A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers, and Everyone in Between


The philosopher Groucho Marx once said, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
True that, but inside of your WIP, in the very center, dwells not the darkness but the light.
I’ve been studying, thinking about, practicing and (eventually) teaching the craft of fiction since that day in 1988 when I decided to become a writer. I love popping the hood, taking apart the engine, looking at all the moving parts. I love hanging with other writers and talking about the craft.
My bookshelves are stuffed with craft books. I have five big binders of old Writer’s Digestmagazines, underlined and indexed. There’s not an approach on “how to write” that I haven’t come across at one time or another.
I’ve written novels using all three main systems: plotting (with a comprehensive outline), pantsing (just start and go!), and tweening (a mix of each).
I’ve written by knowing the beginning (and that’s all), and by starting at the end (and working backward). Usually, it’s been a combination.
Every writer has a favorite approach, of course. And you’ll hear passionate arguments for them. No sooner has someone extolled the value of outlines than a rebellious soul starts beating the drum for knowing nothing at all!
Well, I’m pleased to tell you, people of Earth, that I come in peace. In fact, I believe I have come up with a unique method of approach that will please all sides of the great debate.
That method is to write your novel from the middle.
That’s what I said. Stay with me.
Let me go back to a post I did some time ago. I discovered that the true “midpoint” of a great novel or film is not a scene, but a moment within a scene. I call it the “mirror moment.” So powerful did this idea seem that I began to explore it as the foundation for all my full-length fiction. I then developed a method to get the most out of it. Not only that, I found that this approach is one that can be used by plotters, pantsers and ‘tweeners. It can be used at the very start, or at any step along the way.
You can use it as the basis of an outline, or you can pants your way along for ten thousand words and then let it guide you to an organic and powerful plot.
I started teaching this in my workshops, with wonderful results. Which is why I had to write a book about it.
Within this book I explain how to take the mirror moment and apply what I call The Golden Triangle, which looks like this:
The Golden Triangle will help any author find the unique and dynamic heart of their novel. In fact, just thinking about The Golden Triangle will mine riches hidden in your narrative. It will reveal, like the sun shining through the clouds, the real story you’re trying to tell––even if you don’t realize it.                                                                                             
The book can be found here:
My philosophy of study for 25 years has been that any writing book is worth it if I can find even one thing that helps me. That’s why I have so many books on the subject, and continue to read Writer’s Digest every month.
And that’s my pledge regarding this book. You will find something that helps you.
We’ve had books on outlining and books on writing without a net.
We’ve had books on knowing your beginning, and books on knowing your ending.
But this is the first one that counsels: Write your novel from the middle!
Thank you for this infomercial time, Zoners, and for your very gracious support.

So…do you consider yourself a plotter, a pantser, or a tweener? What particular challenges have you found with your approach? 

45 thoughts on “A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers, and Everyone in Between

  1. OMG! I feel another craft junkie post coming on. Will have to write one this week. I’m an organic writer who isn’t yet satisfied with my approach. So I’ve downloaded this craft book to my Kindle and will dig in soon. You really do know how to think out of the box, Jim. The middle! That makes me feel like a story-seeking contortionist, but I’ll try anything. Thanks for this. I’ll let you know how it goes if I can only get that one thought looped around that thread that’s running back toward the beginning of the book. πŸ™‚ After all, it is 1:30ish am.

  2. I’m an extreme pantser, meaning that I can’t use outlines at all. The biggest challenge for me has nothing to do with structure or plot or characters. I’m a natural talent at that. If trust the story and ignore all the myriad of writing advice out there, those will work. The challenge for me is that when I do trust the process, those elements overpower the setting so that I don’t get enough of it into the story for the specific genre requirements — if I get it in at all.

    • Interesting, Linda. I’ve not heard it put quite that way, “overpower the setting.” But the mirror moment can help even an “extreme pantser” keep the right balance. That’s what’s cool about it.

  3. I love all your work, Jim, you know that, but this really, really resonated right off with me. I am plotting a book right now. I am a reformed panster, but still cannot wear the plotter jacket comfortably yet, so……this soundds wonderful!! I am on my way to Amazon to check this out. Thank you!!

    • Thanks, Colleen. I love that word, “resonated.” That’s how I felt when I first came up with this idea. It just resonated, made perfect sense. In practice, it has proved, its power to me.

      Thanks for checking it out!

  4. I had an epiphany moment while I was reading your post and immediately downloaded your book to my Kindle. I write detailed outlines for my novels, but usually get stuck in the middle. In my current novel, the protagonist is supposed to kill someone who stole something vital to his survival, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I put the manuscript aside and came back to it a few months later with a fresh slate. So from the middle of the novel, the main character has a Mirror Moment and changes his mind about killing the thief and instead, befriends him. I think most writers concentrate on beginnings and endings and think (or hope) that the middle will fall into place. The Mirror Moment is the support beam of the novel. Without it, the characters have nowhere to go. Write Your Novel From the Middle is a book that every writer should buy.

    • Cynthia, I love epiphanies, too! And your words warm the cockles of my heart (whatever cockles are). You are experiencing the same exultation I get each time the mirror moment becomes clear.

      “Support beam” is a great metaphor. Thanks.

  5. Jim,

    Bought the book last night. Got halfway through it. I love it. I was thinking about it this morning, because I knew your blog post would be on the subject.

    I’m a Tammy Tweener who started out as Paul the Plotter. The book really resonated with me. Someone wrote (You?) that when the book ends right, and reflects all the themes (and the mirror moment), it resonates with the reader and is remembered. I thought of the analogy of tuning a piano. Middle C is in the middle. Every key must be tuned properly, but they must be in tune with each other. And when they are, you hear overtones. They resonate. Start with middle C.

    I’m looking forward to writing from the middle, from the mirror moment, from Middle C, on my next novel.

    Thanks for writing the book and sharing your wisdom with us.

    • Hey Steve, thanks for those kind words.

      Yes, Middle C on the piano. Another great metaphor. I took exactly one piano lesson in my life, and can actually find Middle C. I can also play “Mr. Frog is Full of Hops” which goes up and down from Middle C. This is relevant to exactly nothing, but I thought I’d share.

  6. I immediately recognized this as a book I needed to read when I got your e-mail Thursday night. I downloaded and am about halfway through now. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. I’ve tried both ends of the spectrum and find that I still get to that midpoint with questions. It’s as if I’ve started diggin a tunnel from both sides of a mountain without knowing whether or not they’ll meet in the middle. I attended your workshop at ACFW last year. The Man in the Mirror stuck with me more than any other concept. Now I watch for it in movies, in the novels I read, even in TV reality shows. And, of course, I’m applying it to my own work. Now I have this concept of beginning with that pivotal moment. As soon as I saw the description it was as if a locked door had been opened. I should finish it today. I cannot wait to apply more JSB wisdom to my work. Thanks for sharing this. $2.99 is a steal!

    • Ron, thanks so much. I’m very grateful this has helped you. And I share your excitement about the concept….I get pumped every time I think about it. Write on.

  7. Jim, when I received your email I snapped up a copy of Writing from the Middle for my Kindle and devoured it in a single day. Now I’m going back over it more slowly.

    Years ago I was a pantser by default, and wrote three novels and numerous short stories that way. After recognizing I didn’t have a grasp on story, I began an intensive craft study, with several classes and numerous workshops and books on fiction writing, especially yours.

    I tried being an extensive outliner, but seem happiest as a Tweener (love that descriptor!). I’ve been grappling with the midpoint idea for a couple of years, but as an external reveal. Your Look in the Mirror moment is a huge epiphany for me. It brilliantly gets at the heart of the story, and helps explain, even after getting a much better handle on story and plotting, why I still felt like I was often too close to the trees and not seeing the forest in my fiction.

    You handed me a huge insight in your latest book. The forest looks fantastic from up here.

    • Wow, Dale, that is so nice to hear. I love your writing journey, how you went into intensive craft study and came out with greater skills, and are finding your own “sweet spot.”

      I’m gratified beyond measure that my little book is providing an “epiphany.” Several folks have used that word, and I love it, because that’s what I experienced, too, when the mirror moment came up, bonked me on the head, and said, “Here I am, pal. I’ve been waiting…”

  8. I think this whole debate is silly. Writing a novel is life, pure and simple! A novel is an organic entity; it lives and grows, sometimes in spurts, sometimes requiring some haircuts. Start out with a what-if or a few of them, and write the story, watching it grow. Your muses and characters will surprise you!
    While this might sound like being a pantser, that implies the writer still enjoys come control, which hinders spontaneity. And being a plotter (summaries, outlines) just wastes time. And tweener? Isn’t that who I wrote my YA novel for? πŸ˜‰

  9. I am a total tweener. I can’t fill out the endless outlines and character studies. The characters change as they go along.

    Turns out Ethan is a foreign language savant. He needed an extreme talent to balance out Juliana’s extreme education. It also came in handy when they met the Africans.

    Small details I threw in for color, became intensely important later. Ethan jotted down a bunch of driving instructions on a napkin and jammed it in his pocket. Later, when they are stranded in the middle of nowhere making a sketchy cellphone call, she asks, “How do I tell them where we are, my laptop was destroyed?” and he pulls out the napkin. None of that was planned.

    However, I can’t just sit down and “let it flow” from some cosmic organic core. I tend more to let a constant movie run in my head, especially when I am driving. I tend to plot the first act fairly heavily to make sure I get all the characters and conflict out. I also have the end of Act II down with approximate word counts.

    I can’t wait to read this because I had been wrestling a bit on what the pivot of this book would be.

    For your amusement, the first lines:

    I always knew my law degree would come in handy. Not only was I promoted to manager of the strip club in less than a month, but it’s also how I knew Maddie Carmichael was lying to me.

    • A great opening, Terri. And I’m like you, too. First Act pretty heavily outlined. Signpost Scenes along the way. But the Mirror is the most important to me.

  10. JSB: I remember that post and it was a real flash to hear about it. That moment at the apex of the triangle is the heart of the MC and the story, I would think. And it’s the answer to my eternal question: Whaddaya gonna do?

    I outlined my WIP to death. Of course I used Mrs. Grundy’s outline method, which was largely based on looking at a story from the outside in and after the thing has been written. Once I was in the midst of everything I realized that the Mrs. G method was huey. I certainly plotted all sorts of connections between characters and their conflicts, but that wasn’t the story. I didn’t know the story. Hadn’t found the story, yet. I had a fine mess on my hands. It was like 146,000 words in a cardboard box. The words are all in there, but where is the story.

    I finally found the story and have been re-weaving the rug for months and months. Next time I will have read “From the Middle” and it will be clear sailing all the way. Thanks for your insights from under the hood.

  11. I am so pumped up about this idea!

    I got your newsletter Friday morning, downloaded the book, read the whole thing, and then gave it a five star review on Amazon. I also emailed all my friends and told them they need that book right this instant.

    It really resonated with me, since I’m a tweener that still wishes I could find my happy medium. Lots of plotting gives me a solid plot with twists, but makes the book feel stale. No plotting gives me lots of wonderful ideas that I come up with on the spot, but little structure and lots of revision.

    I’m still finding my place in between, and I’m leaning towards the signpost style outline, but that sometimes feels a little too…dull? I don’t know, having a few scenes didn’t light my fire like knowing I had excellent plot twists or the thrill of discovery.

    THIS is what I’m missing. I love how you can combine character and plot moments, I love how simple this is, yet it gives you the novel’s beating heart. It’s something to light your muse on fire. I am stoked about a project that was feeling stale just by working with the mirror moments.

    It combines the elegance of control that having an outline gives you, but leaves you with plenty of room to breathe.

    I also appreciated the extra goodies at the end of the book, especially how to incorporate the mirror moment into brainstorming your concepts. I’m also glad you included your breathing method for inspiration. Now I don’t have to go to my bookmark every time. πŸ˜€

    In short, I’m doing cartwheels. Thanks again for figuring this stuff out and sharing it with the rest of us.

    • Wow, Elizabeth! That is so kind of you. I just love it when writers do cartwheels over something I’ve been able to help with.

      Your support is greatly appreciated.

  12. Your column struck a note with me. I’ve written stories and novel-length works from just a fragment of dialogue. How would they get there, and how would the whole thing end up are things to be worked out once I have that one interesting moment. The characters often drive those questions. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts.

  13. I’m 2/3 plotter and 1/3 pantser. I’m currently plotting my second novel. I’m now taking a break to read this book. Another excuse to procrastinate, right? I downloaded it to my kindle and I’m going to read it today.

    Now, what’s this Thursday email everyone’s talking about? Where do I sign up?

  14. Got your newsletter and downloaded this book immediately! First, Writing from the middle is a great idea to find the beating heart of the story. I don’t know that I completely get it yet, but I am dong the work, by pulling apart some of my favorite books and movies. I am a plotter. I just cannot be a pantser. Makes me feel too “All over the place” If I plot, then I have the freedom to take liberty and see where the story takes me. This is an awesome book. I’ve read it over a couple of times. Thanks for this.

  15. I downloaded your book and now I’m off to discover how to get your newsletter. I’m a plotter who turns her characters loose as soon as I know kind of where they are going. And next week I start work on a new book, so I’m glad to get this! I’ll let you know if I have one of those epiphanies…

  16. JSB–
    Based on my reading of your book Plot and Structure, there is every reason to think your new book is a must-read. But I’m pretty simple-minded, and for me a key suggestion in P&S is serving me well right now. There, you showed me how to understand three-act structure, and then you recommended creating chapter summary lines. This simple, graspable template has helped me develop a kind of aerial view before getting too far along with the rough draft. It’s steering me clear of many narrative potholes. The new book can only add to such valuable lessons.

  17. Own every JSB “how-to” and I’m buying this one pronto. Signing up for your newsletter, too. Would you consider making this a PDF so I can print out a copy and bind it? Or hopefully make it available in a print version? Thanks.

  18. What a fascinating topic! Okay, so here’s a confession. I’ve never bought a book on “how to write”. Read plenty of excellent articles on the subject and purchased books on how to optimise visibility and marketing once I self-published, but never the “how to write” ones. Guess what? Your book intrigued me so much I just bought in on Kindle πŸ˜‰

  19. JSB – what a great post and just in time! Recently I reached the 80,000 word mark in my edits and realizes that I missed something vital and inserted a placeholder to go back later and fix it. Guess what it was? The Geat and Powerful Mirror! You are a genius! Thank you!!

    BTW – I’m a tweener because I just can’t figure everything out beforehand nor can I write solely by the seat of my pants. I’ve gotta have something to build on first.

  20. I’ve always been a pantser. But in my current WIP things are complex, moreso as it is a long 3-book series. Therefore I’ve had to turn to somewhat of a plotter.

    I still retain some of the pantser tendencies though.

    I guess that means I’ve gone plotty in my pants.


    kinda warm and squishy.

    My wife hates it when I get all plotty mouth like that.

  21. I’d highly recommend this method of writing. I’m a plotter who leaves enough “space” between the planning to allow myself some creative freedom – the beauty of this is once I have the novel outline, I can start writing wherever I want – if a scene halfway through the book piques my interest, I go there. It’s a great way to avoid writer’s block because your mind will always latch onto something!

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