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?


Sometimes You Gotta Suck It UpAnd Write the Darn Outline

By PJ Parrish

Before you read this, I’m going to suggest you back up one day and read Steven James’s Monday post, “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.” It’s a really good argument against outlining and I agree with almost everything Steven says.

I hate to outline. To me, it’s on par with pap smears, getting your teeth cleaned, filing taxes, and watching the Raiders play the Jets. It’s tedious, painful and feels utterly pointless. It’s not fun. It’s a major buzz-kill.

But after reading Steven’s eloquent argument, I abandoned my post-in-progress and decided I needed to respond. Because I believe – hack, hack, hack! – that sometimes you just gotta suck it up and outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

First, some context. I have published, via the traditional New York house route, fifteen books. My first book was bought as a full manuscript and that is the norm. First-timers don’t usually get in the door without a finished book. But for my next book (in a two-book contract), I had give my editor a full outline. This was because I had not yet established my reputation and they needed assurance I wasn’t a one-trick pony. So I did the grunt work and wrote a detailed outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

This outline pattern stayed in place for my second two-book contract, but by book five, I went to contract on the strength of a five-paragraph concept. This was because by this point my editor knew I could write, make deadline, and sustain my series momentum.  But when I switched to a new publisher, I had to go back to outlining because my new editor wanted a stand alone thriller. But for the four books that followed (which were back in my Louis Kincaid series), I was able to go back to contract via concepts.

I haven’t had to slog through the outline exercise for six years. Which brings us to the present. About a month ago, I submitted a detailed concept and 100 pages of my WIP to an editor at a traditional publisher. She loved it but she had to send it to the acquisitions committee, which okays every deal. (This is SOP for traditional publishing houses; everything is run up the flagpole to be saluted by editors, market types and bean counters). To do this, I had to give the editor…an outline.

Now, given my druthers, I am a confirmed pantser. My sister and I start with an idea, flesh out our main characters, then we plot-then-write in chunks of about four chapters at a time. But my new publisher wanted to know the major dramatic arcs of the story so Kelly and I spent two weeks not doing what we love – writing – but doing what we hate — brainstorming and sweating blood creating a plot map.

They bought the book.

Did I mention I hate outlining?

So I’ve swung both ways. Outlining is awful but it can be very useful if it gets you where you want to go. And every writer is different. Some of us thrive on structure; others crave chaos. There is no one path to the truth, grasshopper.

So who outlines? Let’s pull back the curtain and see…

John Grisham starts with 50-page outlines, with a paragraph or two about each chapter, setting out major events and plot points.

Michael Palmer spends four to five months outlining and goes to contract on outlines. His outlines are 40 to 60 single-spaced pages and his editor “clears” the outline before he writes one word. Sez Michael: “When I get down to the actual writing, I feel free to deviate from the outline, but out of courtesy, I will call and discuss any major deviations from what was agreed upon with my editor. There are those writers who can pen a novel and then do it over again if the story doesn’t work. With my busy schedule as a doctor and a daddy, I am not in that group. Reworking a detailed outline is possible for me. Rewriting an entire book would be disastrous.”

James Patterson writes a detailed outline and then hires someone to write the scenes, usually in 30 to 40 page chunks, which he reviews. Patterson describes it: “The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish. I get pages from [the collaborator] every two weeks, and then I re-write them. That’s the way everything works. Sometimes I’ll just give notes. I’ve done as much as nine drafts of a book after the original comes in.”

Self-published eBook phenom Amanda Hocking (now in print with St. Martins) hand-writes her outlines before formatting them. “I’ll write usually about two or three outlines, so by the time I do write the book I’ve got the story completely mapped out in my head,” she says.

Joseph Finder describes writing without an outline like doing a high-wire act without a net, saying that his book Power Play, “took me several months longer than usual, simply because I wasted a lot of time on plot and on characters that I ended up cutting out.”

Robert Ludlum’s outlines routinely ran to 150 pages. I don’t know what he does now that he’s dead. I’d like to think he’s up there being a happy pantser.

Who doesn’t outline? Lee Child, for one. And Harlan Coben, who describes his process thusly: “I usually know the ending before I start. I know very little about what happens in between. It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 80, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stopover in Tokyo but I’ll end up in California.”
That driving metaphor is a riff on E.L. Doctorow’s famous quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I’ve written both mysteries and thrillers, some romance and even fat historical sagas. Some came easy; others fought me all the way. And while being a pantser is my default method, I have come to appreciate that outlining can be useful. Here’s why:

1. It helps you get rid of bad ideas. This is very important because we all have bad ideas and bad ideas are like the Devil — they often assume a pleasing shape. (Wow! What if I have the bad guy sneak some plutonium into a White House toilet, then the Senate minority leader comes out of the john with green skin and…)  If you write your bad ideas down they won’t lurk in the shadows of your brain.
2. You might have to produce an outline to go to contract with a publisher. If you’re lucky enough to get a multi-book deal, outlining is often specified in contracts. Also, you get paid in lumps: part on signing, part on turning in the manuscript, part on publication. But sometimes, one of the lumps comes via outline.  Also, your editor might have to approve the outline before you begin working on the book.

3. It can speed up the writing process. Just seeing a map on paper can often help you manage your writing time. If you have some idea of the journey, you can budget your time more efficiently. This is important as you get farther into your career and must produce a book or more a year.

4. If you write big complex plots, it can keep you on track. Ken Follett starts with an outline between 25-40 typed pages that details chapter-by-chapter events and includes bios of all characters. He shares this with his editors before he starts writing. He also rewrites his outlines!

I rewrite the outline – and this may happen several times. Typically there will be a first draft outline, a second draft outline and a final outline, so it would twice go through the process of being shown to a number of people. The whole process of coming up with idea, fleshing it out, doing the research, drafting the outline and rewriting the outline comes to about a year all told. There are quite often a couple of false starts within this. I may spend a month working on an idea before I realise that it isn’t going to work and abandon it. But after this whole process, I’m ready to write the first draft.

5. If you’re trying a new genre, it gives you confidence. I have a friend who, after a long and successful career writing a light amateur sleuth series, is making the switch to darker fare. She has always been an avid outliner but with this new project, she found even more extensive outlining gave her sure footing in her new territory.

6. It keeps you motivated and focused. While working on my new book, the hardest thing I had to deal with was my sense of being at sea. Because I was working without the security of a contract for the first time since starting out, I often felt myself drifting into a lot of “what ifs.”  What if I can’t pull this story off? What if no one buys it? What if I’ve run out of good stuff and it’s time to hang up the creative cleats?  But there was something about writing an outline — having to do the elbow grease of the mind and produce on deadline — that injected juice back into my story and resolve back to my spine. If nothing else, I finished the damn outline.

So, yes, outlining is a good thing. But…

Can I add my caveats? If you outline, please don’t let it put a strangle hold on you and your story. It is a guide, a suggested route, one way to go but never the only one. I love this quote from Donald Barthelme:

“Not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of the mind moving in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

So even if you do outline, leave room in your planning for serendipity and detours because, as Steven said so well in yesterday’s post, that is where your story is hiding out waiting for you.

Think of an outline as those colored lines they paint on the linoleum in hospitals to help you find your way. The red will get you to the cardiac unit, the yellow to the cafeteria, the black to the emergency room. But sometimes you just gotta follow the blue and go look at the babies.