The Pantser/Plotter Spectrum

Where do you fall on the spectrum? 

Not everyone falls firmly in one camp or the other when it comes to plotting or pantsing their stories. Nor does everyone fall perfectly in between the two extremes—aka: a plantser. Because, like most things, writing falls within a spectrum.

See if you can find where you fall when it comes to your writing style–if we consider pantsing to be on the far left or red side of the spectrum and plotting to be on the far right or violet side of the spectrum (no political implications intended!). 

Red: Uber-Pantser 

Are you the kind of person who can simply write? I’m talking no preparation and barely an idea in your head when you sit down to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard?

If so, then you are what I like to call an Uber-Pantser. Aka: you’re coming in hot!

You plan nothing and fly completely by the seat of your pants (har har). Letting the words flow from you as if they have a will of their own. You have no preconceived ideas about who, what, or when you are writing about. Everything that emerges on the page is a surprise and unique manifestation!

I find this type of writing admirable, because I am very much a control freak. I always have to have an idea in my head before I sit down. And while that offers a nice guide for my words, it can also stint or halt them if they try to wander off script. Making me wonder what great ideas I might have abandoned simply because I refused to deviate from my plan.

Those able to embrace the freedom of a blank page and a blank mind, are definitely a force to be reckoned with!

Orange: Pantser

Orange denotes the term we all know and some love: The classic Pantser!

You get an idea in your head, whether it be about an MC, place, or situation, and then lay it all down. Again, no planning needed!

All it takes is a small spark to get you started and then you are off to the races, taking that idea and expanding on it until you have a story, poem or essay etc. One little step leads to the next and down and down you go, until you reach the end (where it lies, no one knows…).

And if you are a true pantser, that applies to you, the author, as well. When you reach the end, it’s as much of a surprise to you as it will hopefully, if you want it to, be to your reader! 

This type of writing makes for interesting reading for me, because it is very much character or event driven, and not at all due to the author’s planning : )

Yellow: Semi-Pantser

For those on the verge of almost landing directly in the middle of the two main styles, the color yellow, fits well (even though it is a primary color).

Semi-Pantsers pants, while not really pantsing. You have more of a guide (whether it be internal or external) for your words. You might have a loose outline you are going by, or a few events planned that you know you need to touch on. That way you can nudge your writing in that general direction the whole time you are transferring your creation to paper/screen. 

On occasion, I’ve written like this (as close to pantsing as I’ll likely ever get). When you have a few main events you know have to happen, it makes it easy to write towards those scenes. Or if your piece is character driven, then you can write towards the change or growth you want to see in your character.

If this fits you, then in my opinion you are still more of a pantser than a plotter. But not by much!

Green: Plantser

This is that sweet spot that I think most people fall into, even without realizing it. So it is, of course, green! The perfect mix of two primary and dissimilar colors.

The word Plantser is pretty self-explanatory, as the word itself is a mix of the terms pantser and plotter. Like the color green, it falls directly in the middle of two extremes. When you write, you do ‘a little of this,’ ‘a little of that,’ in the exact proportions that work for you.

I’d say most of my first draft attempts fall in this category. I know basically what I want to write, I have an idea of the main big scenes and where I want the story to end up at the end, as well as how I want the MC to have grown or changed by that final scene along with a few things I know will lead them to their future self (whether it be good or evil, mwahahaha. I love a good bad ‘guy’ origin story).

But the biggest thing that I feel sets apart a pantser and a plotter, is pre-worldbuilding. Amidst this middling place, we call the plantser, this process makes its first appearance. In addition to the basic scene ideas and MC emotional destinations, plantsers dip their toes into building a world for their MCs and then placing them in it, rather than simply discovering the world as they go.

Blue: Semi-Plotter

As a Semi-Plotter, you plot, a lot, but not everything!

Those in this blue area like to get the occasional bird’s eye view of their story while still doing a lot of the work (writing) on the ground. Again, you know most of the things that are to come, but there are still a few surprises.

You might have built a good portion of the world your MC will occupy, but not everything. As you work, you tend to add new places, concepts, and structures along the way to make things work out or deepen the reader’s experience. To continue the plane metaphor, you can see the overall landscape but there are still a few caves and valleys out of sight. And as you type/write you discover these and make them more real. Making your world, story and your MC’s environment more tangible.

Indigo: Plotter

Alright Plotters, here’s your shoutout!

You plan, plan and plan again. You not only know every aspect of your MC, but you know everything about the world they occupy and how their story will go.

You have notes…and not just a few of them! You have pages or books of notes and outlines that go so far as to include the actual chapters, prologues and epilogues (for those who aren’t haters of the last two).

And before you started writing your story, you had it fully plotted out. So surprises are rare, if almost nonexistent in your work, because you’ve already considered all the possible outcomes and paths your MCs can take. And have chosen the one that fits best for how you want your story to go. And then you stick to that guide. And if anything changes, then you replot from that deviation and go from there.

For plotters, spontaneity is not your friend, not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just not for you. And that’s okay! 

Violet: Uber-Plotter

If you are a violet Uber-Plotter, then you are a control freak in the best possible way!

Do you go a little too far and exhibit almost divine-like control of every aspect of your writing and the characters therein? Maybe… And you like that way!

You don’t stop at plotting the story and building a full world for your MCs to inhabit. Oh, no! You go several steps beyond that! 

If your world has its own religion/s, then you know exactly how it was founded and what folklore or actual divine presence sparked its creation. You have money, but you also know why its particular denominations were chosen and whose face is on the coins and why.

As for history, you know it all. That of your MCs, from their births and likely even that of their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. And that of your world and all the countries, provinces and towns that make it up. You know it all, because you designed and created it all. And you have the notes, sketches, and research to prove it!

When I get past draft one and start on my first rewrite, this is me… While the first draft may have been partly ‘winged,’ the drafts that follow are anything but. Eventually relegating that first draft to a very detailed outline. And after that, things get really crazy as I dive into research and into developing the world (usually the unimportant bits) around my MCs. Until I’ve exhausted every avenue and have no choice but to write again!

And that’s my two cents when it comes to plotters, pantsers, and everything in-between.

The only questions now are: Where do you fall? How do you see yourself on this spectrum of writing styles? Are you one or the other? A mix? Or do you tend to lean more heavily in one direction depending on your project and draft number, like myself?

Let me know, here in the comments or on twitter @ADMoseleyRdWrtr! Also, don’t forget to check out last month’s creepy Halloween post by EmVanMoore!

PS: Good luck to all those participating in NaNoWriMo this year (I’m trying but don’t tell my brain that), and see you next time!

The Motley Writers Guild’s – A.D. Moseley

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1 Comment

  1. Loved this! I also think it is fun to think about how people change as writers over the course of their career.

    I definitely started as a Yellow – Semi-Pantser with my first project (a NaNo novel) and slowly moved through the stages with each subsequent project until I’ve landed quite comfortably in my home as an Indigo – Plotter! I do love the structure and control of plotting but I cannot quite go full Violet – Uber-Plotter.

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