Craft, Fiction, Novel, Writing

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 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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