I Am a Recovering Plot Pantser–There, I Said it

Jordan Dane


On Monday, guest Steven James had an excellent post on “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.” I loved reading his thoughts on trusting the fluidity of the process and chasing after rabbit trails. I can relate to this as a writer. On Tues, our esteemed TKZ contributor, P. J. Parrish, expressed an argument in favor of more structure in her subtle post, “Sometimes You Gotta Suck It Up & Write The Darn Outline” in which she wrote about her love/hate relationship with outlining. These arguments got me thinking about my own process that has evolved over the years.

I started out as a total “pantser,” meaning I came up with a vague notion of characters or a story idea, then started writing to see where it would go. In general, I found this to be liberating and it unleashed my inner story teller, but I found (over time) that I ran out of gas about half way through and hit a wall. I always finished the project. I believe it’s important to finish what you start, if for no other reason than to learn how to get out of tight corners. There’s a true feeling of accomplishment to salvage a story that seemed to be headed for a dead end, and through practice, I learned what pitfalls to avoid. But as a writer under contract, I realized it would be a better use of my time to do some advance thinking on structure, rather than hoisting a shovel to shore up plot holes.

So I found a hybrid method that satisfied my “pantser” free spirit yet provided enough structure to serve as a guidepost – my lighthouse in the fog. I posted a more detailed presentation on TKZ HERE, but I wanted to highlight what this method does for me now.

SAWG YA Presentation - 3-Act Screenplay Structure Diagram 091612

NOTE: A word of caution on any detailed plotting method: A plot structure can become rigid and restrictive if it inhibits the author’s exploration into a new plot twist or character motivation. As Steven James said, some rabbit trails should be explored. For me, this is the fun of storytelling – to uncover a hidden gem of creativity.

When I’m first developing an idea, I break it down into turning points (the 3-Act Screenplay Structure “W”) to get a general notion on structure. It helps me simplify the plotting/outline method into 5 turning points (the W). I can handle 5 things. I use this to write proposals and brainstorm with my crit group for their plots or mine. Rather than getting bogged down by character backstory or other details, I focus on “big ticket” plot movements to provide some substance.

The transition scenes between the turning points are still a mystery that can be explored, but in a synopsis, I can provide enough “meat to the bone” for an editor to get the idea and pair it up with a multi-chapter writing sample. Once I start writing the rest of the book, I can still explore rabbit holes and surprise character motivation twists to embellish the framework I’ve started with. I get my proposal out to my agent (with writing sample, synopsis and pitch) and keep working on current material. While I’m waiting to hear on a sale, I can set the material aside because I have a synopsis to act as a guidepost when I can get back to it. This method has also helped me plot out a whole series, to build onto the storylines (over a series of novels) and ramp up the stakes.

Focusing on turning points from the beginning (before I commit to the writing) has inspired me to spin major plot twists and “play with” the options I should consider. I can reach for complete 180 spins in a “what if” way. As an example of 180 degree turns, I’ve been inspired by the TV show CSI Vegas this season. Many of the episodes are so well written, they make a 180 turn at every commercial break and hit their marks with great twists. I’ve enjoyed this season so much that I record and go back over the plot by taking notes, to see how the writers developed the story. That’s what really good turning points can do for a book/TV show. They pull the reader/viewer into the story and challenge them to figure out where the plot is going. Who dunnit?

So I’m a reformed pantser who has found a way to keep a sense of free spirit, yet write with a framework when I’m ready to go. I feel more efficient, but I still have the flexibility to explore rabbit trails and trust my natural story telling ability.

I’d like to hear from you: How do you handle rabbit trails? Do you put all the work up front in the form of a detailed outline, or do you prefer a lighter touch to “discover” something as you write? Are you a hybrid plotter/outliner too?

33 thoughts on “I Am a Recovering Plot Pantser–There, I Said it

  1. For my first novel I wrote a fairly detailed outline. Then, at least once a week, I revised it, sometimes making changes based on the writing that radically altered the story. (“Wait a second! *HE’S* been the bad guy all along? I thought he was comic relief!”) It’s good to *have* an outline, just remember that the outline serves the story, not the other way around.

    • Hi John. Good morning. Ha! “Discovering” the bad guy through your outline…sure, why not? I liked what you said about the outline serving the story. Thank you.

  2. Nicely done, Jordan. This kind of approach to structure is flexible in the best way, toward a story that works. I think of structural moments as “sign posts” with lots of free driving in between. Asimov said the same thing. He knew where he was going, but had the fun of finding out how to get there.

    And you can always change the content of the sign posts, but if you understand structure you know what, in concept, it ought to do.

    Fun post. I meet many “reformed pantsers” in my workshops.

    • Thanks, Jim. I love your sign post analogy with “free driving” in between. I’m picturing wind blowing through my hair and I’m in a red convertible.

    • James,
      Have you run across reformed outliners? ie folks who were pretty orthodox about detailed outlined but loosened up? I have yet to meet one!

    • I may have met one or two, but they are like the man who strayed from a loving wife, only to find out his mistress deceived him and temporary pleasures did not measure up to stable love at home. They came back, begging for forgiveness.

    • I noticed how this was beautifully symmetrical with your pyramid.

      Yep, reading another of your books. You speak my language.

  3. Jordan, helpful way of looking at it. Just moments before reading your post I told my wife I had to think a bit because I’d “written myself into a corner” with my current work-in-progress. Your approach might have kept me out of that trap. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Filling in the Turning Points “W” is fun to focus on during brainstorming sessions with your crit group or someone else, like your wife.

      Once you ARE in that corner, I find that talking it out aloud with anyone helps free up your mind to the solution because no one knows your story as well as you do. Good luck.

  4. Jordan, I think your method is a good guideline for writers who are struggling with this “should I?” or “shouldn’t I?” thing. I have found myself moving more toward this model later in my career. But oddly, there are still those occasional books that seem to write themselves…no outline needed!

  5. Great post, Jordan! I like how you’ve developed an approach that takes the best from both “camps” and keeps you moving forward to meet your deadlines!

  6. I was curious. I noticed something called First Page Critque Thursday. Any idea when TKZ will be doing it again?

    • It’s once a month on Thursday, and we’re always looking for new submissions. They’re run anonymously, so no one should feel shy about submitting. Thanks, Wren!

    • Awesome. I have a short story I am trying to finish so I can say I did it. I finished something. I’d be curious to see if reading the first page made those critiquing it demand the rest.

      And if it didn’t, I’d want to know how I could. That’s what I want. The demand to find out what happened.

  7. Glad you asked about our TKZ First Page critiques, Wren. We turned it into a year long thing, but only recently ran out of submissions. If you, or anyone else, would like to submit, please do so anytime. I’ll mention your interest to Kathryn. She’d talked about posting another call. Thanks for asking.

  8. Organization is a must.

    The following is what can ensue if you start a story, without a plan.

    My friend and fellow audiobook narrator Al Kessel recently asked for some advice on clearing up a stuffy sinus. So I asked my Leprechaun buddies their opinions of what they would put up their nose to help with sinus issues.

    Big mistake.

    Boffin suggested tea. Gnilli suggested vinegar. Fillii suggested wasabi. Berthold said they should experiment with each. So we went to the kitchen and they did.

    Boffin tried the tea and we all laughed hysterically when his eyes turned green. Then Gnilli tried the vinegar which was pretty neutral he said, until it hit a spot he’d scratched while mining for booger nuggets that morning and a burn set in that made him prance around pouring tea in to stop the vinegar. Next came Fillii’s turn with the wasabi. The green paste was too thick so they watered it down with the remaining tea and vinegar then poured it in.

    I have never actually seen sound before without the presence of copious amounts of alternative chemical consciousness enhancers, until now. Fillii let out a scream the likes of which the human mind cannot describe. Even the fish in the fishtank and the turtle in his little pond froze and stared and their little mouths worked saying, “Ow, ow, ow.”

    Once it was over, about thirty minutes later, Fillii picked himself off the ground and wiped the tears from his eyes. He took a deep breath and proclaimed, “Hey that worked right nicely, boyo! Perfect actually!
    The combination tasted almost just like Grandda’s homemade whiskey!”

    Then Berthold said, “Hey we have a couple bottles left down stairs.”

    Gnilli ran into the crawl space, down to their flat beneath my house, and returned carrying two bottles with yellowed hand written labels. “Grandda’s Speshull Medsin – 1938”.

    He popped the cork on one and started to tip it up. Berthold stopped him.

    “This is all we have left of old Grandda. We don’t wanna waste it. Lets rig up a line from one of us to the next and just share a single dose experience between us.”

    “Very smart little brother,” said Fillii. He went to the garage and came back with a long clear rubber hose which he then cut into eight three foot sections. “We’ll have to pile up on each other to do it to make sure it carries from brother to brother and the kitchen isn’t high enough.”

    They moved to the living room where the four of them climbed onto each other’s shoulders until they stood in a twelve-foot stack beneath the fifteen-foot cathedral ceiling. A shadowy sense of doom crept into my mind as I watched them attached the hoses into a nasal daisy chain starting at Filli’s left nostril, out his right nostril and likewise to each of the brothers down to the last leprechaun at the bottom, Berthold.

    They gave each other the thumb’s up, eyes wide with anticipation. Fillii poured. The golden liquor gurgled into his nose, swirled around his sinus and then ran at full speed down the out tube and into Gnilli’s nose.

    This is where things went wrong(er).

    • The booger Gnillii had been mining for earlier dislodged. He let out a choked sound as it entered the out tube from his right nostril and jammed half way between him and Boffin.

      “Flush it down! Pour more medsin in Fillii!” he shouted. With the tubes in his nostrils it sounded more like “Bush ib dowd! Bor bor bedsid id piddy!”

      Fillii apparently understood and tipped the rest of the bottle’s contents into his nose. The massive flood into Fillii’s nose freed a large green slimy thing that looked very much like a giant tadpole. That slid under pressure down the hose and through Gnillii’s nose where it picked up a family of very small mice who’d escaped the earlier deluge and continued on the journey until it all hit the booger, breaking it free, and firing the mass into Boffin’s nose. Boffin’s still green eyes burst wide at the sudden intrusion of his brother’s booger, his other brother’s loogie, and a family of very small mice clinging to the back of his eyeballs for dear life.

      Everything stuck in place until Boffin sneezed sending the whole batch straight out his nose and into poor Berthold who was looking up expectantly, as yet unaware of his fate. As the last drops of whiskey ran through Fillii’s now very clean sinus and down the tube the mass at the other end shot into Berthold’s nostril, immediately packing in a sticky, slimy, boogery, squeaky mass that plugged the back of his throat and set him off to choking.

      As Berthold’s face turned blue, the effects of the 66 year old very high proof whiskey hit Fillii’s brain like a velvet wrapped freight train. And he dropped like a sack of potatoes straight down onto Gnillii’s head, which was similarly befuddled. The pair collapsed onto Boffin, who made a squeak sound like a drunken bathtub duckie and they all collapsed into heap of very inebriated Leprechaun flesh onto their youngest brother Berthold, who was choking on their collected bodily fluids and various solid and semi-solid objects.

      The impact of his three elder brothers landing on him that way provided an involuntary Heimlich maneuver to Berthold. The mass of goo flew out of his right nostril with a sonic boom and headed straight for my wife’s favourite crystal lamp which had been passed down through her family, the last remaining piece from before the Korean War. The booger bomb hit the lamp, shattering it into a million pieces. The whiskey, snot, and everything, including what looked like one of my youngest son’s Lego men, is now spread across my living room soaking into my carpet, and there is a family of very small very drunk mice hiding under my couch, and my wife will be home in two hours.

      So, Mr. Kessel.

      There you have it. Neti Pot good. Distilled water good.
      Tea, Vinegar, Wasabi, and/or whiskey bad.

  9. JD, I’m still working on that “finish what you start” business. I’m sure there’s a happy medium out there between PantsLand and OutLand. Finding that blissful place has turned into a slog for me, but an interesting one: blogging, networking, WordPress learning and website building—and just fixating on book marketing schemes. Has anyone tried free T-shirt deals? Or hats, even? Starting into this business at this point in my life is just marvelous. The creative/arty part is amazing. What’s surprises me is that the business aspect is getting quite intriguing, too. And there are so many ways to reach into the bookosphere for readers and writing resources.

    May the Force be with y’all.

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