Plotter or Pantser?

The other day I had a conversation with an author who outlines to the nth degree. He’s written his first book and has a narrative arc that stretches through the next two — a very dramatic arc and one I hope to read someday. I was in awe that he’s thought so far ahead, giving his characters deep psychological motives. I have trouble even scheduling my life out two weeks ahead!

unanswered questions - brainstorming conceptMystery writer Hallie Ephron is another one who carefully plots. But she says in her book on writing (“Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel) that even the best-laid plans go awry. She collaborates on the Peter Zak mysteries with Donald Davidoff; the first book, she writes, had been carefully outlined, with the villain carefully chosen. But, in writing a piece of dialogue in a critical scene, she realized that another “character had just confessed to the murder. The solution made perfect sense and had the great virtue of being totally unexpected.”

Ephron adds: “No one follows a plan to the letter. Major changes may be needed when a character you thought was going to be minor starts doing pirouettes, or when a plot point critical to your solution stretches credibility to the breaking point. But by getting down the basics early on and really thinking through your story and your characters, you give yourself a solid starting point.”

Then there are pantsers, or those who write by the seat of their pants. I hold these writers in awe, too, because I can’t imagine not starting without an outline. These are the writers who boot up their computers and are off, writing the story as it comes to them. They may later go back and revise it. But, for the most part, they work without an outline.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the prolific Stephen King counts himself among the non-outliners. He describes writing as excavating fossils.

In his book, “On Writing,” King says: “I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters … in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety … but to watch what happens and then write it down.”

Robert Campbell in “Writing Mysteries,” takes a middle approach, outlining as he goes along in his writing, making notes on characters, settings, or an element he might have introduced in an earlier chapter (a hidden gun, for instance) that he might use later. For him, it blends structure and serendipity.

“Obviously, this process of outlining might be done in the conventional way, thinking everything through and setting the scenes and characters down before the actual finished work is begun. But I find that by walking alongside my characters before they are fully formed I’m often pleasantly, even dramatically, surprised by conversations, actions and philosophies that I could not have imagined. When deep into a scene, writing on overdrive as it were, something magical very often takes place, some hidden well of imagination tapped, and I find myself a passenger floating on the raft of what is sometimes called inspiration along a river of words in full flood.”

So where do you fall: pantser, plotter, or in between?


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11 thoughts on “Plotter or Pantser?

  1. I’m a pantster. I write in the same way that I read a book…never knowing what will be on the next page or in the next chapter until I get to it. I’ll have a general idea of what I want out of my tale and an idea of where I plan to go with it, but it constantly shifts and shapes much differently as I go along.

  2. I think the best of both is the way to go. There is no way and no point in trying to nail every detail in an outline. I need an outline though. How do you plant clues without one getting the sequencing right? Developing believable motives for various characters and coming up with sound red herrings is more of a problem for me. All part of plotting, which I can accomplish without an outline. But that method isn’t particularaly fun, so the pantser brings in the spontaneous creativity.

  3. This is an interesting discussion and it can go on forever! I was having this with my son-in-law yesterday. He’s Mac, Google docs and Open Office guy, I’m basic Word all the way. I I figured out finally that it’s what I’ve always used and the fact that I’m a pantser. I start on page one and write until the book is finished. I do have a beginning and an end and the rudiments of a plot in my head, but I don’t write scenes, chapters or characters then weave them in. Maybe it’s from my newspaper background, where you write a story, then on to the next one. Don’t know how else to do it!

  4. I’m a total plotter. I have to plan out exactly where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. Except I revise my plan as I go. Which makes me a pantser. Except I really need that plan first. Which make me a…. what was the question again?

  5. I’m a plotter, too. I used to have to do my writing at 5:00 am before work, and if I didn’t know what the scene was going to be, I would go back to sleep! Now I like to know that my story works overall and what each scene needs to accomplish so I can focus on the sensory envelope and the emotional interactions. But I don’t plot all the way down, so to speak. I think in scenes, so I’ve got my scene list worked out before I start draft 1. Stuff that drives me crazy in mid-draft, like where things are happening, what day it is, who’s there, how did they get there and what do they want: that’s figured out. Of course there are surprises when I’m actually living through the scene. Sometimes big surprises that are going to mean big revisions in draft 2 (never stop in draft 1 :-). That’s the nature of the beast, right?

  6. I’m a combination of both. I usually know the beginning and the end. But they both can change over time. I also know a bit about how the story will go but I found that an outline or plot dampens my creativity – so I get a first draft mostly in place. Then I work through the plot points and make sure the story arc works – if not, I go back and deal with that in the re-write. I’ve had to completely re-write sections for a new character or turn of the story that I didnt know when I started but that’s what makes it fun to be writing.

  7. I’m a diehard pantser. I love to be surprised by what a character does jumping onto my screen. Or when a new one shows up and I’m off on a tangent. I have a basic idea that I develop as I go, but I figure if I’m surprised then my reader will be as well. That is my goal as a writer of mysteries. Besides, in college I hated outlines. That has stuck with me over the years. I believe getting to the end is more important than how we do it. Then the author’s mantra kicks in – revise, revise, revise.

  8. Once I get an idea, I spend a couple of days writing a detailed synopsis. And then I let it sit for a while. While writing, the beginning and end don’t change too much. But in the middle, some of the characters start misbehaving and another sub-plot often emerges. I may also eliminate a minor character or two.

  9. I’ve been thinking of this recently so I was glad to see your post. My first book was a pantser, my second, a sequel, has been more or less plotted. I also changed from first person to third. At least in my case, I think the beginning of the story has dictated the manner of writing.

  10. Pingback: Cinci schițe și planuri de cărți scrise de autori | Bookaholic

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