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.