January 17th, 2010

Okay, how do you do it?  How do you actually make up a story?

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Novelists generally fall into one of two categories, plotters and pantsers. Plotters work through their stories, often in detailed outline form, before they actually start to write the narrative.  Pantsers do it by the seat of their pants; they begin with a basic idea, a character, an image, and follow it until they have a story.

There’s no right way and no wrong way.  It’s really a matter of temperament.  Both plotters and pantsers can produce wonderful books.  When the book is good, I think it’s impossible to tell which approach the author took to making the story.


On the other hand, it’s often possible to tell whether a bad book was written by a plotter or a pantser.  Plotters tend to turn out bad books in which the plot becomes a box for the characters, a rigid floor plan in which structure takes precedence over psychology and/or emotion.  A bad book by a pantser is likely to be meandering and formless, a kind of story spaghetti in which the characters interact and tangle to little effect, and the whole mess swims in a sauce of undifferentiated emotion.

I’m a pantser, a more or less pure pantser.  I almost always begin with a moment, an image, a voice in my ear, or a character in a situation, and then I watch the story develop as I tell it.  Some of my favorite writers, and some of the writers I like best personally, approach it from the opposite end of the spectrum: they not only have an outline of the story; they even have outlines of the scenes.  I can’t imagine how they write that way.  They can’t imagine how I write my way.  And yet we like each other’s writing, most of the time, anyway.

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Beginning this week, every Wednesday, a first-rate novelist will talk about how he or she makes story and why that method is best for him or her.  They’ll talk about how they personalize their approach, and where they think story comes from.  I have the advantage of you in that I’ve read many of the pieces that will appear here, and they’re all fascinating.

First up will be Stephen Jay Schwartz, author of BOULEVARD, possibly the darkest Hollywood noir of 2009, and a novel with a pace so fast that it’s hard to hold onto the book.  Schwartz knows a lot about the darker reaches of Los Angeles and the darker regions of the human heart, and he shines light on both in his highly praised debut novel.  So how did he write it — did he diagram it or wing it?

Almost all of us who choose to write long-form fiction are interested in how others approach their plotting, and I’m sure that aspiring writers will be interested, too.  Make it a point to be here beginning Wednesday January 20 as these courageous writers air their laundry.

And they’re all good company, too.


  1. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    I’m a stuck “plontser”. I try to plot, then my pants rebel. I can’t wait til Wednesday!

  2. Rachel Brady Says:

    I like Cynthia’s word and definition. Perfect.

  3. Phil Hanson Says:

    Count me in, Tim; I never pass up an opportunity to learn.

    What Cynthia said makes sense. I often struggle for days to accumulate enough coherent sentences to make a decent blog post, but if I had to keep herding my piece back into the box I’d built to contain it, I’d never get anything written.

  4. Larry W Chavis Says:

    I’ll be here. Plotting/pantsing is my greatest stumbling-stone. Looking forward to it.

  5. David Jenkins Says:

    I’ve done it both ways, and I think it really depends on what you’re writing, whether it be a novel, screenplay, magazine article, etc. I think it’s a lot more fun writing by the seat of my pants, but I often have to go back and force structure upon it, and that’s not much fun at all.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everybody — The pieces keep coming in, and I think they’ll all have something of value for each of us.

    Cynthia, the image of your pants rebelling is one I’ll carry with me for a while.

    Stephen’s opener is really good. I think they’re all really good. And everyone will come back to answer questions.

    Should be fun.

  7. Usman Says:

    Plot vs Pants. Sounds like WWE. I’m all excited for this.
    Cynthia you have the bull by the pants.

  8. Earl Staggs Says:

    I’ve tried outlining but could not stick to it for more than five minutes. That makes me a pantser for sure. Maybe I should try outlining again, maybe this series will teach me how to do it right and I’ll be a bettrer writer, maybe not. Anyway, I’ll be here every Wednesday to find out. Thanks for doing this, Tim.

  9. Sylvia Says:

    Oh hurray – I loved your last series of guest posters.

    I’m a pantser although right at this minute? I’m not very happy about it. Tamera has gone to confront her sister and she will finally find out the truth!

    …if only I knew what it was.

  10. jenny milchman Says:

    History will show (how exalted I am making myself sound!) whether this method is a good one as my “first” novel is on submission right now…but I am a total pantser who relies on trusty readers to show me everything I missed by not plotting in advance. Oh, the woe I feel when that fantastic twist I came up with while flying by the seat of my pants turns out to have holes as wide as the Grand Canyon in it! But it’s awfully fun and exciting during the delusional first draft period, and I have to hope some of that excitement will translate to the story, even if I do wind up doing an awful lot of revising…

  11. Bill Jersey Says:

    not just for writers we documentarians face the same choices

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Usman — The first piece is up, and the writer, Stephen Jay Schwartz, is a dedicated plotter. Read it and see what you think.

    Earl — I’m with you. The hardest part of writing a book for me is the book proposal because it’s essentially an outline, and without giving my characters room to move, I don’t know where they’re going to take me.

    Sylvia — You’ll learn the truth when Tamara does. Nobody in my books has any idea how things will turn out — why should they in yours?

    Jenny — Good luck with the book — hope it knocks them sideways. I think that pantsing may simply be the natural choice for more improvisational people while outlining is the best approach for the more methodical among us. Both approaches turn out good books. The third post in this thread, I think, will be from Brett Battles, a terrific thriller writer who’s actually in the middle of going from one approach to the other. You’ll have to wait for it, though. (More about the joys of pantsing next week, when Bill Crider takes a swing,

    Bill — I’ve wondered about that since you, unlike the novelists who are responding here, are stuck with real events, which inescapably have a chronology. (For those who don’t know, Bill is an Emmy- and Peabody-winning, Oscar-nominated documentarian whose work is relentlessly intelligent and always absorbing.) Bill, would you like to read the first couple of pieces and do a piece from the documentary filmmaker’s perspective?

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    David — Your post slipped in and got stacked above my answers to the earlier ones — I wasn’t skipping you. I know what you mean; if I’m writing, say, a book proposal or a pitch letter of some kind, I have an outline in mind at all times, even if I don’t write it down. For me, fiction comes from a different place. I know exactly this much about fictional structure: 1. A work of fiction needs a beginning, middle and end. 2. Characters, settings, and situations are introduced in the beginning, elaborated upon in the middle, and resolved in the end. 3. Generally, it’s a good idea if the stakes are raised as the story nears its climax and resolution. 4. When in doubt, as Raymond Chandler says, Have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.

    Operating within that mental outline, I just follow the characters. One of the nice things about the novel is that it gives you space to do just that.

    Our first blogger, Stephen Jay Schwartz, argues that a detailed outline helps him not only structure the book but also develop the characters. Check out his post.

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