Exploring Pantser and Plotting Approaches to Fiction

Anyone looking for how-to tips on novel writing is bound to come across the old debate about whether to outline a book before typing a single word or to just sit down and write. I’ve experimented with both and have found that what works best for me is somewhere between those options.

When I wrote my first mystery, I didn’t create an outline. I simply faced the blank page and wrote down whatever came to mind. This is the pantser method, although I didn’t know the term way back then. Many times I had to go back and fill in the plot holes and logistical issues.

For the second book, I decided to spend more time plotting the novel first by creating a chapter-by-chapter outline. It became important to know who was killed and why before I started writing. Now, this sometimes changed once I got into my second and third rewrites while sorting out the story’s development. It’s also why I believe that flexibility with outlines is important.

Ten books later, I still outline with those key questions in mind, but primarily just for the first third of the book. For the middle section, or second act, I jot down key elements and plot twists that I want to happen. By the last third, there’s almost no outlining as the story is set up to reach a logical conclusion, hopefully one with a twist.

When I began my writing my urban fantasy, I decided to try the pantser version again. Despite the pitfalls, it just felt important to free myself and let the ideas and connections unfold without direction from an outline. Before I started writing, I did a lot of thinking though, and did have four main characters in mind and a good idea of what the book’s theme would be. On this sixth, intense draft I’m going through now, I’m still working on nuance issues and connections that I wish I’d thought of in earlier drafts. Would outlining have helped with that? I don’t know.

After reading every draft, I make notes along the way, which probably sounds familiar to you authors out there. The further into the edits I get, the more I need to check my notes, which is what happened this week. To ramp up the excitement, I introduced another element, which forced me to go back five chapters and rewrite the scene, which created a domino effect for most of the remaining chapters. Despite going back, I’m still moving forward with my improvements, so that’s a good thing. I just wish I’d been a little faster at picking up on the nuances and connections. Thank goodness I’m not writing to deadline or I’d be really hooped.

When I was writing essays and articles twenty years ago, outlining key points was essential, as was giving careful thought to the message I wanted to convey. If I return to nonfiction, outlining will be essential. Should I get around to writing a second fantasy, there will definitely be more outlining but who knows how much?

There are a number of online quizzes to help you determine if you’re a pantser or a plotter, but really the best way to decide is to try both. So, I’m curious about my author friends out there, which method do you use, or have you got a completely different method?

Author: debrapurdykong

I'm a British Columbia author who's been writing for over 30 years. My volunteer experiences, criminology diploma, and various jobs, inspired me to write mysteries set in BC’s Lower Mainland. Employment as a campus security patrol and communications officer provide the background for my my Casey Holland transit security novels. I'm also a part-time facilitator in Creative Writing Workshops through Port Moody's Recreation program. Feel free to contact me at dpurdykong@gmail.com

17 thoughts on “Exploring Pantser and Plotting Approaches to Fiction”

  1. The one and only time I wrote a novel, I tried to outline beyond the first few chapters. But the characters took over, and I let them and wrote the rest as a pantser.
    My nonfiction books were always outlined in detail from start to finish.
    However, for both, I used Reverse Outlining after the first draft to discover gaps and inconsistencies. This is the method taught by Lois Peterson and saved me from many an oversight.

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      1. Another thought: I do figure out my theme and throughlines at the beginning and stick to them closely. SOmetimes it takes a while.
        Also, I use throughlines, three of them, for all my articles.

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    1. Thanks, but it’s been a long haul. On the upside, I have a much better story that I originally conceived. It’s always fascinating when your writing takes you to a place that you never imagined.

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  2. I admire those who can outline and plan a novel. I am a card-carrying pantser. Every time I try to outline a book I lose interest in it. It just doesn´t work for me. I do mind maps though. They get very messy at the end but that is how my mind works. Towards the end, about 3/4 way through I roughly outline the end to be sure I don´t miss anything. I do a lot of revision and think that if I had outlined I wouldn´t have to do so much revising. But maybe I would anyway. I guess whatever works for each writer.

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  3. I do a lot of thinking, often for years. On my walks I have dialogs in my head with the main characters, but I never do an outline. Then comes research on the time and the setting that gives me more inspiration. Like Julie, I find my characters take over the plot. I always know how the story will end so that I have a vague idea of where I’m headed, but with two of my manuscripts, I finished several edits and then changed the endings! For me, too much planning before hand would stifle my creativity. However, with my Uganda story, I needed a time line of political events and jotted down when each character was born. You may remember that a big family was at the centre of the tale and I constantly referred to that timeline to remember the ages of the children as time went on in the story. I would feel daunted by all the planning you appear to have done, but I believe with mysteries, it is important to plan out when to reveal clues. It brings to mind the Netflix series — Black. The mystery was rather simple, but the way the plot was revealed was the key to that compelling series.

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    1. Very interesting, Mallee. I attended a Creative Academy discussion yesterday, where someone mentioned that novel writing is about 14% thinking and plotting, 1% writing, and 85% editing. This sounds about right for me, but it sounds like you do a lot of pre-writing thinking, which is great! Walking and housework, oddly enough, always help me rethink a plot point or come up with new ideas. 🙂

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  4. I think because outlining can pinpoint our story weaknesses, it is both necessary and a muse-killer. Like you, I also think the best approach is a mix of the two – because in honesty, many of my own orphans have been created by coming face-to-face with absolute story mechanics colliding with that seductive primrose path of organic writing (always kissing cousins)… Both techniques need each other. The more interesting question to me is which technique comes first!

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    1. Ah, yes. Would it be correct to say that you do a fair bit of outlining before you begin your essays on horror writing? Clearly, you put a lot of thought into your work and must have a means of organizing your thoughts.

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