The Truth about Plotters and Pantsers

Stardust Memories
Photo Courtesy of IMDb

When I started writing fiction seriously, I pretty much began the process by staring down the blank page and typing words. I didn’t produce a complex outline or write detailed backstories about my principle characters. I just wrote. And wrote. And wrote. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a pantser. I knew this when I used to write screenplays. I was always taught to create the outline, define the characters—and only then, begin with FADE IN. I tried this once, and I got so frustrated, I gave up and banged out the damn thing. Take THAT, mother!

Defining the Terms
For those of you who might be new to the discussion, let’s first explain the terms. I am quoting the from a post I found over at “The Write Practice.” For my money, these comments work pretty well as definitions.

Plotters, having planned out their novel ahead of time, know what’s going to happen before they write it. This makes it easier to bust writer’s block. It’s harder to get stuck when you know what’s going to happen next. Plotters also tend to get their novels written faster, or at least more smoothly.

Pantsers have the freedom to take their novel in any direction they want. They have flexibility. They’re not stuck following an outline, so if they don’t like a character, they can simply kill him. If they don’t like the way their plot is going, they can change it.

I will say that if you read the article, you’ll notice the author is biased in favor of plotters. And I say, bully for her. Because, in the end, whether you are a plotter or a panster—if you’re a good writer—it doesn’t matter. Let me give you an example.

At the risk of bringing up Woody Allen, I would like to talk about that beautiful and funny opening scene in his 1980 film Stardust Memories. The whole thing was heavily influenced by the opening to Fellini’s 8-1/2, by the way. Even some of the shots are nearly identical. Never mind.

In this scene, the main character, Sandy Bates, finds himself on a train. He is surrounded by humorless passengers who look like they’re on their way to a mortician’s convention. He happens to look out the window and sees another train across the way, filled with well-dressed passengers drinking champagne and laughing gaily as they show each other their trophies. One woman blows him a kiss. Realizing he must be on the wrong train, he tries to get off, but it’s no use. At the end of the scene, Sandy’s train has arrived at a landfill. But so has the other train.

Now, I’m not saying plotters are humorless, and pantsers are happy-go-lucky folks who like to socialize with a drink in their hand (wink wink). It’s just that if you are a professional writer, you’re getting to your destination despite the How. By the way, that girl blowing the kiss? Sharon Stone.

The Problem with Labeling
I don’t like being labeled. No one does. So, whoever came up with these labels for writers must own a labeling machine company. My main problem is that calling someone a pantser vs. a plotter seems to imply that pantsers don’t care about the plot. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We do care, but we just haven’t figured it out yet. With each new book, we are on a road of discovery. And trying to lay it all out in advance isn’t much fun. It’s like eating your vegetables. We want dessert!

Another problem with labeling is that it encourages people to take sides, which is never a good thing. Need proof? How about the HUAC hearings in the late 1940s which led to the Hollywood blacklist. Yeah, that went really well; it practically tore the country apart. Fun times, people.

Finally, what if you’re a writer who is somewhere in the middle? I’ve adjusted my writing process to accommodate a short synopsis and a timeline, so I don’t trip myself up by getting dates wrong and such. I still don’t consider myself a plotter, because I don’t follow an outline. So, what does that make me, a hybrid? Sounds kind of SciFi-ish, don’t you think? Folks, to deal with the hybrid problem, I’m afraid we’re going to have to ban these nutjobs from ever using Amazon KDP again.

Okay, so here it is. When I sit down to write a new novel or short story, I have a general idea of where I am going, and I let my characters tell me where they need to go next. If that sounds a little new-agey, I get it. But it’s true. I can’t tell you how many times a character has surprised me by disobeying me. Come on—I’M the writer! And guess what—the story was better for it. I’m not sure those kinds of discoveries would happen if I forced myself to outline. And as far as plot, I can assure you, there is one.

Wrap-Up
So, whether you like to write copious outlines with detailed scene descriptions—or you’d rather put on your shoes, go outside, and see where the road takes you—I applaud you. Over the years, I’ve read many wonderful books by plotters and panters. And to be honest, I couldn’t tell the difference in terms of quality. They were both excellent. Why? Because the authors did the hard work.

Look, the point of writing is not to feel bad about yourself. Writers do that enough already. We should celebrate who we are and be professional writers. I don’t know, maybe out there somewhere there’s a plotter who wishes she were a pantser. Sure. And maybe unicorns are real.

Book Review—Forgotten Bones

Forgotten Bones Cover 

Forgotten Bones is a ghost thriller with heart. Vivian Barz has created characters that resonate wonderfully and, like any accomplished author, puts them in the center of hell in the guise of a remote farming community in California.

The double protagonist is comprised of Susan, the ambitious young cop, and Eric, an emotionally broken academic. Of the two, I found Eric to be more interesting. He is newly arrived after a painful separation and also happens to be schizophrenic. Together, these two give the reader something new and fresh as they attempt to solve the mystery surrounding the decades-old death of a boy found buried in a shallow grave.

Of course, in stories like this, there is never just one body. And as the count rises and the FBI becomes more involved, Susan finds herself getting frustrated since it appears she is being shut out. And Eric. He would be thrilled to leave everything to the police if it weren’t for the fact that the ghost of that strange boy is plaguing him. Or is it that he’s going crazy?

For those who enjoy police procedurals, ghosts, fear, and surprise, this book is for you.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
An unlikely pair teams up to investigate a brutal murder in a haunting thriller that walks the line between reality and impossibility.

When small-town police officers discover the grave of a young boy, they’re quick to pin the crime on a convicted criminal who lives nearby. But when it comes to murder, Officer Susan Marlan never trusts a simple explanation, so she’s just getting started.

Meanwhile, college professor Eric Evans hallucinates a young boy in overalls: a symptom of his schizophrenia—or so he thinks. But when more bodies turn up, Eric has more visions, and they mirror details of the murder case. As the investigation continues, the police stick with their original conclusion, but Susan’s instincts tell her something is off. The higher-ups keep stonewalling her, and the FBI’s closing in.

Desperate for answers, Susan goes rogue and turns to Eric for help. Together they take an unorthodox approach to the case as the evidence keeps getting stranger. With Eric’s hallucinations intensifying and the body count rising, can the pair separate truth from illusion long enough to catch a monster?

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Book Review—Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling

Daemon Voices Cover

So, I’ll start by saying that I have not read His Dark Materials, though the trilogy is now sitting on my ever-expanding reading pile. Nor have I read anything else of Philip Pullman’s. I decided to purchase Daemon Voices because, like any good writer, I am trying to get better at my craft. And I thought Mr. Pullman might be able to help. Well, he has—and brilliantly.

This collection of essays is rich with storytelling examples taken from literature, art, and science. A former teacher, the author knows how to engage the reader without talking down. My only criticism is that he tends to go off on a tangent from time to time about his lack of belief in God or Satan, as though that has anything to do with the task at hand.

That said, I consider this book a must-read for any author who wishes to better understand the difference between story and plot, fantasy and reality in fiction, and why anything beginning with “once upon a time” immediately captures our imagination. Well done, Mr. Pullman.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
From the internationally best-selling author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, a spellbinding journey into the secrets of his art—the narratives that have shaped his vision, his experience of writing, and the keys to mastering the art of storytelling.

One of the most highly acclaimed and best-selling authors of our time now gives us a book that charts the history of his own enchantment with story—from his own books to those of Blake, Milton, Dickens, and the Brothers Grimm, among others—and delves into the role of story in education, religion, and science. At once personal and wide-ranging, Daemon Voices is both a revelation of the writing mind and the methods of a great contemporary master, and a fascinating exploration of storytelling itself.

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