So are You a Plotter or a Panster?

noun : one that plots: as
a : a person who schemes or conspires
b : a contriver of a literary plot

noun: one who flies by the seat of their pants: as
a: a person who doesn’t plan anything out
b: a person who plans very little

I was sitting at lunch with author Sandy Baker, a friend of my mom’s who happens to also be the president of our local Redwood chapter of the California Writers Club (arrgh – no apostrophe in the title of this group, which JUST KILLS me. I mean … we’re writers, right? Shouldn’t it be “California WRITERS’ Club”??). But I digress …

So, anyhow, I’m sitting there at lunch in Santa Rosa and she’s giving me all sorts of great advice about what to do now that I have a completed manuscript. And she asks me: “Are you a plotter or a panster?”

Clearly I’m supposed to know what this means, so I kinda fudge my answer. “I guess I’m a little of both,” I lie, hoping this is an adequate response.

Thank God her next lines explain what the hell we are talking about. Evidently “plotters” plan everything out in advance of writing, while “pansters” fly by the seat of their pants.

So later, I’m thinking about this. Which am I?

With many half-finished story ideas … but only one completed manuscript to my name … I’m not sure I’ve fully decided what I am quite yet. Completing my first manuscript was kind of like birthing my first child – I had no freakin’ idea what to expect. Was I going to need an epidural, the doctor asks me weeks in advance? HELL YES, it turns out.

So finishing that first manuscript was such an unknown. I wrote a few key scenes. Then I rewrote everything. Then I stopped for a few months. Then I freaked out after reading the first chapter of all my favorite YA novels and rewrote everything in first person. Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo and wrote a shit-pot every single day for the month of November, despite the fact that it’s my busiest time of year for Vice Communications (the holiday season is kind of my own personal tax-season).

As Shift was starting to feel like a finished story, I happened to take this amazing screenwriting class at the Santa Rosa Junior College, taught by a fabulous, energetic screenwriter named Anne Jordan – who, incidentally, has the longest, most fabulous legs, ever. Though the class was focused on scripts, she introduced an outlining process that might just change my writing life forever. Here’s the gist.

  • Scripts are about 100 pages long – period. This is what is expected whether you are turning in Ghandi or The Hangover.
  • The script is divided into four equal sections (let’s just say 25 pages, each).
    • ACT I – Setting the Scene > Turning Point
    • ACT IIa – Fun & Games > Turning Point
    • ACT IIb – Bad Guys Set In > All is Lost
    • ACT III – Call to Action  > Resolution

(There’s a lot more detail here, obviously, but I don’t want to give away Anne’s material. If you want to know more, order her book The Big Secret: What Hollywood Won’t Tell You. )


So I go home and immediately apply this theory to my 250-page manuscript and it was amazing. My manuscript reached these points in the story almost to the page. A validating moment.

So now I’m working on Shift II: The Call (working title), and I have become much more of a plotter. I’ve outlined most of the story into Anne’s outline format, so I know where I’m headed. And it’s kind of awesome – I mean, in my professional life in marketing, would I ever embark on a big project without having a project outline to follow? Nope. Never.

The outline also allows me to jump around, the way I did when writing Shift. As of now, I have written the opening scene, the final scene, one pivotal scene in the middle and one “fun” scene blocked out. The outline allows me to be a “planster,” if you will. I can write a scene here and there as it comes to me, but I always know where I’m going.

So how do you approach your writing? I know there are a lot of us out there. Let us know what works for you!


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