To Plot or Not To Plot—A Pantser’s Saga

I woke up at 3:00 a.m. one morning, with a story opening full in my head. It was so clear I could see the words as though they had been typed onto paper. So, I got up, turned on the computer, and wrote about Kaia Devon for 10 minutes.

It wasn’t much, only two pages, about 600 words, but doggone if I do say so myself, they were 600 really good words. An opening that breaks all the rules, but that somehow works (a writing friend, Mark Arnold, said it has something to do with the ice cream…). Clues dropped to past and future events. A whopping twist at the top of the second page that so far has made everyone who’s read or heard it, startle a bit, then laugh with surprise. And a really dark, unexpected twist at the bottom of page two that makes readers gasp.

Not bad for a middle-of-the-night, wake-up-and-write session.

But, and here’s the kicker — I have no idea what this story is about. No clue what that “the incident” with Kaia’s parents is. Not the least idea what is in that safe-deposit box. I do know what causes that twist at the end, but what it means as far as the plot? And where the story goes from here? Not a clue.

That’s because I’m what’s known as a “Pantser.” In other words, I write by the “seat of my pants.” I don’t plot out any of my stories, don’t make an outline, don’t line up the events of the story in order of occurrence. I write to see what is going to happen, to find out what my characters will do in the given situations. For me, if I know ahead of time what will happen, I have no need to write the story.

We all hear and read advice from “experts” about having an outline, how important one is to the flow and success of the story. Some writers are Plotters, like Anne Perry who crafts 40 to 60 page outlines to work from. And that’s good—if your mind happens to work that way. But what the advice about outlines ignores is that not everyone can work from an outline

It’s a matter of brain chemistry.

Some brains need the structure of an outline, a roadmap that makes the direction of the story clear. It revs up the creative motor, and the writer can churn out scene after exciting scene, like running a marathon. Without a roadmap, without a clear linear direction with plot points along the way showing the major events and leading to a set ending, the blank sheet of paper (virtual or real) remains blank.

The outline is the gas that makes the engine run.

But for some brains, an outline becomes a break in the gas line. It leaks out all the fuel, leaving an empty tank. It stops creativity cold, leaving the writer floundering the the midst of writer’s block. But let that writer just put words on the page, allow the characters to “take over” and dictate how they want their story told, then the engine fires with enthusiasm and creativity. Scenes not on the writer’s radar appear out of nowhere; surprising twists never before thought of arise from the void; endings morph from an early idea into something even better and more satisfying. And amazing stories flow onto the page.

The lack of an outline is what fires these engines and makes them purr.

And, of course, there are those who fall somewhere between these two extremes: Those who work best with an abbreviated outline, or just a few notes on the main events of the story, or those who only need to know how the story starts and ends.

Like I said, I’m a true “Pantser.” Even when I know how I want a story to end, usually when I get there something else happens. Something better. Something more exciting. The characters take over and do their own thing. The story has flown off on a tangent and my original idea no longer works. 

I discovered my true process with my first book, Tangled Webs. I’d spend hours outlining the next few chapters, but when I’d sit down to write them, by the middle of the first chapter the story would have veered off in another direction and I’d have to scrap all that planning. Next day, same thing. And the next. And the next. So much wasted time. (And yes, the characters changed the ending I wanted, too!)

Eventually, about halfway through the book, I gave up on outlining. Permanently. Now I just sit, and write, and go with the flow. When I don’t, the story just doesn’t work. I’ve learned to “Pants” it, to give my brain the space to work to its fullest capacity in the way it works best.

There’s no right or wrong. There’s only what works for you.

So forget all the advice. Experiment and find out where you fall on the Plotter-Pantser spectrum. Try a full outline; an abbreviated one; a few notes; or just writing whatever comes to mind. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because an “expert” says that outlining is the way it has to be that you have to write that way. Trust yourself and your process. That’s where your truest and most authentic stories lie.

So, tell me: Are you a Pantser (like me) or a Plotter (like Anne Perry)? Or are you somewhere on the continuum between those two extremes?

About Susan Tuttle

Susan Tuttle is a professional freelance editor, writing instructor and multi-award winning author of 21 books—6 nonfiction on writing (Write It Right), 6 suspense novels and 7 collections of award-winning short stories. She also has stories in both volumes of "Deadlines", the new anthology from the Central Coast Chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC), Tales from a Rocky Coast, and the SLO NightWriter anthology. Under the pen name Susan Grace O'Neill, she is the author of the Journey With Jesus series: Lord, Let Me Grow (Parables) vol. 1, and Lord, Let Me Walk (Lent). She is currently working on volume #2 of her Skylark P.I. series (a PI with paranormal abilities), as well as 2 YA fantasy series. And she teaches fiction writing in both the morning and afternoon every Wednesday. Email her if you're interested in joining her class. And follow her on Twitter and FaceBook.