That is a strange question, or is it?
Well, not really. I’ve heard of “discovery” writers. Those are the ones that start the story and allow it to evolve on the page. This is the author that will say the characters made a surprising decision, the plot developed in an unexpected way, they “wrote themselves into a corner and don’t know what to do now.”
There are the “gardners”, they plant the seed, but they know what to expect. They know what the story is going to be in the end. They know what’s going to happen to the characters. They just don’t know how, until they sit down and write. This, by the way, is not mine, it’s Gorge R.R. Martin’s definition and explanation.
I look at it differently. I’ve “pantsed” a couple of novels now, so these are my experiences.
“Protagonist Pantser”: Well, here the author writes first person limited. Normally, that means you, the author, are the protagonist. You are telling the story, but you are “living” the story. The better you convey that feeling, the more the reader will “live” the story too. Just between us chickens, this is a really fun way to write.
This is a great style but brings a few dangerous circumstances with it. First and foremost, if your reader is taking on the persona of your protagonist, then what the protagonist does has to be the alternative the reader would choose too. The protagonist would kiss the bad boy, the protagonist would have hot passionate sex with the dangerous enemy spy, the protagonist will steal the jewel, the plans, the ancient relick, the protagonist will take the shot and kill the antagonist. If your reader would not do what the protagonist chooses to do, the reader will be yanked out of the story, and from a totally immersive experience, it’ll become distant words printed on a page.
So, like I said, very dangerous. Unless, of course, you make it clear the protagonist is taking the reader in, telling in very intimate detail about the experiences lived. Then the reader is not the protagonist, but rather is being given the tale in confidence, finding out the most intimate details of the how and why the protagonist decides to take that action. This is very entertaining, and requires a little bit (and by a little bit, I mean a lot) more effort from the author, to make it clear to the reader that they are in the exclusive position of peeking into the life of the protagonist in the most personal and intimate way.
For the writer, it is a great way to write. You live the story, and you let it take you wherever it happens to go. Complete abandon, it’s exciting, surprising, and thrilling.
Then there’s the “God” Pantser: The author can write first person or third person omniscient, usually second will not work here.
Here the author is looking at the action from on high. The author takes the reader on a great experience. The author knows everything, controls what the characters know. Sometimes, the author lets the reader in on the secret. Sometimes, not. The author has to be careful here, though. It’s imperative to make sure the reader will be OK with Coronel Mustard killing Mrs. Scarlet in the library with a candlestick. If the author held back too much information and then the explanation makes it clear the reader would never have solved the mystery, they’ll probably be pissed and dislike the story.
Of course, you can pull an Arthur Conan Doyle and introduce a fall guy. A Dr. Watson, who is the one fooled, not the reader, never the reader, and we can all look at the solved mystery and say “poor Watson, he never had a chance to solve it.”
This is really fun. You put easter eggs here and there, foreshadow, give hints, make big reveals, and of course, surprise the characters with the complicity of the reader. Like I said, a lot of fun.
“Spectator” pantser. This is the author we talked about before. The story unfolds for the author, but there is no control on how it evolves. There is no destination in mind. The only thing the author knows is the jumping-off point, or how the story ends, or the main plot point, that’s it. This is where, suddenly, the author may find that the story killed his protagonist halfway through and a lot of stuff is pending, many things are yet to be resolved and, most importantly, now you need another protagonist. The writing point of view can be literally any since the author has yielded all control of the story.
This can be a fun way to write, but the only problem with it is that editing is a huge endeavor. The author has to locate and solve plot holes, which are very common and abundant in this kind of writing. Assuring consistency through the manuscript is very problematic, and as we already pointed out, the author may find that at the midpoint of the novel, they have no idea about how to proceed.
Do I think you have to be a pure pantser or a pure plotter? No. I agree that it is a good idea to have a plan. A jumping-off point, and a goal, and end, in mind. A rough idea of where you want to be, what the problems and conflicts are going to be, and how to solve them. But I really enjoy letting the story evolve with little control.
I’ve heard other authors say that writing the full plot and then writing the novel is like writing the novel twice. Once, the bare bones, and the second time, with all the details. Many find this less than exciting. The first time the novel gets put on paper, you don’t really know where you are going, or how you are going to get there. Then, when you expand the outline into the full novel, you already know all the major points, so, it’s less exciting. Like watching a movie twice. It may still be good, but not as good as the first time. Unless, of course, the story is so good that it has layers and layers and every time you read/write/see it, you discover something new… which is great, but very few authors can pull that off.
Which is the best way to write?
According to many very successful people that do it for a living, you should plot your novels.
According to many really successful people that live off their writing, pants it for all you are worth.
So, my opinion?
Enjoy your writing. Plot, pants whatever you prefer, but enjoy it.
I’ve done both, and will probably keep trying different alternatives.
“Commercial success”, i.e. sales volume is an easy metric, but sheer enjoyment is another. I hope the novels I enjoy writing are the ones that sale, but, I will only be able to tell when I publish. I’ll have to wait until then.
Have a great day and enjoy your writing.