They say there are two kinds of writers—Pantsers and Outliners. “Pantsers” write by the seat of their pants. Hence the name. I read somewhere that J.R. Tolkien said he wrote Lord of the Rings to find out what a hobbit was. Pantsers begin with a situation and go where their characters lead. In the first novel I wrote (that lives in a box where it belongs), one of my characters opened a drawer, pulled out a gun and shot himself. I was shocked! Then I thought, yeah, that works.
Outliners have the entire plot already outlined before they write word one. They are in control…until one of their characters refuses to follow the script. The scene just doesn’t ring true if the protagonist did what the writer planned.
A Bit of Both
Characters in a novel are like real people. If they don’t come alive to the writer, they won’t come alive to the reader. And people do their own thing, even if that drives their creator nuts. At some point, an errant character may force an Outliner to restructure their outline.
As a Pantser, I have a story idea and know overall what happens. I also know what plot beats (significant events) will propel my story forward. So I confess to outlining a bit. But I do not know how my characters will get to the plot points, or if they’ll follow them.
And so, at some point, most Pantsers outline a bit to keep on track. And many Outliners encounter stubborn characters that know better than their creator what should happen next.
Pantser that I am, I outline backwards. As I write my first draft, I keep a chapter log, or outline, of what happens in each chapter as I go along. As my story progresses and I get deeper into plot and character development, I struggle to keep track of past events. For example, If I don’t have a record of an argument between two characters, I could accidentally recreate the same argument somewhere else in the novel.
In The Divine Meddler, a pivotal scene required that a character use an object that I needed to plant several chapters previously. By reviewing my chapter log, I knew just when to insert the object in the most subtle manner.
In drafting the sequel, I find I’m referring to my “backward outline” more frequently, so events progress logically and build suspense.
And that’s why I call myself a “backward Pantser.”
Are you an Outliner or Pantser? Do you feel an outline frees, or hampers you? How much control do your characters have?