by Lazarus Black
Both. But the distinctions between are rarely discussed amongst those espousing one over another. In fact, they are each normally described by their opponent with derision and bile. They are seen by some as extremes at either end of the same scale of story-telling techniques.
I don't. They are two different techniques that must integrate correctly to tell the best story. Eschewing one over another is just refusing to use both hands.
What is the Difference?
Simply put: Plot Structure.
Here are the objective descriptions of each, as I understand them.
Plotter: A plot is the series of events that occur through a story, from beginning to end. These events, called plot points, may affect the reader to any degree, but without them, there is no story. A Plotter is a writer who plans out their story, point-by-point, from beginning to end, in an outline of some form. They then fill in the gaps between those points. Arguments against an outline don't make any sense to me.
Pantser: The term is an abbreviation of "Writing by the seat of your pants". Pantsers refuse to consider their plot-points in advance in any form, preferring to let their imagination flow in the moment, by a whim, and on a wing and a prayer. This is also called exploratory writing. At the most extreme, and entire work could composed this way and has been called "Stream of Consciousness Writing". I understand arguments against this a little better, but only as a reader. I have never enjoyed a stream-of-consciousness work.
But here is where the terms get complicated as they crossover.
After a lot of practice, an author may be able to internalize a plot and manage its outline entirely in their head and heart. So when they sit down to write from start to finish, they may not imagine that they've plotted at all. And the outside observer may come to the errant conclusion those authors don't plot. And there are ways to manage a flexible plot that, again, can look and feel like there was no structure to the plot at all.
Furthermore, plot-points are not a story by themselves. People don't enjoy reading an outline of events just as reading a recipe isn't as enjoyable as eating the cake. Every Plotter has to do exploratory writing between those plot-points to bring them to life.
The loudest opinion I have encountered from the writing community come from the Stream of Consciousness crowd who encounter resistance to their lack of structure. Unfortunately for them, the market research is against them, as the overwhelming majority of readers do not enjoy stories without a structure.
A plot is just how the story progresses. Plot-points are the milestones, where things change in the story (e.g., reversals). Without change, the written words are not a story, but merely a description.
The structure is the purpose and order behind the plot-points — how, when, and why the events occur in the order that they do. Just as structure keeps a building from collapsing, it also keeps a reader engaged in the story from beginning to end. Plot-points include clues and discovery and foreshadowing and revelation and so much more. Those are easier to manage in an outline and easy to forget or entirely omit without one.
Which is why authors like Neil Gaiman explain that one way to write is in multiple drafts.
"The point of the first draft is to get the story down. The point of the second draft is to rewrite the story as if you knew what was going to happen all along." - Neil Gaiman (paraphrased)
This method enjoys the entire exploratory writing process, but then recognizes that it could be so much better if the plot-points were in some kind of structure. Obviously, this is easier if one can write from an internalized plot structure, and exasperatingly difficult if one cannot.
So, a writer needs to do both. Back and forth. Alternating between methods until the story is perfect.
More practice means fewer drafts (usually).
What About You?
As for me? It depends on the story.
Sometimes, an idea comes for the beginning middle or end as a powerful plot-point I want to base a s tory around. If I know one of them, it's pretty easy to figure out what the other two should be (because I focus on reversals).
Sometimes, I only have a character or a theme or a scene in mind. In those cases, I will sit down and do exploratory writing until a plot-point emerges and captures my imagination. Then, leap away from it and build out my outline.
For each plot-point, I write what that point changes in the story. What was the story before and what is the story afterwards. This before-after pairing tells me what the scene should be. I write the before part and then explore all the fun details and character parts aiming towards the after part. Then I move to the next pairing and the next. Over time, there may be deviation, but I'll see it and address it. Maybe the deviation is better than the original outline and I have to update it. This results, I feel, in a perfect blend of structure and organic experience to both write and read.
Every author has their own method. I know authors who are horrified at mine. LOL. But I find as much enjoyment in constructing my plot-points as in parleying Chandleresque quips between foils.
Do what works for you.