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Rick Treon on plotting vs. pantsing

Rick Treon is an award-winning suspense/thriller author. Read more about Rick here, see his books here, and read his last post here.

Few issues are as divisive among novelists as deciding whether ’tis nobler to suffer through an outline or to attack the blank page without a plan.

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Unlike some aspects of the craft and process of writing, analyzing the propensity of mega bestsellers doesn’t offer any answers.

Take this live video conversation between two of the most popular writers of commercial fiction over the last fifty years, Stephen King and John Grisham.

The former, who as sold more than 300 million copies of his seventy works, is a pantser (meaning he writes mostly by the seat of his pants). Grisham, who’s tallied more than 100 million in sales of his twenty-two titles, is a plotter.

So, who’s right?

The answer, though it’s not what beginning writers may want to hear, is both.

And this issue is also not as black and white as it may seem.

I doubt I’m alone in claiming to be a plantser — a hybrid pre-writer who falls somewhere on the spectrum of plotting and pantsing.

I didn’t begin that way. Because my goal was to write a mystery or thriller, something with a puzzle to solve and a twist at the end, I was sure I had to have a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline that spelled out each clue and revelation.

I completed this outline, and it got me started down a path.

I did not stay on that path.

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I kept three or four scenes from that original document. But what I ended up with was better and I am glad I didn’t feel the need to stay rigid in my thinking.

And I’m glad I had something to reference as I started the manuscript. The pantser’s lament tends to be a longer writing process and more rounds of revision as they hone their plot while writing scenes.

But for my second novel, I ditched the chapter-by-chapter (or beat-by-beat, or scene-by-scene, etc.) outline and developed a different approach. I learned through querying agents for my debut that having synopses of various lengths was required.

If I was going to have to write a synopsis for my next novel, why not work up a draft of that before sitting down to write the manuscript?

I’m so glad I tried it. Writing the synopsis for Let the Guilty Pay was still a multi-day affair. I laid out the major points. Then I discovered something else would be better and revised.

It was essentially the same process as writing the novel, but in miniature.

When I got the synopsis where I wanted it, I sat down to write the manuscript.

I still deviated from the synopsis, and had one major revelation hit me more than three-quarters of the way through that made the first draft much more compelling and helped keep me excited about the impending revision process.

But the finished first draft was much closer to the original idea that I’d already workshopped.

Though I was not required to produce a synopsis for the prequel novella Live with the Truth or the sequel, The Price of Silence, I went through the same process. I then refined this process when writing Divided States, which was recently nominated for a Silver Falchion Award.

I feel like I’ve found a system that works for me.

For those who haven’t yet found their preferred pre-writing strategy, I suggest finding a middle ground between plotting and pantsing.

It doesn’t have to be mine, but I hope you can find a way to break beyond that binary view.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Rick, thanks for discussing this seemingly controversial topic! Congratulations on finding what works best and doing it your way. That’s what I’ve decided to do after trying numerous systems over my four books. Like you, I devise a synopsis, but it’s fluid. Then, I craft rough table of contents titles to help me visualize my detectives’ adventures on the road to solving their case. Some might call that an outline, but the “O” word scares me as being too rigid! Next, I immerse myself into the characters’ world and let it and them take me where we need to go. So, yeah, I do a little plotting but lots of pantsing to ignite the fun and creativity of writing.

  2. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Rick — I enjoyed reading the balanced perspective in your post. Like Sherrill, “the ‘O’ word scares me as being too rigid!”

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    Keep doing what works for you. I’ve read your books, and they are awesome!

  4. Margaret Mizushima
    Margaret Mizushima

    Great post, Rick, about an oft discussed and argued point among writers. I pantsed my first novel and it took about four years and countless revisions to bring to print. I had six months to write my second so I outlined it briefly in three part structure and that helped me meet my deadline. Now I’m like you, I do a combination of both that works for me. And I would bet the majority of us do. Whatever keeps us writing is best!

  5. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I’m loving this one. I teach how to outline at local libraries, and you’re absolutely right. Most writers fall on the spectrum between pure pantsing and pure planning. If I had to plan out beat by beat by beat (like Jeffrey Deaver does) I would never get anything written! On the other hand, I really need some way to keep track of the events in my novels, so I plot them on a calendar. Another thing that can really help when you’re stuck is to do the opposite of your normal process. If you lean toward pantsing, try writing a tighter outline than usual. If you lean toward planning, try just writing and see what happens. Oh, and I call an outline just a basic blueprint of your story, and it can take lots of different forms, including the heading, sub-heading, sub-sub heading approach we learned in school.

  6. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    As an author, screenwriter and teacher/coach of both, I don’t buy into the pantsing vs plotter thing that circulates every once in a while as a question on blogs. Each writer is individual. What matters is finding out what “drives” the writer to write the story. What’s the nugget within the story idea that is going to drive the energy of the writer to see it through? I typically ask all students and clients to write a query letter or one-page synopsis pitching their story as they currently know it. Once they do that, they find the nugget usually and then they just write the story however it comes to them and however their skills work. Remember, too, that most of us will write creatively (better word than “pantsing”) for a while at some aspects of our novel, but also plan certain things out in detail as we go. I’ve not yet met any writer who is wholly just flying by luck or plotting only. Creativity doesn’t work that way. Rick, you have it right in that we humans do anything that works to get the job done. You discovered the truth of the matter as to how the brain works, I believe. This isn’t an “either/or” situation. I hope that we might retire this pantsing versus plotter thing; it’s seems to do a disservice to writers. Writing is a much more complicated–and rewarding–task.

  7. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    So interesting to read how others handle the writing process- thanks for the idea of first creating a Synopsis. Planning to try it next!

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    Avanti Centrae

    Hey Rick – I agree that there’s a lot of room on that spectrum. My first four novels were outlined in depth and my current work in process has a lighter approach. Still an outline but less detailed. As with much of life, one size does not fit all!

  9. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    You know that old saying: There are three rules to writing, but nobody knows what they are. My philosophy is, every author should use whatever process works for them. I use a loose outline that can change and adjust. I’ve tried pantsing it, but I need some sort of structure.

  10. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    I love love love Outlines! But they are exactly that – an outline. It’s great if I get stuck or forget what comes next. But the beauty is in those moments in between when all the motivations and delicious details emerge. Thanks for the fun word, Rick! “planster”

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    Jacqueline Vick

    You’re right. I think it’s a choice between getting everything ready before you write, or free writing and having copious amounts of rewrites. I find the first way more productive, but it’s whatever works, right?

  12. Tracey S. Phillips
    Tracey S. Phillips

    I loved this take on the age-old argument, Rick. I have always believed there was a Spectrum, too and it’s fascinating to read everyone’s lengthy notes! I’m a pantser at heart, but there are several things that I need to know before I start writing. Most importantly, I must know my characters inside and out. Using the Positive and Negative Trait Thesauruses, I write out solid descriptions of each of my character’s traits and why they behave that way. I describe their relationships in depth too. That way I understand their interactions and the history behind their actions. Then, the events (which come to me in pictures) unfold on the page. Every writer is a little different-true story!

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    Laurie's Story

    Plantsing! I love it. Thanks for the new word and interesting post.

  14. joyribar

    Thanks for so many good tips in your post, Rick. And, I appreciate how clearly you conveyed your process and the reasons behind it. Good food for thought. I think I’m a plantster, too. Fun term, by the way. But I never considered doing a more complete synopsis before writing. I use notecards and an “just the facts, Ma’am” outline, but I like your method and may try it out.

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