May 14, 2019

Pantser vs. Plotter vs. Something in Between

View of sunlight peeking through Antelope Canyon with text: Chaotic... Organized... What's Your Process?

Far too often in life, we look for ways to make the complex more understandable by simplifying the idea…maybe too much. Much of real life requires nuance and shades of gray to capture the true picture that our simplification can erase.

(That’s not a complaint or statement about shortcuts or laziness. That’s simply human nature. *grin*)

That truth can be found in the writing world as well. I’ve mentioned many times that I don’t believe there’s “one right way” or any “always applicable” rule for anything in writing.

My belief that there isn’t “one right way” is especially strong in regards to our drafting process. Each of us has unique strengths and weaknesses (experiences, background knowledge, brain processes, etc.)—not to mention our unique goals and life situations—that affects what drafting process will work best for us.

Yet to hear some authors talk, we might assume that there are strict plotters and strict pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants) and nothing in between. Even more restrictive, the assumptions often are that every plotter uses beat sheets or scene cards and that every pantser has the same problems with random tangents and so on.

That’s why I loved a matrix Cheyanne A Lepka created and shared on Twitter. She found a way to point out how there’s no end to the mix of approaches we can use in our drafting.

Our Writing Process Is Unique

We are all different: what we notice, how we process information, what gets us stuck or unstuck, what motivates us, what helps us connect to our characters, etc. So the process we each use to successfully draft a story can all be different as well.

Just looking at the realm of drafting, we might experiment with many different approaches, such as:

  • using a story seed of a plot or a character or a theme or a premise or a turning point scene or a first line, etc.
  • outlining in advance vs. beat sheets vs. pantsing (or anything in between)
  • writing linearly vs. jumping from scene to scene
  • focusing only on dialogue (or whatever) in the first draft vs. writing a fully layered draft
  • thinking of each scene as a short story (beginning to end and an arc of change) vs. keeping the threads of the overall story in mind
  • editing as we go vs. only going forward during drafting
  • fast-drafting vs. taking as long as we need
  • knowing how the story’s going to end ahead of time vs. figuring it out when we get there
  • drafting in “telling” mode and adding “showing” details later
  • writing one character’s point of view first and then mixing in the other POV scenes

The process that works for someone who wants write plot-focused stories and lives on their own with no kids underfoot is likely to be very different from the process that works for someone who wants to write character-focused family sagas and has to squeeze in words between a houseful’s worth of loads of laundry and caring for an ailing parent.

Our Writing Process Matters Only to Us

None of those bullet choices above could be labeled “right” or “wrong.” None of them would prevent us from putting finished stories in the hands of our readers. And isn’t that really the point?

Our writing process doesn't prevent the ability to finish with a quality book. Click To TweetReaders can’t tell from reading a story whether it was pantsed or plotted. Or whether we tore our hair out with writer’s block for 3 months in the middle of drafting it. Or whether we *gasp* edited as we drafted.

That’s because none of that affects our ability to end up with a quality book. Readers don’t see the sausage-making, only the sausage itself. As long as that sausage is yummy, they don’t care about our process. The only difference between the options is whether they work for us.

Writing Style Alignments

When it comes to the typical two-answer pantser vs. plotter division, the matrix Cheyanne A Lepka created instead includes 9 writing “alignments” in the style of tabletop gaming characters. With role-playing characters, the traditional matrix charts the two axes of Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic and Good/Neutral/Evil:

Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil

In Cheyanne’s reimagining for our writing process, she used Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic and Pantser/Plantser/Plotter. (The term plantser is often used to describe an in-between approach.)

Lawful Pantser Neutral Pantser Chaotic Pantser
Lawful Plantser Neutral Plantser Chaotic Plantser
Lawful Plotter Neutral Plotter Chaotic Plotter

Already with those 9 drafting styles, there’s more nuance than just the two basics of pantser or plotter. But Cheyanne takes it a step further to encourage writers to combine those 9 categories as well.

Our Alignment Can Change

Obviously, just because something works for us one time doesn’t mean it will work for us all the time. Our process might evolve with more experience, or adjust as our situation, our mood, or our connection with the story itself changes.

In addition, we can expand on that idea by understanding that we might use a different alignment combination for every story. The characters in some stories might encourage us to follow their lead more than usual. Or a deadline for a different story might necessitate a frankendraft as we squeeze in a thousand words here and there whenever we have time to draft.

Again, there’s no wrong approach—and no wrong combination—as long as it works for us. Rather than the pantser-plotter dichotomy, think of it as more of a spectrum of infinite possibilities. *smile*

Do You Know Your Alignment Combination?

So what’s your writing style alignment—or alignment combination?

(Click image to view larger or click here to view Cheyanne’s original post. Newsletter readers, click through to the post to see images.)

Personally, depending on the story, I’m a mix of various Pantser and Plantser alignments. I’m closest to a Lawful Pantser, as every detail in that alignment applies to me. (Flashlight—or headlight—method refers to only seeing details right in front of us as we’re typing.)

Did you see the Writing Style Alignment chart from @cheyannealepka? What's your style? Click To TweetHowever, I also often throw in elements from Lawful Plantser and Chaotic Plantser. (Because…why not?) But never anything from the Plotter side of the chart until editing time—yeeks. *grin*

I don’t use the character bios or personality tests of the Lawful Plantser side, but I think about worldbuilding a lot before writing a word, and I’ll sometimes know(ish) the ending. (Um, I write romance, so it’s a Happily Ever After? Ta-da!)

Unlike the Chaotic Plantser, I don’t write frankendrafts or out of order at all because, for me, developing a character organically requires me to discover them over the course of the story. But I often have vague ideas of some of the big turning points, yet don’t write anything down so as not to pressure my muse to stick to a certain plan.

Of course the actual mix doesn’t matter. But I think Cheyanne’s examples are great for getting us to think about how our process works—or doesn’t work—for us.

The better we understand ourselves and our process, the more we might be able to adjust when we get stuck. If I’m not getting a good handle on my characters, I could try taking a personality test for them and so forth.

The point is that we never want to feel like we’re “doing it wrong” or that we have to squish ourselves into a process-box that doesn’t fit. With the many combinations of these 9 alignments, I hope we can see that—just with this one perspective, not to mention all the other ways of looking at the spectrum—we can find a process that works just right for us. *smile*

Have you seen references to plotters and pantsers that disregards anything in between? Do you think it’s more of a spectrum between those extremes? Has your process changed over time (and if so, how)? Does it change from one story to another? Where do you fall on the alignment chart?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Elle Love
Elle Love

Hi Jami,

I saw this matrix on Facebook yesterday and immediately thought of you and your blog.

I am a Neutral Panster. I write things as they come to me. I hardly ever write in order. Sometimes, I might know the ending, but my characters have a mind of their own, so my ending usually changes.

After I have a few chapters written, I become a True Planster. I start an outline with turning points, but only in my head. I’m too lazy to write anything down on paper, so it doesn’t matter if I follow it or not. It’s more fun to see where the characters will take me.

Thanks for all you do to help me and other writers,

Bran Ayres
Bran Ayres

Generally, I fall between True Plantser and Neutral Plotter. I used to be a true pantser, but as my writing developed and my love of complex plots and characters came to the fore I’ve had to do more plotting. When I say plotting I mean a line here and there in a notebook about what might happen or big things that need to happen in a character arc. I tend to spend more time developing my characters than the plot itself.

Occassionally I’ll sit down with your beat sheet and write up plot points, but even then they are usually vague what-ifs. The only story I’ve sat out and heavily plotted is a 6 book fanfiction series that is closing in on 500k words and involves multiple subplots that all tie into the main plot. Have to be more particular with that one. lol


Jami, LOL I shared the matrix with you on Facebook BEFORE I read this post. XD What a coincidence!

It looks like I’m mostly a lawful pantser. However, I do have the neutral pantser trait of “knowing the ending makes it boring.”

So yes, there must be a happy ending, or else I would be devastated. But there are many different kinds of happy endings. I don’t know what exactly will happen, or how we’ll even get there. For instance, I have some romance couples who look so hopeless, that you have no clue how they can even have a happily ever after. Maybe they’ll actually break up for good. Oh noes. But they can’t break up!! DX There’s this tug-of-war between me wanting these two characters to have a happily ever after, and me wanting to be true to the characters and to let them do what they want (rather than what I want).

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

Well, I don’t have any plotter characteristics in this matrix. Very few of the plantser or pantser either!

I start with either a story or character idea. That’s it. I spend hours getting the first sentence and paragraph, because those set the tone for me. I edit as I go, because otherwise I don’t know where to go next (and I have also used betas on a chapter by chapter basis to give me a more objective view). I learn about the characters along with the reader. I research as needed (when something comes up and I need to know how or if it could happen). When I come to a ‘crossroads’, I think about the possible directions I could go, and choose the one that sounds the most interesting and yet is logical for whatever has already happened. And at some point, I know the story is coming to an end because – well, because it’s ready to. And because of all of this, I only have one draft – the final one. Any editing after “The End” is polishing.

So this is what – logical chaos? lol


[…] Pantser vs. Plotter vs. Something in Between – Jami Gold […]


I am blind. Can someone tell me what the text under lawful pantser and neutral pantser are? I think I am a lawful pantser, but I did write two scenes out of order today. I’m not for certain. Thank you.


I guess lawful pantser with some neutral pantser if I get stuck. I am still new though, so I’m figuring out my writing process. What’s the flashlight method again? Do you have to jot down notes for that?

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