Tuesday, April 2

A Pantser Turned Plotter

A Pantser Turned Plotter

Writer Unboxed is one of my favorite blogs, and with good reason. Not only does Therese Walsh, co-founder of the blog, write about issues every writer--whether amateur, part-time or pro--wrestles with, she does it in a way that lets her clear, fluid, writing style shine through.


Therese, a died-in-the-wool pantser, decided to try her hand at plotting her next novel.

Pantser Turned Plotter ... Temporarily.

Therese writes:
Though some pantsers shun plotting, saying the story will end up stale and formulaic if it’s planned out ahead of time, I’ve seen plotters work through outlines and synopses, use Scrivener and the like, and end up with beautiful works of fiction that read as organic and authentic.

So I decided.

I’d control the second book. I’d make the characters do what I told them to do. (Notes From a Desk (2): Respecting Your Process)
Good luck with that! Whenever I try and tell characters what to do they laugh condescendingly at me and go on their merry way, wreaking havoc with my outline.

As you can guess, it didn't work out.

For me, and perhaps I'm a weird hybrid of plotter and pantser, just because I start writing with an outline doesn't mean I'll follow it!

I know that sounds wonky, why create an outline if you don't intend to follow it?

I think Mary Robinette Kowal said it best in her workshop at last years Surrey International Writers' Conference: Use your outline like a road map.

If you decide to take a road trip from Tallahassee Florida to Sacramento California--you plotted your route the night before--you can still change your mind along the way ('Oh, look! The world's largest ball of string. Only 50 miles that-a-way.') and make detours. Of course it'll cost you something. More time, more gas.

You can even change your destination, but that would change a lot of other things on the map as well and the cost would be greater. But you can do it. All a road map does is show you, at any moment in time, where you want to go and where you've been. That's it. Whether you follow it is entirely up to you and your muse.

Ray Bradbury: It's important to get out of your own way.

For some writers getting out of one's way means plotting the story in advance, while for others it means pantsing it all the way through.

Just as no two stories--and no two structures!--are exactly the same, so each writer is different.

How do you know what kind of writer you are? This is a question I had for a long time. I tried various things, read books about structure, and then, somehow, somewhere between wrenching words out of my gut and thinking about plot structure, the way I wrote slowly came together.

But it took years, and I don't think the process will ever be finished. Well, except when I'm dead! But until then it'll be in flux, evolving, the only constant being that I must write.

Well, that, and writing should be fun. At the end of the day, if you're not occasionally having fun there are other, probably more lucrative, ways to make a living.
Which are you, a plotter or a pantser? Have you ever tried to mix it up and try the other way of doing things? Any of you plotters decided to chuck the cork board, shred the index cards, and just write, destination unknown? Have any of you pantsers decided to do what Therese Walsh did and meticulously plot out your novel? How'd it turn out?

Other articles you might like:

- Is Writing Your Brightest Fire? Guest Post By Max W. Miller
- 6 Ways To Write Every Day
- How To Write A Great Opening For Your Story

Photo credit: "Stop For a Minute" by MSVG under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. I'm definitely a plotter first, pantser when I write. I sit down with research and notes similar to what I think you do, and then take detours when I can. As I write, I tend to move chapters around, reimagine plot points, and at times introduce new threads and characters because something felt "missing" while I was writing.

    I think ultimately, the road map was a great analogy: I prefer to know where I'm going and having an approximate path helps me get there faster and with less issues.

    I find out, through editing and feedback, that my books are less cluttered and more coherent when I plan first and work with an (fairly detailed) outline. I digress though. I think it helps keep the spontaneity that keeps things organic.

    Maybe I'm thinking about this too much, but in On Writing, Stephen King suggests that writing a story is like uncovering a fossil; each dig allows you to identify more of the story. I think my version of an outline is like taking an X-ray of the spot before I start digging. :)

    1. "I'm definitely a plotter first, pantser when I write."

      That's a great way of expressing it.

      "I think my version of an outline is like taking an X-ray of the spot before I start digging."

      I never thought of it like that before, but that's perfect!

      Thanks for your comment, David!

  2. Hi, Karen. Thanks for the follow on Twitter. I'm a hybrid. Outlining squelched my creativity. Pantsing drove me into strange plot corners. So now I write a super long outline that has dialogue and some fleshed out scenes with "and then this happened" in between. So I can get the inspired parts out and still have A PLAN.

    1. Hi J.B., you're most welcome :) I'm looking forward to reading your tweets.

      By the way, love your outlining method! It reminds me a bit of what Kim Harrison does.

    2. I'll have to look into Kim Harrison. I landed on this method because it's the only thing that worked, but it's nice to know I'm not the only one!

    3. Just in case you're interested, I included a few links to Kim Harrison's posts on her writing process here:


  3. I'm a pantser, for sure. I never really know where my characters will end up or where a story will take me. But I've found myself in "strange plot corners" as J.B. Mills mentions above and am sitting down now trying to dig my way out of them. It's tedious but I guess it has to be done!

    1. Best of luck!

      I don't know if it helps, and you probably already know this, but I read somewhere--probably his book "On Writing"--that Stephen King (a pantser) was stuck for more than a month trying to puzzle something out. He did it though, and that book went on to be one of his most popular: The Stand.


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