To Plan or not to Plan


Are you a planner or a pantser?

Writers are divided as to whether they are planners or pansters. Planners know where their novels are going in advance; pansters (so called because they ‘fly by the seat of their pants’) make it up as they go along. There is clearly room for both approaches. Planners are horrified that pansters don’t have a clear outline for the novel; pansters consider planners can stifle creativity – by not giving their characters room to breathe they do not allow them to shape the story. The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said ‘Character is destiny.’ When we know our characters well, the decisions and actions they take determine their path, and hence the direction of the story. I guess there is room for both approaches: tightly-woven psychological suspense or crime novels need to be carefully planned, so that clues are sown in the right places, whereas character-based novels can take a more meandering path.

I generally have a sense of where my writing is going, with the main events determined in advance, but I allow the characters to dictate how they are going to get to those events. Half planning half pantsing!

My husband can’t understand why I don’t map out each chapter in meticulous detail. I’m not sure he accepts my explanation that characters determine plot – he thinks it’s wooliness or laziness (or both!) and a recipe for disaster. So I was very relieved when I read writer Julie Cohen’s comment (on the excellent Novelicious website):

'[Pantsing] worked for me because from so many years of reading, I already had a general sense of how a story was shaped—its high points, low points, climax and conclusion—and my mind followed that path subconsciously. I know a lot of authors who write like this, and they seem to do very well.'

That’s exactly it! I’m a prolific reader. I teach English Literature; I’m in a book club. Occasionally I read for pleasure, but a lot of the time I read contemporary novels in my genre in order to work out the secrets of other writers. Like Julie, I think I’ve developed an instinct for how a novel is plotted, and that helps me, subliminally, to determine the shape of my story. But you can only do this if you read a lot.

So, planning or pantsing – the choice is yours – although I suspect the best approach might be a bit of both.