Outliners Vs. Pantsers

Lately, the discussion of the best way to write has come up in writing groups and on-line. The advantages of the two basic methods, outlining or writing by the seat of the pants, hence ‘pantsers,’ are still being argued. Some writers work up extensive outlines, draw maps, work out character arcs, and outline, some to the extreme where the outline word count is nearly as high as that of the final work. Theoretically, outlines provide the structure of the novel and the writer is able to construct the story more quickly.

Other writers throw themselves into the writing without giving thought to outlines. I confess I am a pantser. I start writing my story with only a vague idea where it is going. In this way I learn who my characters are by the way they react to situations. I have a general idea of the scenes I would like to write, but I also revel in situations where the characters do things I didn’t expect causing difficulties for themselves that I didn’t anticipate.

Sometimes I begin at what I believe is the beginning only to realize that might not be where I want or need to start. Other times I find I begin at what becomes the back story, or history of the character that influences their future actions.

I realize I’m not speaking for all ‘pantsers’. My experience shows that writing this way can take me down a rabbit hole. A short story becomes a much longer work. Sometimes the story line leads to a dead end and scenes must be removed. Characters pop up to solve a temporary difficulty which cannot be resolved in any other reasonable way. This forces me to more fully develop the new character, and introduce the character before the character is needed. Of course, this causes additional difficulties.

Editors have told me I need to lose a character, which results in the loss of one-third of the story. I have also been told I need to kill a character. Admittedly, killing the character results in a classic story line, but for me, it eliminates the entire reason for the story.

To my chagrin, I must confess I don’t know my characters well enough when I start writing to know how they will react to their situation as the work progresses. I get to know them by throwing obstacles in their paths. Their reactions tell me what they want. I can then work to frustrate their efforts thereby bringing out the many facets a character needs to be realistic, and to best accomplish their goals.

The best advice I heard recently is, no matter what your writing style, the work requires rewriting regardless of how it was constructed. The rough draft demands revision. The question each writer must answer is what works best for them.

Sources: The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray, Dell Publishing, New York, NY, 1994

The New Writer’s Handbook, 2007, Edited by Philip Martin, Scarletta Press, Minneapolis, MN. 2007

How To Write Your Best Story, Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books, Milwaukee, WI. 2011

The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 1968

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