Star Wars: Pantsers vs. Plotters


Tis the season for Star Wars, so excuse me if I use the popular movie franchise to talk about the difference between novel Plotters vs. Pantsers.

Us writers typically fall into one of these two categories. While some authors claim that we’re equally divided, we certainly don’t live in harmonious union. Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are Plotters, happily typing away from their evil Deathstar planet. I don’t get too upset that these Plotters are hell bent on world domination. But I’ll be totally honest with you, reader. When the subject comes up there’s a bit of value shaming involved. Plotters proudly pull out their hundred page outlines, waving them through the air if it were a lightsaber in the hands of an imperial stormtrooper. It’s meant to shame us Pantsers into coming over to the Dark Side.


But I’ll never go over to the Dark Side and become a Plotter! Not when we have the Force on our side.

For those of you not familiar with these terms, I will explain. Plotters are the Darth Vader’s of the writing universe. They spend weeks and months detailing their novels. All their subplots and themes are written in colored ink. Every character has a name. There are separate notes for “character motivation” and “Timelines”. They do a “Hero’s Journey” synopsis and a meticulous “Story Map”, which they cover the walls of their office with. Oh, and there are index cards. Hundreds upon hundreds of index cards. Plotters are the evil force in the writing universe, and Pansters fill the ranks of the Rebel Alliance. Plotters snuff all the creativity out of their story, we believe. They seek to control the universe and expand their control over the literary domain. They are proud of their accomplishments and hold up their massive outlining tombs as a badge of honor.

Pantsers, on the other hand, have the Force behind them. We tend to live fast and free, and live and let live, and often write by the seat of our pants. We’ve been freed from orthodox convention and see ourselves as underdogs in this galactic war. More often than not, we are made to feel inferior because of our quiet preference to use the Force (Subconsciousness) to our novel’s benefit. We are the Yodas of the writing universe, only desiring to write by instinct and be left alone. We create wholly using the Force, writing under the motto: May The Pantser Force Be With You!

All kidding aside, this Star Wars analogy is a fun way to explain the two methods, but it does have some truths. And I must admit, I’m often jealous of those writers who can produce a detailed plot outline for their novels. It must make the writing so much easier. When done well, it’s merely a matter of execution: writing the novel.

So why have I never been able to successfully write an outline? It goes to the point that every artist creates differently. We’re all unique and our brains process and produce differently. What works for one writer has no relevance for another. Or maybe I’m just jealous.

I must, however, take exception to this conflict and introduce a wholly different concept; an idea that is quite contrary to the accepted wisdom. I posit that Pantsers are actually highly advanced Plotters, but who are just too timid to admit it. I argue that the first drafts of our novels are merely exceptionally detailed plots outlines. Mine usually run between eighty to ninety thousand words. Now that’s pretty good outlining.

Lee Child claims that he does absolutely no research before writing one of his novels. Amazing, huh? So that begs this question: how do writers come up with their ideas? In my case, once the seed of an idea hits me, I utilize mental tent poles. I think of myself as a nomadic scribe, traveling to spaces that are creatively more fertile than others. Once I come up with the initial idea for a book, my mental tent poles provide me with a loosely based map of where I hope to go. When things change, I simply pull out my shallow poles and stick them into the new locations. Thus they keep shifting depending on where my imagination wanders, and where my characters dare take me. The few times in my life when I made detailed outlines, I found my tent poles had been so deeply pounded into the ground that it was difficult for me to pick up and move. The novel then died of malnutrition.

I suppose what I’m saying is this: flexibility is the key to Pantsers like myself. We develop a novelistic way of thinking that allows us to internalize plot devices while at the same time freeing us from the rigidity of central planning. Pantsing allows us to be nimble and cut through the red tape of outlining. It gives us greater currency to utilize the Force—subconscious—then it does to rely on the Dark Side of plotting. Grass roots creativity versus Top Down dictatorial control.

Just joking, my Plotter friends.

So us Pantsers should stand tall and proudly proclaim our identity. There’s room for all of us, so don’t be made to feel like second class citizens in this wonderful universe that we call literature.

And may the Force be with all of you authors the next time you sit down to write.

i hope you all enjoy happy holidays and a wonderful New Year. And don’t forget to check out my new novel, THE NEIGHBOR (Kensington), which is now on presale and comes out April 24, 2018.


About joesouza

I am a writer of crime novels
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1 Response to Star Wars: Pantsers vs. Plotters

  1. I’m also standing tall as a proud Pantser, Joseph. 🙂 Best of luck with your new novel. Wishing you a ton of sales.

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