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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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