The Pantser verses the Plotter by D.R. Ransdell

Writers frequently debate whether it’s better to write by the “seat of the pants,” going day by day, discovering what happens as it happens, or to plot the story in an organized fashion, perhaps creating as much as a twenty-page outline before any “real” writing begins.

Steven James makes a good case for the pantser in his book on writing titled Story Trumps Structure. He’s a pantser himself; that way his writing is more organic.

I started out as a complete pantser. After each day’s writing session, I asked myself, what should come next? What makes more sense? I slept on that question, and the next day I got up and started writing. Although the process did indeed seem organic, what I wound up with was a mess! I had scenes I didn’t need and others that didn’t help the novel. I had to go back with an evil eye and cut out—so painful!—extraneous details. For example, one recent novel I drafted was over a hundred thousand words. That’s probably too many! But after I cut all the stuff that didn’t fit, I only had 60,000! So that was too few. And yet the material I threw away didn’t fit in and didn’t help the novel.

So what’s a writer to do?
For the draft of my latest novel, I tried to navigate the difference. I plotted out the whole story in terms of three storylines: one main storyline which contained the murder, and two auxiliary lines that kept the plot moving and the characters interacting. Then I wrote down a list of 20 or so things that should happen for each storyline. I combined them on a small chart so that I could stay on track.
 Of course, my outline didn’t work out as smoothly as I had conceived of it. I had to combine two days (didn’t need both), rearrange scenes, and even omit some of my points. The farther I got into the novel, the more changes I made. One whole day I had to spend my writing time futzing around with the outline and rearranging my tiny slips of paper.  This didn’t bother me; I assumed it was the unasked for, organic part of the process.
But when I read James’ advice, I had to ask myself: do the pantsers really have it right? Or the outliners? Or, really, is the “right” space somewhere in between? In my heart, I’d like to be a pantser, but I don’t want to throw out whole days of writing because things don’t fit in later. Evidently I couldn’t pants around and stay focused enough to write ab good story. Maybe that will come later. I hope so since it’s kind of fun!
In the meantime, though, I’ll continue with the hybrid method of being organic on occasion—while trying to stick to an outline made of small pieces of paper I taped to a notecard.

D.R.’s latest mystery, Substitute Soloist, will be published in April from Aakenbaaken & Kent. When mariachi musician Andy Veracruz has to join an orchestra because he desperately needs a job, he lands in more trouble than ever. Not only is the conductor crazy to find a missing woman, but the man enlists Andy’s help so charmingly that the musician can’t resist the challenge to chase after the mysterious Liza….
D.R. Ransdell is a writer and musician in Tucson, Arizona, where she teaches writing at the University of Arizona and plays mariachi music on the weekends. She lives with several cats, but so far they have refrained from offering any writing advice!


I'm still a pantser, though I write lots of notes as I'm moving along.
D.R. Ransdell said…
Ha, I wish being a pantser would work for me, but it's so hard to have to throw a lot of information out! So I'm trying to be more efficient. We'll see.
Thonie Hevron said…
I think I'm a pantser at heart, too, but like you, I find it too inefficient. I write police procedurals and all my clues have to fit into the right spot or the mystery doesn't make sense. I've messed around with Scrivener but it hasn't worked for me yet. I outline to make sure plot points and clues are included. This is my fourth novel and I feel like I'm getting the method refined.
Thanks for the insightful post.
D.R. Ransdell said…
Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone! I've heard that Scrivener has a sharp learning curve. I just keep track of things on an outline document where I write out Chapter 1 and what happens in it. That seems to let me find anything I really need. I'm sure wi
th a police procedural, you need especially careful plotting. My mysteries aren't very clue-driven, so that gives me a little more leeway, but everything does need to make sense!


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