WHEN A PANTSER PLOTS
By Mark Allan Gunnells
You may have heard it said that writers tend to fall into two categories: Plotters (the ones who do detailed outlines before writing the first word) and Pantsers (the ones who don’t outline but “fly by the seat of their pants,” discovering the story as they go). I don’t know if it’s always such a strict dichotomy, there can be a mix of the two, but for me personally, I’ve always been a pantser.
It’s not that I go in totally blind. I usually have a vague idea of where I’m going, but no real map of how I’m going to get there. And then sometimes I don’t get there at all and the story ends up somewhere completely different than I originally thought. I find storytelling more an act of discovery than strict creation, and that thrills me.
However, with my new novel Before He Wakes, I ventured more into plotter territory. I actually sat down and drafted an outline before I started the first chapter. For this particular story, I felt I had to. You see, Before He Wakes is an obstacle novel (I’m not sure that’s a real term, I may have coined it), in which the characters have to overcome a series of obstacles to obtain their goal. Because of this, I felt it was very important that I know beforehand what obstacles they would encounter and exactly how they would get through them. I didn’t want to get halfway through and discover I’d gotten them into a situation from which they couldn’t possibly escape.
So I did a chapter-by-chapter outline, which meant during the entire writing process, I knew exactly what was coming next.
I couldn’t completely give up my pantser ways, so even within the outline I built in the freedom to explore and discover. Yes, I knew each obstacle and its solution, but some parts of the outline were very loose. For instance, for chapter eleven, my outline merely said, “Meet Clare’s parents.” I didn’t know exactly who these people were or even what they would be doing in the chapter, so when I got to chapter eleven, I knew it would deal with Clare’s parents, but I still had the fun of going in relatively blind and letting that develop as I actually wrote it. I had several chapters with that kind of freedom built in. So even in my plotting, I got to do a little pantsing.
It was actually a joyous experience doing it differently. I’ll probably always be primarily a pantser, but I respect plotters. And I celebrate the fact that there is no one way to do this, and any path that gets you closer to the story you want to tell is the right path.