I found myself asking that very question last year as I pondered beginning my first attempt at a novel. I’d learned enough to know writers tend to fall into one or the other category. Some plan their book, the plot of their story, fully in advance of writing. Those are the plotters. The pantsers, on the other hand, dive right in and see where the story takes them. Unconstrained by a prior outline, they discover the elements of their book as they go, following their muses wherever they may lead. But which was I?

As a total neophyte, I didn’t trust myself to try without some sort of plan. But how much of one? In my search for an answer, I ran across a tool called the plot circle or plot embryo. It seemed to have all the basics without drilling down to extreme detail. As the name suggests, it seemed simple enough that I thought even a newbie like me could manage to fill out the embryo successfully. Or maybe it’s the visual presentation that made it more approachable. Whatever the case, I completed one. Woo hoo! I had a story.

Understanding the benefits of having a detailed outline, however, I decided to now use my plot embryo as the basis for an in-depth plan. This deeper dive included multiple data pieces for each scene: scene #, general description, characters present, main character arc, purpose of the scene. I got through two chapters and hit a wall. Aaaaargh! When things ground to a halt, I worried maybe I didn’t have the ability to tell a story after all. But deep down I really believed I did. So, I threw caution to the wind and started writing. Hey! No risk, no reward.

Guess what! I’m a plantser – a writer who falls somewhere between an all-out plotter and a pure pantser. I’m of two minds when it comes to the writing process. I need some outline to get me going and lend direction, but too much advance detail or specificity inhibits my pantser side from discovering new things about the tale as the characters and plot develop. And I definitely find myself learning new things – personality traits of characters, interesting subplots, new elements of backstory, layers of motivation – as I forge ahead.

Before you total plotters think too badly of me, I assure you I still do a scene-by-scene outline. It’s just that the entries are filled out after I write the scenes instead of before. Ha! I’m using that more complete outline to help with checking structure and as an editing aid.

If you want to know more, here are some links.

Dan Harmon’s Plot Embryo (aka Story Circle)

Rachael Stephen Video

Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

Dan Harmon, known for – among other things – being co-creator of Rick & Morty, is the originator of the story circle. He evidently developed his circle using Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as a foundation. Rachael Stephen is an AuthorTuber who has posted a pretty good explanation of the Story Circle/Plot Embryo, which is how I first heard about it.

Which are you? Plotter, pantser, or – like me – a plantser?

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  1. I’ve tried giving myself opportunities to swing between both categories, and I’ve found that I can only write as a pure pantser. So I basically write a very long outline—as Brandon Sanderson would put it—before I go back to it and rework the entire thing.

    I enjoy reading about other writers’ creative processes, so thanks for this!

    1. That’s great! I’m impressed with folks who can just dive in. So far, my process has benefited from some advance planning, but I’m committed to remaining flexible.

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