For those who don’t know, plotters typically have a very well-developed outline before they start writing their alpha drafts. Pantsers “write by the seats of their pants.” They don’t know where the story is going until they write it. There are a tremendous number of traditionally-published, famous pantsers and an equally large number of plotters. Sometimes they’re called ‘architects’ and gardeners, and sometimes ‘pantsers’ are called ‘discoverers.’ Use the wording that’s right for you.
Plotters: JK Rowling, John Grisham, Ada Palmer
Pantsers: Stephen King, Patricia Briggs, Margaret Atwood
You can transition from one to the other. Chuck Wendig did.
A large number of novice writers start out as pantsers because they don’t know anything about writing stories, so they just write a story. Eventually they learn about outlines and then most try to outline. This is the point where you discover if you’re a plotter or a pantser. If you’re a plotter, outlining will feel good and fairly natural. If you’re a pantser, outlining may feel stifling, claustrophobic, boring, frustrating, or tiring. Plotters need to know where they’re going and what’s going to happen before they feel comfortable writing — when they try to “pants” their writing, they peter out because they have no roadmap for what’s ahead. Pantsers need the thrill of the unknown. Once they know the story, they lose interest in it and move on.
All that said, pantsers do use basic outlines. You are not a “plantser” if you use index cards or short notes. In fact, the reason that famous published pantsers do produce books in fairly short order is because they understand story structure and they steer by that. I’m a pantser, and I’m going to describe my method of faux-outlining. More specific information on story structure can be found here.
The first thing I do is figure out how long I want my novel to be. I typically try for 80,000 words, which is your typical 300 page novel. If I was writing an epic fantasy, I’d be aiming for 120,000 words. A thriller would max out at 80,000 and might be 70,000 instead. Know the word count for your genre and plan accordingly. More info can be found here.
Second, I develop my characters. Who is going to be in this story, and what is this story basically about? This is not a genre thing. Say you’re writing a romance. Is your romance about a property developer at odds with the historical preservation society? If you’re writing a fantasy, is the story about a kid who wants to become a wizard? Or a magical object that changes the world? Etc. Figure out what your story is about and create your characters, including your antagonist. More information on that can be found here.
Third, in most novels there are about seven major events, with the last event happening right before the end of the story. The events need to be spaced out evenly or your story will lag and your middle will sag. I take out a piece of paper, open a doc, get out index cards, or whatever and I write down what these events might be. My characters are going to have inner struggles, interpersonal struggles, and struggles between themselves and the antagonist(s) and or villain(s), so I use those seven major events to detail those struggles. I don’t do “Twist 1: Struggle between protagonist and self.* Twist 2: struggle between protag and best friend.” You can layer those. Maybe Twist 1 is a struggle between the protag and himself, which manifests as a fight between him and his best friend. The more you can layer into your twists, the better your book will be.
So I get a general, basic idea of what’s going to happen in those sections. My twists list usually looks something like this:
Twist 1: Joana finds Bryan.
Twist 2: Joana sets off to train Bryan.
Twist 7: They kill the vampire.
As you can see, that isn’t really an outline. It’s more like a list of events. I know a lot about the characters, so I don’t really need to write down the interpersonal stuff. I know it’s there. I’ve found that if I write down much more than 1-2 simple sentences about my twists, I end up trying to railroad my characters into those events and they resist.
When I go to write, I separate out my books into equal chunks of about 9000 words. For the chunks I’m working on, I will typically figure out how to get from the twist I just passed to the next twist. Or from the beginning to Twist 1. I lay out anywhere from three to six index cards for scenes,** and then I write 1-2 sentences about what might happen in that scene. Again, if I do any more than that, I lose the story. And then I write.
Again, this isn’t outlining. I had the pleasure of meeting Ada Palmer at GenCon 49. She was on a panel about this subject, and she showed us her outline. It’s extremely detailed and complicated. She knows precisely what is going to happen during every scene in her story–and an 80k novel typically has around 64 scenes. I have no real idea what’s going to happen in my scenes at all. Important details just come to me as I write.
For example, in my Lisette novel, I knew Lisette was going to meet Diego, but I had no idea that Lisette and Diego were going to be lovers until I wrote that she woke up in bed next to him. I knew that Lisette was going to know Florencia, but I had no idea they’d be friends until they were. I knew I had to introduce other, minor characters, but I had no idea that one of them would be engaged in a power struggle against Florencia, the leader, until he was. And that power struggle became a significant subplot. That’s pantsing. A plotter would have planned all these things out before writing Word 1.
I believe that most successful, published pantsers understand story beats and story structure, at least on an instinctive level, and keep those in mind while they write. The ones who write for a living have this engrained in their heads, so it’s much simpler and easier for them to execute. With a little knowledge and some practice, you can do that while you pants your way through your story as well.
*All of these twists have specific names, which you can learn here.
** For more on scenes, read this.