On Preferences, Plotting, and Pantsing

Mar 29, 2021

By Christine Carron

Last week, I introduced the Whole Brain Model. As part of the introduction, we looked at plotting through a whole brain lens, examining how the four thinking styles enrich the effectiveness of a plot. If you haven’t read that post yet, pop back and take a gander. It gives you all the background you need to dive in with us here.

This week, we’ll stick with plotting but use the Whole Brain Model in a different way: as a tool to diagnose a conflict. In this case the recurring writerly conundrum: Are you a Plotter or a Pantser? Which is really asking: Do you have the plot all sorted out before you start writing or do you wing it, developing the plot as you go?

Writers can get intense on this topic. Of course you have to plot. Stories have plots, duh. And if you sort out the plot in advance, you don’t waste time and you have less clean-up to do. You know where you’re going, for goodness sake. On the other side: No, no, no. If you map it all out, the writing and the story become mechanical. There’s no room to be surprised. To let the story take you where it wants to take you. Just let it flow already. 

Even with writers who have the confidence to approach plotting in the way that works for them, there still may be recurring self-doubt that perhaps if they were more of whatever is different than their normal mode, be it Plotter or Pantser, then maybe their writing process and/or their stories would be better somehow.

So . . . conflict.

Preferences and Polarization
Conflict is polarization. I’m right; you’re wrong. My way or the highway. You’re with me or against me. The Whole Brain Model, with its two dualities—right brain versus left brain processing; cerebral versus limbic processing—is a great framework to diagnose polarization. 

In

Plotter/Pantser dynamic, the Plotter position is a Green/Lower Left approach. A story has to have plot, and to Plotters it feels most comfortable (and obvious) to start there. They want the roadmap before they start driving.  A potential challenge for writers with strong Green preferences is getting stuck in Plotting Paralysis, i.e., they keep tinkering with the plot outline adjusting an already tour-de-force plan instead of diving into the inherently messier process of creating a first draft.

Pantsers, on the other hand, aren’t saying there shouldn’t be a plot, just that they don’t want to start there creatively. It feels constricting to do so, and it actually may be hard for them to get the details if they don’t just dive in. 

So with Green and Yellow squaring off, we get a diagonal polarization in the Whole Brain framework.

The Plotter/Pantser Polarization

Is it possible to have horizontal or vertical polarizations? Sure. But Pantsers are not saying they want to do a lot of analysis and then plot—which would be a vertical polarization with Blue. Nor are they saying they want to complete a detailed emotional analysis of the protagonist before plotting—which would be a horizontal polarization with Red. 

From last week, for Green we had words like: Organized, Planned, Sequential, Detailed. We can add: Risk-averse, Safekeeping, Looks before the Leap

For Yellow we started with: Holistic, Experimental, Integrating, Synthesizing. This week, we can slide in: Risk-oriented, Rule-breaker, Leaps and then takes the Look.

With those extra descriptors, hopefully the Green versus Yellow dynamic of the Plotter/Pantser divide is even clearer. 

So Which is More Effective? Plotting or Pantsing?
Neither is universally more effective, but the strength of your thinking preferences in the Yellow and Green quadrants likely, at least partially, explains your Plotter/Pantser preference. 

The reality is that if you have strong Green thinking preferences, you will likely never approach plotting in the same way as if you have strong Yellow preferences. And vice versa. And that’s wonderful. Let’s celebrate diversity in thinking and process. 

That said, if you know in your heart of hearts that some shifting one direction or the other along the Plotting/Pantsing continuum would serve your writing, then we can use this type of process analysis, coupled with your preferences, to help you make those shifts without losing your Green or Yellow marbles. (Or your Red and Blue ones, for that matter.) We’ll start diving into that next week.


The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week

  1. Do you consider yourself a Plotter or a Pantser or somewhere in between? To what degree does your less preferred approach give you the willies?
  2. Does your Plotting versus Pantsing position map to your sense of preferences in the Yellow and Green quadrants of the Whole Brain Model?
  3. Which of the Whole Brain polarizations (vertical, horizontal, or diagonal) do you think would feel the most potent to the opponents? Why?
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