The other day I had a conversation with an author who outlines to the nth degree. He’s written his first book and has a narrative arc that stretches through the next two — a very dramatic arc. I was in awe that he’s thought so far ahead, giving his characters deep psychological motives. I have trouble even scheduling my life out two weeks ahead!
Mystery writer Hallie Ephron is another one who carefully plots. But she says in her book on writing ("Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel") that even the best-laid plans go awry. She collaborates on the Peter Zak mysteries with Donald Davidoff; the first book, she writes, had been carefully outlined, with the villain carefully chosen. But, in writing a piece of dialogue in a critical scene, she realized that another “character had just confessed to the murder. The solution made perfect sense and had the great virtue of being totally unexpected.”
Ephron adds: “No one follows a plan to the letter. Major changes may be needed when a character you thought was going to be minor starts doing pirouettes, or when a plot point critical to your solution stretches credibility to the breaking point. But by getting down the basics early on and really thinking through your story and your characters, you give yourself a solid starting point.”
Then there are pantsers, or those who write by the seat of their pants. I hold these writers in awe, too, because I can’t imagine not starting without an outline. These are the writers who boot up their computers and are off, writing the story as it comes to them. They may later go back and revise it. But, for the most part, they work without an outline.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the prolific Stephen King counts himself among the non-outliners. He describes writing as excavating fossils.
In his book, “On Writing,” King says: “I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters … in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety … but to watch what happens and then write it down.”
Robert Campbell in “Writing Mysteries,” takes a middle approach, outlining as he goes along in his writing, making notes on characters, settings, or an element he might have introduced in an earlier chapter (a hidden gun, for instance) that he might use later. For him, it blends structure and serendipity.
“Obviously, this process of outlining might be done in the conventional way, thinking everything through and setting the scenes and characters down before the actual finished work is begun. But I find that by walking alongside my characters before they are fully formed I’m often pleasantly, even dramatically, surprised by conversations, actions and philosophies that I could not have imagined. When deep into a scene, writing on overdrive as it were, something magical very often takes place, some hidden well of imagination tapped, and I find myself a passenger floating on the raft of what is sometimes called inspiration along a river of words in full flood.”
So where do you fall: pantser, plotter, or in between?
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.