Are You a Plotter or a Pantser? By Christine Husom

A question writers are often asked—of other readers and writers alike—is whether or not they outline their stories. Or do they just start writing, and see where it goes?

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Contrast that with John Grisham’s method, “The books are carefully outlined before I ever start. Chapter by chapter, from beginning to end. And usually tedious and boring and even painful– but it’s the only way to make sure the story’s going to work. Usually the outline is 50 pages long. And the longer the outline, the easier the book is to write.”

I recently moderated a panel discussion at Bouchercon 2015 and posed that question. Three of the authors said they were plotters, outliners, and one said she was a pantser.

It intrigues me to hear what other writers do because it’s not always apparent in their work. There are stories that seem to twist and turn in ways that would hint they were not outlined, and yet they were. And others that seem so carefully plotted, one would believe the writer had a detailed outline he or she was working from.

When I come up with an idea for a story—and mine are currently all mysteries—first I think of a beginning, a way to introduce the crime or the mystery. That gives me the idea of who the bad guy is and how it will end. Then I think of my characters, who they are, and some key plot points that will help move the story along.

I fall more on the pantser side, but I tend to outline a little bit ahead, not on paper, but in my mind. I’ll jot notes here and there as I go along, indicating this or that needs to happen. And then in about the middle of the book I think about what’s happened so far and how things need to move to conclude it, to resolve it all. I also take notes on what has happened in each chapter. It might be called an outline in reverse.

Perhaps there’s not as much difference between plotters and pantsers as people believe. Plotters detail things out ahead of time in the form of an outline, and pantsers detail things out as they are writing the story.

I have tried to outline and I’ve tried to storyboard, but neither has worked for me so far. I find I need to get immersed with my characters in what is happening in their world, meet other characters when they do and watch their reactions. I need to hear the sounds of their voices, and appreciate their differences, and suffer with them when bad things happen. I need to fight for justice and solve crimes with my good guys.

For me writing a book is a lot like living life. When I get up in the morning, I know what’s on my schedule, so I have an idea of what I’m supposed to do. But then I get a phone call or a visit, or something breaks down, or any other curve balls are thrown my way, and what I’d planned changes. So I make new plans. Just like in my books. I have an idea for the next chapter, and then a character does something strange, and I change my plans.

How about other writers out there, are a plotter or a pantser? I’d love to know.

Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series. Her sixth book, Secret in Whitetail Lake, will be released next month.


Filed under fiction

18 responses to “Are You a Plotter or a Pantser? By Christine Husom

  1. Interesting to read about how other writers plan their books.
    My method is quite simple for me. I start with want the story to say. Usually, it is just “Good overcomes Evil.” Then of course I have to know what the evil is and how bad it is and how it wors. Then I need to know what or who is going to fight that evil and how it can be done. Sometimes a high point or points make themselves known. But with that much I can jump in and start to write. Most times the order in which it works, works okay. Once in a while as I get about half a novel written, I see that some parts of it are in the wrong place, so I make those changes. Then I push on with the last half of it. I then look back through the whole story and clean it up. It then goes to my three readers.
    This method has worked for all nine books I’ve published.

  2. I do something similar to you and for the same reasons. My story idea is “what is the conflict?” Then it becomes a road trip. I know where I am and who is with me. I know basically where we are going to end, the resolution. I know the basic route. I would not drive east if my trip was to the west.
    There will be points along the way I would like to see. Places to eat, spend the night, etc. Some of these stops I write down. Some I just remember. Now, unexpected things happen. Car breaks down. Hotel lost reservation and is booked. We see a sign about the world’s largest ball of string. Raiders carry off my wife. The list goes on and on. My paper notes list reminders which I check off as I go. If an idea pops in my head, it gets added to the list.
    With my theater background, characters take on a life of their. I usually hear them saying the lines. I understand why they feel like they do. They may completely change the direction. “Why don’t we exit the interstate and go through the country.”
    If you have read Death in a Small Town, there is a major twist near the end. It was not planned. It just happened. That one little thing changed the whole book. It turned a single book story into a three book series.
    I could list similar situations in all my books, but I will let this one example suffice.

    H.V. Purvis
    Author of Extinction, Survival, Death in a Small Town and Shadow Knight: Dark Justice

    • Thanks, HV. It sounds like the characters in your books take you on a similar journey as mine do. It’s funny you should mention the world’s largest ball of twine–I live not far from there.

  3. I’m a panster until I get to know my characters. Usually, when I’m about halfway through the book, I outline what needs to happen from the midpoint to the end of the book. Sometimes even that changes as the characters reveal their true intentions to me.

  4. It often seems like I’m not so much writing as transcribing, as if my characters actually do exist in some alternate universe and when I sit down to write (and sometimes when I’m doing other things), the veil between our two worlds thins and they tell me their stories and what happened to them. Some characters are wary with their stories, and I don’t learn what happened until they tell me. Other characters will tell me in advance, which winds up as a kind of outline. But to write up an outline, with me as the master of their fates before I ever consult them, seems very foreign to me. I’m never quite certain whether I’m their creator or simply the conduit through which they speak.

    • A great way to describe your relationship with your characters, Sheyna. I find when I’m writing it’s almost like I’m watching a movie, yet I know I’m the one creating it.

      • That is exactly how I feel at times! It seems I forget I’m the one creating the movie, though. Like with Viper’s Legacy. I would look back and reread and say to myself, now when did I write this part? Sometimes I wish I could have Dumbledore’s wand to take the movie in my head and dip it out to become an actual movie. 🙂

  5. I’m definitely a pantser. One time I tried to outline, but couldn’t stick to it, so now I just go with it.

  6. I thought about the order of events for a long time before beginning the actual writing of She Had to Know, since my story had autobiographical elements that needed to be told in sequence. When the writing actually began, however, I found myself “panstering” for a few chapters. This was a help, in that I became more familiar with my characters and locales (with the aid of lots of research), but also hindered my progress, because it was too easy to drift off into tangents.
    Once I reached the fourth chapter, I made a general list of components for my mystery that would be necessary to bring it to fruition. Such things as inserting red herrings, identifying the villain and motives of characters for certain actions, a time-line, etc. The list helped keep me on track, but was revised when needed.
    Many changes and improvements came about later in re-writes. So I guess my answer to whether or not I’m a plotter or a panster is both, but I lean slightly toward a more ordered approach.

  7. I like the idea of outlining in my mind. Somehow it leaves me freer to wander off onto a more interesting track. Having everything plotted out on paper feels too much like commitment, and I don’t want to feel committed till the story is much nearer done.

  8. I have tried outlining my stories from start to finish but it has never worked for me. I am more of a panster, I move along with my characters. I have always seen as my characters using me to write down their story, not really me writing their story. So I can’t outline much. Like you said, my characters do strange things sometimes. Things come up that I had no idea would happen. New characters pop up without any warning and I have to go with the flow. I like seeing where my characters will take me and I live their life with them, often feeling what they feel and connecting with their hardships. Outlining things feels too much like restricting my characters and I feel as though I am not allowing them to grow and change. They are like real people inside my head sometimes, I don’t want to control them too much.

  9. Michael Rose

    I’ll do an early morning draft from a very rough outline, trying to give my imagination some room to play, a chance to discover the story. Then I’ll go back and do a more detailed outline of what I’ve just drafted. It really shows me places where I need to say more, not to mention passages that can stand to go on a 3,000-word diet.

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