We writers often categorize ourselves as “plotters” or “pantsers”, based on how much of our story we prefer to outline before we begin writing actual scenes. As I consider my writing process, I’m beginning to think this framework isn’t very useful for describing how I turn my ideas into a full-fledged story. But I think I’ve discovered a more useful way to frame this difference. Instead of “plotter vs. pantser”, consider: are you a deductive storyteller or an inductive storyteller?

Deductive reasoning starts with general premises and draws specific conclusions. In a similar way, deductive storytellers start with general concepts and work their way down to specific details.The Snowflake Method is the purest form of deductive storytelling–you start with the most basic overview, and at each level, you add more details and get more specific, until you wind up with a first draft.

To a deductive storyteller, the overarching framework is necessary in order to develop the small details. For example, if I were writing deductively, I’d decide that Suzie is a brave character, and then write scenes that show Suzie’s bravery. I’d also needs to figure out the steps of the plot before coming up with the details of any specific scene–I’d need to know that Suzie will argue with Dave so I can set up the tension that will lead to that scene. The big picture needs to come first, and any necessary details can be logically drawn from this framework.

In contrast, inductive reasoning starts with specific data and draws general conclusions. Therefore, inductive storytelling starts with specific details of a scene, and from that, draws general conclusions about the characters, plot, and setting. This type of writer aligns more closely with the “pantser” end of the spectrum, and is likely to get more ideas from writing scenes than from writing an outline.

An inductive storyteller needs to write out scenes, and use the small details in the prose to figure out broader facts about the plot, characters, and setting. For example, if I were writing inductively, I might write a scene in which Suzie was the only person in her party to enter a haunted house without hesitation. From this, I’d determine that Suzie was brave, and would use this insight to inform Suzie’s behavior in future scenes.  I’d also use the details of early scenes to figure out the next logical steps of my plot. For example, Suzie and Dave are having tense interactions across multiple scenes, so it’s logical that it will erupt into an argument in the next scene. The small details have to come first, so they can be combined logically to draw larger conclusions about the story.

This framework has given me insight into why I write the way I do. The “plotter vs. pantser” argument is generally framed as “do you get bored if you know the story beforehand”? But the difference goes much deeper than that–it ties into which method of story building feels more logical to you. I find that detailed outlines often destroy my stories. I might have a plot plan and character sheets that work extremely well in summary form, but I find I can’t use those big pictures to extrapolate the small details I need for a scene–the resulting story feels vague and artificial. It works much better if I write at least a few scenes first–see the characters interacting in their environment–and then dig deeper into what those details tell me about my characters, plot, and setting so I can further develop the story. Other people might find that they can’t come up with useful details unless they know the larger picture. Neither way is better–it just depends on your preferred storytelling strategy.

Obviously, writers will fall on a spectrum somewhere between these two extremes. But I feel that the “inductive vs. deductive” terminology is a more useful distinction than plain old “plotter vs. pantser”. The important thing isn’t whether you outline, but why an outline may or may not help you create the story you want to tell.

This is FABULOUS. I’ve never seen such a good description of my own (inductive) process before, and it actually helps to clarify some very important things for me about the project I’m currently working on — namely that I won’t find my way into the story by doing more research and taking more notes, I need to sit down and start writing scenes instead. (Which I really should know by now, because when has it worked for me any other way?)

What I really love about the deductive/inductive way of looking at writing is that it removes the value judgment implicit in the whole “pantser vs plotter” debate, where the very terms used invite a negative reaction from one group or the other (“You’re writing by the seat of your pants, how disorganized and lazy” or “You’re a plotter, clearly you’re approaching writing as a mechanical process and sucking all the life out of it”). With these terms it’s so much clearer that they are both viable, logical processes, and one is not superior to the other — they’re just different methods of telling a good story.

Thank you, @fictionadventurer! I’m going to use these terms when I talk about writing methods from now on.

This this this! Wow this is so insightful and helpful. Inductive reasoning exactly describes it, and also clarifies why I feel like I’m using different parts of my brain when I try to plot – because it’s a totally different process!

You’re a genius.

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