Plotter vs Pantser: Which Method is Best for Fanfiction Writing?

I've tried both Plotting and Pantsing. So, which one is better? | Aaron | Aaron Burden

If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo, the annual National Novel Writing Month, you’re no doubt familiar with the self-affixing badges you can award yourself depending on your preferred method of storytelling: Pantsing or Plotting. Pantsers are spontaneous beings who like to fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t waste precious writing time crafting a story structure. They just write. Pantsers like to get everything out on the page and figure out the story as they go. Plotters, on the other hand, are planner people who need a rigid structure to organize their thoughts. They spend a large amount of time carefully outlining the narrative and breaking the story into sizeable chunks. Plotters like to know where the story is going so they don’t waste time on tangents or extraneous scenes. I have tried both of these approaches in my own fanfiction writing. So, which one worked best?

The first Harry Potter fic I wrote was through a Pantser (or, perhaps, Gryffindor) approach. The novel-length fic all began with one scene in which my two main characters met at an underground pub in Hogsmeade. I was amazed how quickly my fingers flew across the keyboard. Reading it back, there is so much emotion (oh, the feels!) in those first few scenes – the ones I wrote without any thought of three act structures or plot points or character development. I just let the words pour out. I felt like I was actually embodying the characters I loved so much. It was a thrill to get all the swirling thoughts in my head down on the page. I wrote scenes out of order like some sort of chaotic puzzle that slowly began to fit together, piece by piece. 115,000 words later, my first draft was finished.

But it so totally wasn’t. Not by a long shot. To use the puzzle analogy, I realized a lot of the pieces I’d written didn’t actually fit. One of my edge pieces was really a middle piece and it took a painful amount of rearranging to line it up correctly. Then, to my horror, I discovered all these extra pieces that didn’t fit anywhere. And, even more annoying, I had several gaps in my puzzle in need of a matching piece. In my haste to get everything in my head onto the page, I had written both too much and not enough. Thus began a tedious (but often enjoyable) editing process, whereby Scrivener’s cue card layout saved me from going as loony as Gilderoy Lockhart. I wrote and rewrote, cut and cut some more, changed character POVs, deleted entire subplots, and it still didn’t resemble anything like an actual novel. I winced as I cut pages upon pages of some of my most emotional material because, well, it just didn’t advance the plot. Funnily enough, I ended up cutting the underground pub scene that had started it all. (“Kill your darlings,” that Daniel Radcliffe film says.)

To this day, I am still editing this glorious clusterfuck of a masterpiece. Although now I’ve worked in throughlines, cause and effect, subplots, intrigue, and suspense. Slowly but surely, it’s all coming together. Soon, I may actually have some semblance of a readable draft. One I can send to a beta for spellchecking, britpicking, and (I imagine) more cutting. It has been an utter bitch to edit this monster, but much like The Monster Book of Monsters, if you stroke the spine in just the right way, the story begins to unfold.

For my second Harry Potter fanfiction (which just happens to be a sequel to the aforementioned monstrosity), I decided to take a different approach. I decided to become a Plotter. And not just a “here’s a rough idea of what happens in acts one, two, and three” sort of writer. No, I went full Slytherin on this one. I became obsessive and determined to plan out my entire novel before I put even one word on the page. This time I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of my former Pantser days. To avoid the overwriting, pointless subplots, extraneous details, and maddening reshuffling of nearly every scene in the damn thing. This time, I would be a perfectionist.

Before I wrote a single word, I researched the heck out of the Hero’s Journey, Three-Act Structure, Story Arcs and Subplotting, and, incidentally, the rules of time travel. I made sure the Call to Adventure was strong enough to push my protagonist past the First Threshold. I planned out exactly how the plot would shift at the Midpoint Reversal, when everything your protagonist thought they knew is upended. I made sure my time-travelling character followed a logical set of rules that would prevent plot holes. In short, it was a long time before I actually sat down, opened a blank document and began to write.

This time, unlike my stint as a Pantser, the words came slowly. They didn’t burst onto the page like they had before. My scenes weren’t as emotionally resonant. Perhaps I had gone too far, planned too much. I feared some of my creative spark had been lost. After all, Harry himself was a Pantser: he always worked best figuring things out as he went along (and he was the Chosen One, for Merlin’s sake). But I stuck with it. I kept plugging away, following my stringent outline, and writing linearly (except when I was feeling particularly adventurous). Eventually, I fell in love with my neatly crafted story. The one that was more of a slow build. The one where all the puzzle pieces fit together.

I’m still writing that story. I’m still editing its forerunner. And it’s exceedingly difficult to decide which one I prefer working on. Am I a Plotter or a Pantser? Perhaps I’ll never know. But the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is how to utilize the merits of both approaches. So, when I finally begin the third in that Holy Trinity of fanfics, I’ll be ready.

About Malory Beazley (40 Articles)
Malory has taken her interest in fandom to the academy, penning a Master's thesis entitled "Out of the Cupboards and Into the Streets!: Harry Potter Genderfuck Fan Fiction and Fan Activism." You can find her in Nova Scotia, sipping coffee, writing fiction, and reading slash.

4 Comments on Plotter vs Pantser: Which Method is Best for Fanfiction Writing?

  1. I always have been a pantser for the most part. I feel like I should plot more, than perhaps I’d have a less rough first draft if I plotted everything out – but much like you, when I plot I find the words come harder and with less emotional resonance. My comfort zone is just letting the words come to me, letting the characters tell their story through the conduit of my fingers.

    And then I edit like mad. lol

    • FAN/FIC Magazine // October 21, 2016 at 2:45 pm // Reply

      Completely agree. After experimenting with both approaches, I’ve been able to develop a strategy that combines the best of both worlds. I call it “plansing.” 😉

  2. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // September 10, 2016 at 2:40 pm // Reply

    Am I a Planner or a Pantser? Yes. 🙂

    Before I start publishing the first chapter of a novel-length story, I like to have a rough sketch of an outline for the whole tale, with key plot- and character-development points worked out at a high level; a strong sense of what the ending is going to be; and plenty of reasons to believe that the entire thing is going to hang together and be properly paced. But I don’t usually start by making an outline.

    I start when inspiration grabs me, and I Pants my way through whatever is flowing, even if it might end up in chapter 17, and I only have a vague sense of what’s supposed to be in chapter 1. If the wild-inspiration scenes are working well, I know I’ve got a project worth investing in, and I’m much more confident there’s something there to discover, which is when it’s worth eventually taking the time to sketch the thing out. (Note: if the wild-inspiration stuff falls flat, then I know I should just abandon the project right then.)

    But once that first batch of scenes from that wild flowing Pantsing inspiration starts to peter out, then it’s time to switch into something closer to Planner mode. I look at what I need to get me to those great places, and then I come up with a bunch of dramatic beats to connect the dots. I stub out actual scenes with these dramatic beats, which run along the lines of “[Characters A, B, and C get into a fight about X. C storms off in a rage. A and B strategize about how they’re going to manipulate D into cajoling C to do Y.]”

    Then, during each writing session, I pluck the next dramatic beat that I feel like writing off the shelf, and I see where it goes. It’s small-scale Pantsing again. Sometimes inspiration takes me somewhere unexpected and I discard previously-written dramatic beats elsewhere to compensate, or add new ones, or adjust existing ones; that meta activity is small-scale Planning again. It’s organic and interleaved and inherently flexible.

    But whatever I’m doing, I just keep plodding along, making slow but steady progress.

    Note: my process for short stories and sometimes even novellas is usually just Pantsing; there’s something much more intuitive about a shorter tale, there are fewer scenes to manage, and I’m only writing it because inspiration grabbed me and held on until I was gasping for breath in the wee hours of the morning.

    • FAN/FIC Magazine // September 11, 2016 at 2:00 pm // Reply

      Good point about the difference in writing methods between novels and short stories. Really interesting to hear about your creative process! I think I use a combination of Pantsing and Plotting too (although I favour Plotting). We can be Plantsers.😉

      Thanks for reading!

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