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?