If you’re a writer, you are probably familiar with the concept of a “plotter vs. panster.” Plotters are writers who have prepared outlines and synopses of their stories and know exactly what is going to happen in their books before they start writing the actual text. Pansters are writers who fly by the seat of their pants, not knowing what is coming next until they write the words.
I have to be honest and say that I find true plotters a bit scary. I met an author at a writer’s conference who shared with his audience the glory of the outline. He made index cards of each scene in his books and then wrote them, not in chronological order, but in the order that was most fun. Dramatic scenes first, love scenes second, and so on until he was down to the boring, “transitional” scenes. Once he was done, he put the scenes in chronological order, did one last edit for continuity, and he was done. I left that session believing I would never write a book.
I tried the outline/plotting process, I really did. I ended up with a reasonable proximity of a book with relatively flat characters and a stiff plot. My editor told me she usually tells writers to tighten their stories. With me, she said, I needed to let it breathe a little more. There was one character, though, who really shone and I didn’t realize until later that she was actually the main character of my book. If I hadn’t been so attached to my outline, I would have put her in the starring role and had a better book.
Still, all was not lost. I learned that I could write a beginning, middle and an end, which I realized was difficult for many people in the writing group I was in at the time. There were several great writers who would stop writing their books, usually when they got stuck or bored, then take off on a new, more exciting project. So, my first book was a “win” in that I learned I could carry a plot from beginning to end.
The next thing I learned was to trust instincts and to write the way that works for me. My second book is my first published novel and I took an entirely different approach in creating it. First, I did all the necessary research so I had my time (1927) and place (Chicago, Illinois and St. Joseph, Michigan) firmly in my head. After I had my when and where, I developed the general concept of the story and the primary characters. I learned that I work best if I have a beginning, a few middle points and an idea for the end for my story. The journey between those points is where my creativity flowed.
I also learned that my main character was (and still is) a lot smarter than I am. Despite my panster tendencies, I knew certain clues and red herrings needed to be inserted into the plot. I kept a list of them near my computer. I found that when I tried to force a clue into place I had all the subtly of a neon arrow pointing at it and saying, “Clue Here.” When I let my protagonist go his own way, I found that I could stop every few chapters and cross off clues that had slid into my writing more cleverly and smoothly than I could have consciously managed.
Then there were the little throw-away lines I used to define a minor character or round out a conversation that later became unexpectedly important to a plot point or twist. My characters knew what to do even if I didn’t. The only thing I had to say no to was when my protagonist, Cabel Evans, really wanted to have sex with the female manager of a speakeasy. I wrote the scenes, and they were good, but he needed to take the high road to maintain his integrity even if his lower road had different ideas.
I have come to accept my panster essence, knowing that I have a few plotter characteristics as well. I need to know my setting and overall concept as well as a few milestones to keep my story moving in the right direction. However, I can’t work from the tight confines of an outline. For me story telling works best if I can discover my fictional world as part of the writing journey.
Question for the writers out there – are you a plotter, a panster, or a little bit of both?
Learn more about me at: www.erinfarwell.com