Plotter/Pantser or Creation/Discovery?

Garden.For years I’ve heard writers describe themselves as plotters or pantsers. Plotters are the outliners — they have storyboards and note cards, outline every scene and character arc, and can talk three-act structure for hours. Then there are the pantsers, so-named because they write “by the seat of their pants,” discovering their story as they go. Some argue that for pantsers, the first draft of a book is the outline.

I used to define myself as a pantser, but the truth is, I’m somewhere in between. I loathe beat sheets, but I never jump into a story without taking copious notes first, writing character sketches and deciding on the major plot points. When asked, “plotter or pantser,” I’ll still answer pantser, but I found a better way to describe writing processes: creation versus discovery.

This outlook asks writers whether they see writing as a process of creating a story or discovering it. Creation writers are often outliners, building the book step by step. They are architects, starting with blueprints, then laying foundation, scaffolding, and finally filling in with plumbing, wiring, and paint. They know whether they’re building a cabin or a castle, a bungalow or a split-level. Sure, they may make changes along the way, but the final product often looks very similar to that first blueprint.

Discovery writers find their story through exploration. They plant the seeds of story ideas and then watch them grow. They know whether to expect roses or rhododendrons, orchids or oaks. But they don’t know exactly how those seeds will grow — where the buds will form, how the branches will bend, what other life those plants will bring to the garden. They may decide the daffodils are distracting from the tulips, or the maples are overshadowing the lilacs (just as a character may take control of a story that’s not theirs, or a secondary plot may distract from the main plot). Discovery writers will prune and water and weed until their garden thrives, but they wouldn’t have been able to say from the outset exactly what that garden would look like.

As a discovery writer, I have an idea of what my story will look like — what seeds to plant — but the most exciting part of writing is seeing how those seeds grow. My character sketches will show me new ways to add tension, or reveal possible subplots. I’ll start a scene and realize that in describing a painting on the wall I’ve unearthed another piece of the world’s history. A scene where I know two characters must meet could have something going on in the background that I decide to make important later. These moments of discovery are what make writing early drafts such a joy.

Do you prefer the plotter/pantser or creation/discovery model? What kind of writer are you?

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