Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you outline before you sit down to write your novel, or do you sit down at the computer each day, waiting to be surprised, writing your book literally by the seat of your pants? Or are you a combination of the two?
Most authors will identify themselves as either a plotter or a pantser. Suspense author J.A. Jance said in a newspaper interview ‘I don’t plan. I don’t outline. I have hated outlines since sixth grade geography and I cant do Roman numerals,” she says with a laugh. In literature and life, she is her own first audience, and ‘premeditation . . . it kills the suspense. I just like to see where the story goes.”
Romance author Jane Graves, who identifies herself as ‘a bigtime pantser’ says ‘I’m cursed with not being able to see the good twists and turns of character and plot until I’m in the middle of writing the book. I can have a sense where it’s going, but absolutely nothing comes alive until the words start going down on the page. That’s when I start having revelations and seeing things I never saw at the synopsis level. For me, it’s kind of like remembering the words to an old song. If you ask me the words, I can’t tell you. But if the song comes on the radio and I’m in the middle of listening to it, I can tell you what comes next.’
Nora Roberts says she never knows where her story is going, that she sits down at the computer to find out.
Conversely, Katherine Anne Porter said ‘If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last line, my last paragraph, my last page first.’
At this point, I was going to include some more quotes from well-known authors who are plotters, but no one seemed to want to admit it. Invariably, when I asked the question on writing loops, people would mumble something about having a vague idea of where the story was headed, but sitting down with this idea and allowing their imagination to take flight.
I suspect that over the years, the idea has somehow developed that it’s more artistic or creative to approach the computer or typewriter each day relying solely on whatever gifts from the muse that may come to you.
I also suspect that more writers plan out their books than will admit it. I believe plotting has gotten a bad name over the years because people associate it with rigidity, ‘paint-by-numbers’ writing, or even those dreaded Roman numeral outlines we were all forced to do at school. So part of my goal here today is to dispel some of those misconceptions about what it means to plot a book beforehand.
I will admit that I’m a plotter. This does not mean that I know every detail and twist and turn of a story before I sit down to write. It does mean that I have an idea of my characters, the basic plot points, some kind of theme and the ending I’m working toward before I sit down to begin actually writing the book. And I do write these things down in a kind of outline or master plan for the book before I sit down to actually write the book.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser may largely depend on your temperament, the way ideas come from you, and your general disposition. The seat of the pants authors I talked with in preparing this workshop for the most part swore they could not write any other way. Personally, the few times I’ve tried to write a whole book by the seat of my pants, I ended up with a hopeless plot tangle that I had to abandon.
So I’m going to start off by telling you the advantages I’ve found by outlining, then I’ll share some of the things the pantser authors I talked with had to say. Then we’re going to talk about some ways you can use all this information to your benefit, regardless of your personal style.
1. An outline forces you to focus.
You’ve dreamed up these wonderful characters, put them in an exciting setting, and given them all sorts of wonderful things to do. You’re so excited you can’t wait to get started with your story. Writing a outline forces you to take a step back and narrow your vision. Just what is this story you’re going to tell? What is the conflict between the characters? How will they resolve the conflict? How will they grow and change along the way? Your ideas about these things may very well change in the course of writing the story, but the outline forces you to think about them early on.
2. An outline fights fear.
Writing a book is a daunting task. How will you ever produce 200, 300, 400 or more pages? Will you really ever type “the end?” A outline serves as your roadmap, a reassurance that you do, indeed, have a goal in mind. The outline can help keep you on tract, and point you toward “the end” and your completed manuscript.
3. An outline helps you balance.
A outline, being an overview of your story, helps you determine if you have the right balance of elements in your story. Is there enough romance in your romance? Do historical events overwhelm your hero and heroine’s relationship in your historical? Is your mystery really a mystery?
4. An outline helps you plot.
To write an outline you have to know what happens in the beginning, middle and end of your book. The particulars of those events may change in the course of writing the book, but the outline gives you the framework of your plot. Knowing the ending helps you ‘aim’ the story in that direction. Writing the outline also plants that ending, your goal, if you will, in your subconscious mind, so that as you work on your story, your subconscious is always coming up with new and better ways to push your characters toward their black moment and eventual triumph.
5. An outline prevents sagging middles.
Write an outline and you will find out right away if you have enough going on to sustain the middle third of your book. If your middle stretches like an empty road between the beginning and end of your story, the outline gives you an opportunity to brainstorm complications and events to make that middle an interesting, important part of your book. You could do the same thing as you write, but having the outline already laid out helps keep writer’s block at bay.
6. An outline helps you write faster and be more productive.
If I have an idea what needs to happen in a chapter, when I sit down to write I don’t have to waste a lot of time with false starts and stalls. I have my goal in mind and as soon as I sit down to write, I’m on my way there.
Outlines are as varied as the authors who write them. For the most part, we are not talking Roman numerals and capital letters, the way you outlined in school. I use my synopsis as an outline. The synopsis is a narrative overview of the story that is required by many publishers.
Other authors write a summary of each chapter or each scene ‘ they’ll list the POV character, what action takes place in that scene or chapter, even what they’re trying to accomplish in this scene or chapter.
When I’m preparing to write my outline or synopsis, I sit down with a stack of index cards. On each card, I’ll write one thing I believe will happen in the book. It might be one sentence: Janet learns her father was involved in a scandal. It might be the description of a scene ‘ for instance, the hero and heroine meet at a train station. I will sit there with index cards and write anything that pops into my head.
When I have the cards all written, I’ll start sorting them into the order I think these things should happen. Once I’ve done this, I’ll lay them out where I can see them and read through them. This helps me spot any holes in the plot, time gaps, etc, that need to be filled in. I’ll see places where there isn’t enough action, or places where I need to show why something happened, or how it came about. So I’ll write cards for them too.
When the whole thing is done, I’ll use the cards as the bones of my outline. I’ll write it all up in a narrative form, filling in any new gaps I see and make sure everything flows smoothly. This is the synopsis I use to sell and also the roadmap that will take me through writing the book. Now mind you, some part of this synopsis, or outline, aren’t detailed at all. I might have a phrase ‘The heroine confronts her father about his lies.’ When I’m writing the book I have to figure out where she confronted him, how she confronted him, what was said, the results of the confrontation, what triggers the confrontation, etc, etc. Outlining gives you a framework upon which you can hang your story. You still have to write the story itself.
An outline can be as detailed or as sketchy as you want or feel you need. Some people get very detailed, going so far as to outline each and every scene. I tend to try to hit the high points ‘ I’ll outline all the major scenes/turning points. If I think of them, I’ll have a paragraph or two for each subplot. Each book is different and each outline may be different. The important thing is to do what works for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different approaches until you find the right one for you.
No matter how detailed the outline, though, it can’t possibly cover everything that happens in the course of a 400 page book, so even if you outline your book ahead of time, there’s lots of new stuff to cover along the way.
The outline doesn’t show all the emotion, character reactions ‘ how the scene feels ‘ that you discover in actually writing a particular scene. An outline tends to focus on plot ‘ what happens. But how it happens, why it happens, the people it happens to, and the effect the action has on those people is just as important ‘ and in some cases MORE important, than the plot itself. If you forget that, what you can end up with is a technically competent, well-plotted story that leaves the reader (and editors) cold.
That said, one of the disadvantages of plotting the book before you write it is that you may come to feel that you must stick to your outline, no matter what. So it can be confining. I think to be a successful plotter, you have to be open to new ideas and situations that may take your story in a new direction in the course of writing the book. Even if you’ve sold a book based on an outline, never be afraid to change the story if you discover in the course of writing it that it needs changing.
I think you have to be careful when you’re first outlining the book that you don’t opt for the easy solution. Don’t always put down the first thing that comes to mind. Really think about your plot points and situations. Use your creativity. Ask yourself if what you’re putting down is really original, or if you could do better. Because an outline is a short summary of the book, there’s a temptation to do a ‘quick and dirty’ job of it just to get it over with.
If you’re going to outline your story beforehand, take the time to do a good job. This pre-writing phase is very important, so give it the attention it deserves.
What about seat of the pants writers? What kind of planning ‘ if any ‘ do they do before sitting down to write? In the most extreme cases, a ‘fly into the mist’ sort of author would know almost nothing when they sat down to write. They would face the blank computer screen, turn on their imagination, and surprise themselves.
But in talking with a lot of different writers, one thing I’ve learned is that even avowed seat of the pants writers do some prep work before beginning their story.
Often, they’ll focus on their main character or characters. They may do journaling or character sketches or character interviews, or they may just spend some time daydreaming about their character, getting to know this person, as it were. When they sit down to write, then, they allow the character to lead them in the direction the story should go.
Or maybe they start with an idea ‘ a conflict, or an inciting incident ‘ the thing that triggers the action of the story. Or a theme they want to explore. They might start with the ending and have to try to figure out how to get there.
But again, they may not have much more than these ideas or characters when they begin to write. For true seat of the pants writers, the adventure for them is discovering their story along the way. True seat of the pantsers feel confined by outlining. They just want to write ‘ they don’t want to do a lot of work beforehand.
This also means they’re willing to put up with more false starts. There’s a danger of writing yourself into a hole. A couple of seat of the pants writers I spoke with admitted they often have to do a lot more re-writing.
Maybe the answer is that it takes just as much work to write a book whether you are a plotter or a seat of the pants writer. As Jane Graves said, ‘Obviously some people who plan their stories very carefully see the new, fresh and exciting stuff up front and then just proceed to write it down.’
By now you’ve probably identified yourself as either a plotter or a pantser. Whichever approach works for you, I’m convinced you can learn from writers who take a different approach.
If you’re a plotter, try flying by the seat of your pants. Maybe not for a whole book. But every once in a while, for a chapter or maybe only a scene, toss out your outline and sit down at the computer with no expectations. Ask your characters to tell you what they’re going to do next.
I think you’ll find it a slightly frightening, and exhilarating. You may end up writing like this more often. Even as a plotter, I do this. There are always places in the story where I’m not sure what happens next. Or maybe I’ve written the scene my way, but it doesn’t feel right. Then I’ll write by the seat of my pants to get through that spot.
If you’re a pantser, try plotting out a chapter, then writing it. See if it helps you write more quickly or more easily. Experiment. See if thinking about your book as a whole at the beginning of the process helps shorten the rewriting phase.
Writers, being creative individuals, develop individual styles of approaching their craft. Some people set out on the journey without a really clear course in mind, while others are stalled if they don’t have a map. There’s no one way that’s right or wrong. The important thing is to write the book. It doesn’t really matter how you get there. But don’t be afraid to experiment with writing methods as a way to challenge yourself and keep your creativity fresh.