM TIMELINE to mark out places and events.

hunger games timeline

When I started my first novel, Love’s Journey Home, it spanned ten years. I began the ‘pantsing’ process —  ideas everywhere yet nowhere in my story bible. Then someone from my writer’s group asked the years it covered. Where did it take place? I had no idea –but their questions set me in the right direction. I had to make sure all the details were in place. My story included balers and an electric fence – had that been invented yet? A tornado takes place…I had to choose a proper setting. Choosing the era and the place made all the difference in my story.  It also made it 100% easier to craft the next two novels in the series, the last taking place after WWII. Timelines are a great plotting tool.


Some authors have plotted their stories using whiteboards, cork boards, bulletin boards. Others incorporate sticky notes or index cards along with these tools. William Faulkner even used his entire bedroom wall to plot his Pulitzer Prize-winning story,  A Fable.  

Michael Critchton (Jurassic Park, ER, Congo) used INDEX CARDS to plot his books.

INDEX CARDS PLOTTINGNeeding extra cash while studying medicine at Yale Unversity, he wrote a number of books under a pseudonym. He put index cards in his pocket and as ideas, thoughts, and events came to mind, he wrote them down. When he came home at night, he arranged the cards on his table. It made easy access to move the cards around until his story made sense. It’s told that he would do this process for weeks until he was satisfied with the arrangement and the story. That became his plot.

rowling-plot-fullAuthor J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series) likes to use a CHART SPREADSHEET. The one shown plots her chapters, titles, time, plot, etc. for The Order of the Phoenix. 

Joseph Heller (Catch 22) also used this method. This can be an effective way to plot if you use a spreadsheet program such as Scrivener or  Microsoft Excel which allows you to move the components around.

Of course, there’s always the tried and true method of OUTLINING. Many like and choose the conventional way of Roman numerals and letters, but it doesn’t have to be that strict. One plus about outlining, it makes you focus on the story and keeps you aligned. However, it can also be hampering if you feel you cannot stray beyond its tight structure.

Author Cindi Myers claims an outline helps to keep balance, prevents a sagging middle of the book, helps you write faster and be more productive. She uses index cards as the bones of her outline.  She has some great hints on her website to produce an effective outline.

Beginning – Middle – End

The most important thing to remember when plotting (or pantsing) your story – it has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is your hook – the main character’s goal. What is he/she trying to achieve or accomplish?

A PLOT TEMPLATE is a good tool to plan these components. Give each chapter some tension. Give the character a flaw and a crisis to deal with as they are work toward their goal. Some declare each chapter should end in a resolution of some sort. I would rather end each one with a cliffhanger – make the reader want to read on until the end!

plot template

Click here to download this Plot template

Add more tension with more complications and conflicts until you reach the climax in the middle of the story. What will he/she do? Will they see their goal be met? Or will they have to deal with a compromise or failure? Your character should change in some way by the end of the story- the resolution. The second half of your story should bring it to a logical end or a reflection of some type. Leave your reader satisfied and complete – and yet wanting to read more.

Pantsing or plotting is up to each writer to decide which method works best. Sometimes it can be a combination of many methods. Every writer plans their story differently – and that is okay. In the end, it all leads to what we all want most – a great story worth the read.

What works best for you?


Note – If you have trouble coming up with a character with flaws or problems, here’s neat tool to help you select a story-starter.



  1. Thanks, Candy, for a very helpful program Saturday at SWG. Not realizing it started before 1, I missed some but gathered volumes of information. Well done and very, very enlightening. Thanks again!


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