When is a writer not a pantser?

Novel writers often divide themselves into two camps: Plotters and Pantsers. As I wrote a reply to a comment on my last blog post, I realized something about myself. I don’t think I’m a true pantser. I’ve always identified myself as one because I don’t write a detailed outline, or make a colored-coded story chart, or any of those other traditional methods of writing the story before you write the story.

But if a true pantser is a writer who sits down at the keyboard with only a vague story idea, some character names, a location or two, and hopes some entity known as The Muse will take over, then I’m not a pantser.

It’s true that as I’m writing, I’m often surprised by what a character says or does, at how a plot point veers in a direction I hadn’t expected. I start with a single file. In that, I might sketch out character “bios”, but mainly so I can keep names and ages straight. I also record bits of dialogue that come to me,  and the proposed opening and ending sentences, or maybe even paragraphs. And eventually I write a detailed scene list, but not until after I’ve written the scenes.

I guess that sounds like a pantser, but the truth is I’ve lived with the story for months—at least—before I begin to write it. I’ve mentally processed the basic plot, key scenes, and details of each character. And I’ve revised all of those, sometimes more than once. Essentially, before I ever start writing the book, I’ve seen the movie played out in my mind.

I don’t know why I never related this to the more tangible actions of a plotter. Maybe it’s because I’ve tried the formal outline, the index cards, the organizing software and it always seemed more trouble than it was worth. I felt it killed the thrill of writing, but maybe it was just that it seemed redundant.

So yes, I plan, but I’m “open to suggestion” also. Does that mean I’m a plotser? Or maybe I’m just a normal writer.

Your turn: Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you ever tried to change your stripes?

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30 thoughts on “When is a writer not a pantser?

  1. Do you find yourself making offshoot notes or a simple chapter list of sorts as the writing progresses? Maybe a list of tech stuff like a page about how a WW airplane works in a novel set in 1917? How about if the story is a Michner thing(I refuse to read him any more) where there are 14 plots and 23 subplots working simultaneously? I have to make a character ID list to read him. How about new ideas for an unplanned chapter that come to mind? I like to make boxes with arrows leading to various directions with several key words in the box. For the critical essay I taught my AP students an outline is absolutely necessary as I taught them to write it as a legal brief. Lists of people, places, dates and things were required before writing so that they could be incorporation at the key inclusion points. Submitting the outline and lists were required with the 2-6 page essay.

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    1. I do make a chapter list, Carl, with scene details, but this is after I write the chapters. And I have a “notes” file for each book, which includes research notes, questions for myself, bits I cut, etc. As far as I know, I’ve never written a critical essay.

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  2. When it comes to writing, I am a procrastinating dreamer. I think about my story idea and dream about the characters for quite a while until I begin to write anything. Then, I write out a bit of an outline, just the basics of what will happen and how I “think” it is going to happen.

    And then, I stop.

    I sit back, and I do nothing. I read and respond to blogs, I play games, I update Facebook hourly. Anything to keep from actually writing the story. Sooner or later, though, the characters and that story BEG to be written. When I get to the point where I can’t ignore them any longer, I write.

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  3. I guess I’m something of a “creative dreamer forced into plotting once in a while.” I think about a character, an idea pops into my head, a sentence, an image and all of a sudden the story begins to take off and about fifty pages into it, I tell myself, “wait a minute, I just talked about summer and now it’s spring. What happened to winter?? I better sit down and work this out a little better,” or, “hey, I didn’t really want to write about this, how did I ever get here? Hmm.” Not the most efficient way to write a novel, but somehow it works itself out in the end.
    Christa

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    1. I’m glad your method works for you, Christa! That’s the important thing — to find what works for you.

      You know, I think I’ll record my process with this next book because, in my memory of writing Brevity, I just sat down every day and wrote the story in linear fashion. It just “played out” without much thinking or planning on my part. But that sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

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  4. I tried to be a “Plotter” when I first started writing, but didn’t get anywhere. I found that I would outline, plot, and plan only to find that once I sat down and actually started writing I would end up going in a different direction entirely. I’ve started writing like a “Pantser” now. I write and let the story and characters take me where they will. That said, I begin the “Plotter” stance after the first rough draft is done. I’ll sit down and create my outline during the editing process. I guess that makes me both, maybe. I don’t really know. I’m still confused. 🙂

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  5. Hi, Linda. I am so pleased to see that you and I are kindred spirits with regard to writing styles. I was floored when you mentioned how you mentally process the story. I, too, feel as if I am simply writing down the details of the film that plays inside my head.
    Yes!
    Exactly!!

    -Jimmy

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  6. I used to identify myself as a pantser, through and through, until I started sending my work in to critique groups and submitting short stories to small publishers and magazines. Almost immediately I realized how organised my work was, and how many holes my plots tended to have. It wasn’t the case with all of them, but the general trend was that they were haphazard and difficult to read. I then attempted a few stories in the plotter method, but that didn’t work for me at all. I just couldn’t sit down and write something I’d planned.

    So, I’m now at a happy balance: I have an idea, I sit down and write a few scenes, and as the story starts taking shape, I then sit and do some plotting. I plot scene by scene, and throw in an ending and a few twists, but I let the story go where it goes in between. I invariably end up with plenty of additional scenes, multiple twists and sometimes, a different ending to go with it. I guess the end result is do whatever works for you.

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    1. Absolutely, Brett. I don’t think there is only one right way to write. If one method doesn’t work for you, try another. Eventually, you find what works best. Unfortunately, a lot of beginning writers read a how-to book and feel they MUST do what that author says.

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  7. Hi Linda, once again a great and timely post. When I wrote my first MS I didn’t really plot it out, but I knew in my head where it was going. With my current WIP, I’ve felt a bit directionless because I didn’t know what I was writing for. Figured that out yesterday and feel absolutely jubilant. I see it as a road trip. I know my destination but the journey could be a straight shot down the interstate (boring) or maybe I’ll meander the back roads. 🙂

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    1. True, Kimberly. I would think most writers who are strict plotters also allow a little meander now and then. And pantsers need to be aware when it’s time to plot. Meandering comes naturally to me, plotting I have to work at. 😉

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  8. I really only start out with a vague idea of where I’m going. I do like to spend time getting to know my characters and inviting myself into their world for as long as it takes for me to feel I’m ready. Sometimes it takes quite awhile before I feel that “Readiness.”

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  9. I’m a pantser when I’m writing but a total plotter in life. Interesting.
    Do any of you find that you approach your novel differently than your daily life?

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    1. Until recently, Jacquelin, I would have said I’m a pantser in both, but now I don’t know. Maybe I’m only a pantser in real life. My husband is a total “plotter” in real life, and it truly annoys me. 🙂

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  10. I’m like Jacquellin — near-total panster with fiction, manage my life by spreadsheet. Interesting. I wonder if you can draw a conclusion from that?

    With my fiction, I have 2-3 characters in mind and a list of possible scenes before I start. I add and delete from the scene list as I go.

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  11. I’m pretty much a pantser. I need some strong characters and a sense of physical place to start with. Once the characters wander around the setting for a while, things begin to happen. When I’ve used outlines my writing becomes flat and dull.

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    1. I know I could never outline like some I’ve read about, Natasha. You know, the kind where you cite page numbers for specific plot points BEFORE you start writing. That’s formula writing, and that would be dull indeed for me.

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  12. I induldge in the guilty pleasure of planning before I write for full length novel, (over 75K) starting with a full on freewrite of the novel from start to finish though short paragraphs that mark time, place, dialogue, etc. Then I expand ideas from there using several methods. For anything under 30K i don’t think it is necessary and so I just write and go back to fix plot holes and POV errors. Then again I don’t try to write overly complicated stories in short fiction. I’m not talented enough to pull that off.

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      1. Since most of my pieces are dystopia, I usually have the idea for the root injustice I want to explore and the type of political/social landscape that would be present for those circumstances to have evolved. BUT, that is usually all I have to start. To develop the story I pick a starting point and then literally work my way through the story writing a few paragraphs to several pages for each scene. I can send you a sample if you like.

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        1. I think, T.A., we’re going through much the same pre-writing process, it’s just that you do it on paper and I don’t. Yes, I imagine it is necessary with your genre, to work out most/all of the scenes beforehand. I work out key scenes, with the in-between ones a little hazy at the start and coming into focus throughout the writing process.

          It’s kind of a show vs. tell situation, isn’t it? This pre-writing is our way of telling the story to ourselves, so we can then “show” it to the reader in our final draft.

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      2. I also meant to add that I don’t stop there. I take that crude scene/chapter summary and then plan, plan, plan, before I begin the actual draft. I think it is necessary to plan the type of fiction I write for it to work because there are so many elements. However, I don’t believe all fiction requires this much planning and that is probably why there are a variety of successful writing approaches.

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  13. Interesting. I think I am a pantser. I like to have a general idea of where I am going but the idea of having an outline I have to follow just seems restrictive. Like a long sleeve tee that cuts into your armpits and doesn’t go all the way down past your wrist. 🙂

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