Types of Plotting - Plotter or Pantser?

Originally Posted December 26, 2020 by Joe K.
Last Updated February 09, 2023
There are two types of writers you’ll hear about when talking to authors. People generally fall into one of the two camps, or they straddle them in a random variation doing a little of both. You’ll often be asked, are you a plotter or pantser, as if it’s the most natural question in the world. 

If you’re new to writing, you might wonder what a pantser is! It’s a shortened version of the longer expression, “fly by the seat of your pants.” In other words, you wing it as you go.

When it comes to writing a book, especially if it’s a first book, consider jotting down a plot. Have a plan, and it will help you get through the sticky, longer middle where you may find yourself getting stuck like a fly in a spider web, not sure how to free yourself.

Many people will claim they can’t plot. That’s fine. If it works for them, great. I’ve been there. I’ve done that, but I’m here to tell you that taking the time to know where you’re going is gold for the new writer.

We’ll be looking at four styles of plotting: 

  • Mind mapping (like the Snowflake Method)
  • Hero’s Journey (circular)
  • Linear (think timeline-based)
  • Breadcrumb plotting (a sentence here and there) 

Why Should New Writers Plot?

Many writers are surprised that when they finally put pen to paper or get their hands on the keyboard, things don’t go as planned. They’re finally ready to write that story that’s been in their head for ages, and get the first chapter or two started, but then they aren’t sure where to go. 

It’s because you need your character to go through a journey. There needs to be depth. There needs to be layers. And there needs to be motivation. When it comes to writing a book, it’s more complex than it looks to the ordinary person. An author weaves a tale with intricacy, so it stays together, says something, and the main character then changes and grows due to the path they traveled. 

Often, we only see the top layer, like your reflection on a pool of water. Until you get into the water and splash around a bit, you aren’t aware what’s waiting for you.

Plot points and beat sheets are other methods worth considering, but until you fully understand plot points, I’d suggest starting with one of the methods above. You’ll use plot points on them in a manner, but the flow will be easier for you to follow.

Beat sheets are useful guideposts that tell you where you should be at a certain point of your story. They’re very helpful once you know what your story is about. You can then place your plot or outline over it to get a better idea for pacing.

The Four Main Styles of Plotting

Mind mapping is also called the Snowflake Method in a book that’s popular and written by Randy Ingermanson. He uses this method for both scenes, chapters, and outlines. Mind mapping and the snowflake version are the same basic idea. It’s a visual guide that offers you the ability to group ideas in topic clusters and draw out information that you want to add to your book or story.

In mind mapping, one example with a character would be to write their name down. Then draw a line and in one cluster, write down all the people related to them. Then draw another line to another circle or cluster, and write down all of their personality traits you want to include. You might draw another line to a circle to represent their motivations and goals. And another one to a circle that includes their support system. The idea is to expand each of these clusters into areas that are helpful.  

You can use this for a mystery for example by writing the word suspects, then create a path to each suspect, what their motive was and any other traits or secrets you want to include. You might create a path to clues, and list all the clues. The idea is that having a visual representation helps you get out all the details while brainstorming so you can make sense of it and look for plot holes before starting your story. 

The Hero’s Journey is often set up like a circle. Have you heard the expression of “coming full circle” before? This is what the Hero’s Journey ends up looking like on paper. Your main character starts at one point in the story and sets off on a quest, but is lacking what they need to complete it, whether that’s physically, emotionally or both. 

As they journey through ups and downs, they learn what they need after trials and failures, and eventually triumphs. In the end you see the hero has completed their journey (remember, it doesn’t have to be an actual physical one) and you see they’ve grown in a way that showcases or mirrors the beginning of the story.  There are multiple diagrams available on the web for guidance, and books as well. Simply do a search for Hero’s Journey, and you’ll see plenty of options.

Linear plotting is another version of plotting. This tends to be told in a sequence of events that follows a timeline. You create the story from beginning to end in your plotting, as the events unfold. Many writers skip around to different scenes, rather than writing straight through. In linear plotting, rather than simply figuring out a scene here or there, you go through how the story would progress based on the things that need to happen. So, you might think this happens…and then this happens. Each scene creates a path to the next. Fill in as much detail as you can to help you along the way. The fuller your outline, the easier it will be to write the story. 

Breadcrumb plotting is a shorter way to create a path. For those who might have issues with their attention span, or aren’t ready to create a solid, detailed outline, consider creating a breadcrumb trail. If you’ve not written a book before, you may not see the need for a plot, but know that it will take longer to write with more details than you imagined. It’s in the muck of the middle that people often lose their steam or aren’t sure where to go. By having a loose guideline, it can help you during those moments where you’re not sure what’s next.

A breadcrumb trail works like this… Say you are planning twenty chapters in your story, open a document and number it 1-20. For each chapter, you’ll write the one thing you need to happen for the story to move forward. At the end of this, you’ll have a 20-sentence framework you can either fill in later, or use like a beacon to get you to the next chapter in your book. It might look like Chapter 1, my hero has found out something terrible has just happened. Chapter 2, my hero must assess the circumstance and figure out what to do next. You’ll continue this until you get to the end. If you’re more of a pantser, try this method to see if it helps.

There’s nothing wrong with skipping an outline and winging it, but plotting allows you to catch plot holes before they happen, helps you find areas you may want to flesh out more, and helps you create the connections that will help the story chug along like a locomotive heading down a track. 

Do you have a favorite way to outline?
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