Plotters vs. Pantsers: Can You Guess Which Side Stephen King and J.K. Rowling Are On?

Posted by Hayley on August 26, 2015
Since the dawn of storytelling, there have always been two types of storytellers: the Plotters and the Pantsers. (If you're wondering, yes, Pantsers predate the existence of pants.) Never heard the terms before? It's simple. Plotters outline and plan the structure of their entire story, while Pantsers prefer to write by the seat of their pants.

To further understand the ancient Plotter/Pantser divide, we've taken a look at how six contemporary authors write their books. Which method of story crafting do you like best?

The Plotters
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JOHN GRISHAM
"I don't start a novel until I have lived with the story for awhile to the point of actually writing an outline and after a number of books I've learned that the more time I spend on the outline the easier the book is to write. And if I cheat on the outline I get in trouble with the book."


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R.L. STEIN
"If you do enough planning before you start to write, there's no way you can have writer's block. I do a complete chapter by chapter outline."


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J.K. ROWLING
"I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write." (While this may sound like Rowling's verging on pantser territory, take a look at her "basic plot outline.")



The Pantsers
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MARGARET ATWOOD
"When I'm writing a novel, what comes first is an image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I've already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn't write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers."


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PIERCE BROWN
"Some writers are plotters… I, on the other hand, have the curse and rabid delight of being a pantser. I sit down at my computer every day praying for a lightning strike. Common symptoms include pacing, an abnormally clean house, frantic cups of joe, and middle-of-the-night writing breakdowns."


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STEPHEN KING
"Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters' theses."



Can you tell the difference between a plotted and a pantsed book? Which do you prefer?

Comments Showing 1-50 of 93 (93 new)


☆ ĄňŊǡƂėƮĦ ☆ ŞŧŎŋė I think that it depends. A plotted book, in some cases, could be predictable but a pantsed book might seem to varied from either the beginning or past books in the series. When I'm writing, I try to go with a little of both.


message 2: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Lorton Since one of my favorite authors has gleefully admitted she writes by ideas that she develops into the story, Diana Gabaldon, I seem to be partial to the pantsers.. however, the story will always win me over in the end. How it's written isn't really my affair!


message 3: by Bara (new)

Bara I find it amusing how King is against outlines while he still considers Rowling a good author. I guess, sometimes the work is just too good and it overcomes all principles. :P


message 4: by Erma (new)

Erma Talamante Definitely a Pantser, both the way I write and the stories I read.

The difference can be seen in the ending scenes - plotted books seem more predictable, since everything leads up to that point. Pants'd books seem to keep me riveted and gasping.

But reading both are satisfying!


message 5: by Blake (new)

Blake I'm a first draft panster, second draft plotter. Sometimes the more I know about the story before I write it, the harder it is to write. It disrupts the creative flow, I guess. Then I take the jumbled mess of the first draft, break it down, move things around, and build a cohesive plot.


message 6: by Renee (new)

Renee Hall The important thing for readers who aren't also writers to know about this is that these methods describe the way writers write the first drafts of their books. By the time a book has gone through several revisions and been published, I doubt most readers would be able to tell what's been extensively outlined and what hasn't purely from reading the finished product. And in the end, it's the finished product that matters, not the individual process a writer uses to get there. :)


Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* I like outlining - Renee has a good point. Even with outlining the story can change once the writer starts writing it as they let the muse lead them. I find with books that adhere to no outline that they tend to be overlong/rambley as the author is finding their footing for the story.


message 8: by Liam (new)

Liam Mcintyre I find it hard to believe people were plotting on cave walls or papyrus or animal skin...the only plotting was in telling story over and over after an exhaustive journey across creosote, stepp, or icy tundra.


message 9: by Sonic (new)

Sonic Alpha I do a bit of both when I write.


message 10: by Michał (new)

Michał Of course Stephen King has to be a douche about people who write in a different manner that he does. Maybe if he used an outline, a great story like Library Policeman wouldn't have ended like crap.


message 11: by Taryn (new)

Taryn I usually do both: have a basic outline that could be subject to change as I write. It's usually a very loose outline so it's not predictable.

I find that outlines also help with consistency. One of my biggest pet peeves are when an author forgets their own lore, character personalities, and previous plots. It seems like writing by the seat of your pants, especially in a series, gives way to plot derailment and character assassination.


message 12: by Gehad (new)

Gehad Elgendy I think J A Jance is a plotter and I think this is important in thriller and mystery writing.
I also read John Grisham's Gray mountain and believe me or not I never felt it to be a plotter ,not all of it anyway.
I read The Shining and YES it was a poor Pantser where I expected to find more about the boy hit by Danny's father and other details but never found any of them and that's why I described it as "poor pantser"
Anyway I love Plotters more because some details from the beginning of the story appears to be important and i find all peaces come together which leaves me wonder whether the writer wrote the beginning or the end first!


message 13: by Christina (new)

Christina Quinn I usually pants but at the same time I make sure I have two or three things I want to happen before I finish the book. :) I like pantsing though, it's nice to just let your characters run wild.


message 14: by Riley (new)

Riley Amos Westbrook I'm an outlining pantser. Go in with a flexible plan, and all will work out.


message 15: by Louie (new)

Louie Barbora wrote: "I find it amusing how King is against outlines while he still considers Rowling a good author. I guess, sometimes the work is just too good and it overcomes all principles. :P"

King will be the first to tell you that if it's a good book, it doesn't matter how it was written. It's like asking photographers what kind of camera they use.


message 16: by Erma (new)

Erma Talamante Louie wrote: "King will be the first to tell you that if it's a good book, it doesn't matter how it was written. It's like asking photographers what kind of camera they use. "

Most of the photographers I know love talking about their cameras (and lenses, and filters...), especially if they find out you know what they are saying!


message 17: by Aadivah (new)

Aadivah I'm a pantser when I write but I really don't care whether a book is pantsed or plotted as long as the story is good.


message 18: by Riley (new)

Riley Amos Westbrook E. wrote: "Louie wrote: "King will be the first to tell you that if it's a good book, it doesn't matter how it was written. It's like asking photographers what kind of camera they use. "

Most of the photogra..."


At the same time, most photographers will tell you the camera matters a lot less than people think.


message 19: by Phoenix2 (new)

Phoenix2 I'm more like Rowling, I have a plotline but leave some things to come during the writting process. When I finish, I usually end up with something quite different than the original plotline, but with the same basis.


message 20: by Izzy (new)

Izzy This has just been my experience but if a series has been written by a pantser, the books often suffer from inconsistencies as well as a poor or lack-lustre ending.

Based on the list of authors above, I think it's clear I prefer books written by plotters.


message 21: by Federico (new)

Federico Imagine Proust writing "A la recherche du temps perdu" from an outline!


message 22: by Douglas (new)

Douglas I am both. I like to have a bare bones outline of where the story intends to go, but I'm willing to tweak as I write. If the scene I'm writing grabs the steering wheel and takes over, I will re-evaluate to see if the story is better in the new direction, or if it needs to get back on course. I will adjust outline or story as necessary.

Off topic...Does anyone else hear the implied sigh when the GPS says, "Recalculating..."?


message 23: by Kandice (new)

Kandice Michał wrote: "Of course Stephen King has to be a douche about people who write in a different manner that he does. Maybe if he used an outline, a great story like Library Policeman wouldn't have ended like crap."

Ummmm...ok.

I prefer the pantsers in general, but not entirely.


message 24: by Marilee (last edited Aug 26, 2015 01:01PM) (new)

Marilee I've read pantster books that are quite compelling, often character or incident driven… but often frustrate as not all loose ends get gathered up or resolved. Some of these books are incredibly frustrating, at least for me, with all sorts of blind alleys and false starts and abrupt finishes… or too much left hanging.

Some planned books can be a bit rote and seem "by the numbers" but they can also be very satisfying, and if they're one of a series, it's important to have a certain continuity.

So… perhaps the best books start out one way or another but may finish up somewhere else, as the story evolves, as characters or incidents suggest new pathways, as the writing adapts to the needs of the story.

One author, who's name escapes me at the moment, said in an interview that she always starts out writing with a rough outline of where she'd like to take her story, but she lets it have it's head while writing and the finished book may significantly depart from the outline, because her process allowed for spontaneity.

Pantsters, despite claims to absolute spontaneity, eventually jot down a lot of notes on how to resolve the plot and wrap up the characters. They may be all by the seat of their pants when they start, but by re-write time, it's pretty well organized in their minds, at least.

I suspect pantsters have a heavier burden in the re-write/revision/editing process, as they'll have more things to tidy up than the planners.


message 25: by Michał (new)

Michał Jean wrote: "Imagine Proust writing "A la recherche du temps perdu" from an outline!"

What's weird about that?


message 26: by Michał (new)

Michał Kandice wrote: "Michał wrote: "Of course Stephen King has to be a douche about people who write in a different manner that he does. Maybe if he used an outline, a great story like Library Policeman wouldn't have e..."

What was confusing?


message 27: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Flanagan I'm not a writer, if I was, I know with y memory and 'talent' for forgetting important tidbits says I should only be a potter, but my lazy ass says 'creativity is spontaneous!!!'
My fav. author must be a plotter, Steven Erikson is a genius in MHO but 10 near 1000 page books for one story arc?!? Now that's talent if even 10% is from memory. Since I tend to crave deep and complex plot lines, potters must be my choice. Hard to picture a 10,000 page story as being manufactured as it was written, rather than plotted first.


message 28: by Ron (new)

Ron I've heard this before with Stephen King, and I still can't figure out how he does it. Of course, I'm no writer. Thankfully, there are writers who producing great books on both sides of this discussion. I'm just glad they continue to do it!


message 29: by Kandice (new)

Kandice Michał wrote: "What's confusing?"

Nothing, just kind of mean.


message 30: by Dane (new)

Dane Collins I try to outline, but it always goes off course. It's like characters coming to life in my head and deciding they don't much care for my plot and rebelling. And yet, it all comes together in the end as if I had planned it all along.


message 31: by J Dane (new)

J Dane Shelly For non-writers, writing seems kinda magical, so I think we want to believe the best writers are pantsers. Seems like even special people need a little planning.


message 32: by S. K. (new)

S. K. Pentecost Michał wrote: "Of course Stephen King has to be a douche about people who write in a different manner that he does. Maybe if he used an outline, a great story like Library Policeman wouldn't have ended like crap."

Yeah!

Steve's got a huge problem with endings, but all the stuff leading up to it is usually so compelling. I've thought about forming a publishing house that buys the rights to his books and reprints them with the last chapter cut out. Capital shouldn't be a problem.


message 33: by Kikki (new)

Kikki I like a mix of both, to be honest. I think it doesn't hurt to have a really basic outline on what should happen in the chapters (ie maybe just a bullet list like: X should meet Y for the first time, the cafeteria explodes in a food fight, small details like that) and then just go with the flow and right on the seat of your pants. If you have an idea on what each chapter should contain, I think it might make it harder to get writers block since you know where you want it to go without breaking it down to where every last thing is determined.

Does that make sense? I'm trying to explain it basically how I plan on doing it for the books I plan on writing heh ^-^"


message 34: by Matt (new)

Matt I'd like to think of my writing as being middle of the road. That which I call an outline would flunk any formal outline examination, but it gives me the idea of point A falls before point B. A lot of my dialogue is actually planned out in my "outline" and that's primarily why I don't really outright call it an outline. It's about as close to a rough draft can be without actually being a rough draft.

And I end up writing (now mind you, handwriting) the novel twice before I have the first draft done. But there have been more than a few scenes that were so off the pant I hadn't thought to include them not a minute prior.

Best of both worlds, for me at least. Everyone has their own happy ground.


message 35: by Mary (new)

Mary sometimes I can tell when a book was written by a pantser because you kind of feel like you are the author trying to figure out things during the story and then they change and nothing makes sense anymore. It's as if they had an idea in mind and totally forgot about that idea at one point while writing the story.

But in general I just prefer a good book over anything and then it doesn't matter whether it was written by a plotter or a pantser.

As for writing I am a pantser. I have a main idea and I will figure the plot out while writing. But I always try not to go too far off the story.


message 36: by Michał (new)

Michał

Nothing, just kind of mean."


Just like Mr King


message 37: by Michał (new)

Michał S. K. wrote: "Michał wrote: "Of course Stephen King has to be a douche about people who write in a different manner that he does. Maybe if he used an outline, a great story like Library Policeman wouldn't have e..."

Yup, they should tell King to write a book, then 70% in take it away from him and give it to somebody who actually knows how not to exaggerate the endings. Or make them ambiguous. But not Stephen, please.


message 38: by Shoa (new)

Shoa Khan Interesting article!
But please correct the spelling of R.L. Stine 's name. It's hurting my eyes! >.<


message 39: by Andrew (new)

Andrew How odd: Stephen King loves JK Rowling and at one time, at least, was good friends with John Grisham.


message 40: by Ashley (new)

Ashley Gillard I just starting writing seriously, so I haven't gotten my writing style down yet. I have a few scenes and notes written down but no real plot or story.


message 41: by Gavin (new)

Gavin Team Pantser here :) I just like the idea of not being completely sure where I'm going.


message 42: by Louie (new)

Louie E. wrote: "Most of the photogra..."

And most photographers are bad photographers who like to talk about the process and equipment rather than actually take pictures... kinda like what bad writers do.


message 43: by Douglas (new)

Douglas Ashley (and others), a book was recommended to me and I've been recommending it to other writers: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. This book falls under the Plotters category, but helps flesh out the details of the story. Once you construct all the background work, from there, you really could write the story using either an outline or free-form, as long as you refer to your notes. It helps with short stories to longer works.


message 44: by Whitebeard (new)

Whitebeard Books I have no doubt that the process/style of a John Grisham is to plan ahead. He is, you'll recall, an attorney. There is no way you want him to go into a case unprepared. And I am equally unsurprised by Mr. King's brave philosophy. His books are filled with shocking and unexpected things that I'm sure often come to him as equally unexpected until they arrive. I'll personally go with the later category. I create characters, put them in a situation and observe as they either solve the situation or become victims of their own results. I merely record the history as it unfolds.


message 45: by Karen Lisa (new)

Karen Lisa I am an absolute pantser. I wish I could plot and then write but I can't do it. I find plotting tedious and once I've got an outline I've lost interest in writing the story even if I still like the idea, as if outlining somehow ruins the joy of writing for me. I get immediate writer's block after outlining and I will never go back to that story. It's infuriating.


Linda Abhors the New GR Design Douglas wrote: "I am both. I like to have a bare bones outline of where the story intends to go, but I'm willing to tweak as I write. If the scene I'm writing grabs the steering wheel and takes over, I will re-eva..."

bahaha! I don't have one, but my friends in Berlin swear that their navigator, whom they've named Jutta, gets more irate the more you ignore her..."And Linda, if you don't do vat she sayz, she gets mad at you.."....."Funzehn meter und rechts......rechts......REEEECHTS! (my apologies for any misspellings with the German!)


Linda Abhors the New GR Design Renee wrote: "The important thing for readers who aren't also writers to know about this is that these methods describe the way writers write the first drafts of their books. By the time a book has gone through ..."

That's a really great point, Renee, thanks! (I'm not a writer, not fiction, so appreciate that) And I'll bet that's why, in the end, you can really only tell one from the other when the writing's not that great. All of the writers listed have their audience and are successful, so obviously someone is a loyal fan.
I have writers that I like, but as much as I like them, I can sometimes tell when they're setting up the readers for the next installment. That same cinematic quality that allows readers to visualize the setting and characters so easily, can be overdone and makes the "Storyboarding" so conspicuous.


Linda Abhors the New GR Design Ron wrote: "I've heard this before with Stephen King, and I still can't figure out how he does it. Of course, I'm no writer. Thankfully, there are writers who producing great books on both sides of this discus..."

Unless I"m mistaken, he also leaves the editing within the family. Just the wife and kids; at this point, he has enough clout with the publisher not to have to deal with someone in-house, unless they're in his house.


message 49: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I can definitely see the validity of both approaches to writing. The Stephen King quote cracked me up, though.


Linda Abhors the New GR Design Jessica wrote: "I can definitely see the validity of both approaches to writing. The Stephen King quote cracked me up, though."

I know, who in the heck wishes they were back writing a Master's thesis again!? It was hell the first time, why go back?!


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