PANTSER, PLOTTER OR UNCOMMITTEDI belong to several fiction writing groups, both live and online. One question that always seems to come up is whether one is a pantser or a plotter. Often the answer leads to a heated debate over the merits of each position, with those who see themselves in both camps being as ostracized as someone who claims to be a fan of both the Yankees and Red Sox.

For anyone who doesn’t know what I am talking about, let me explain:

A pantser is someone who sits down either at their computer or in front of a blank piece of paper with pen in hand and just starts writing. They may have an idea for a story or maybe just a character in mind, but with not much more than a thought they begin their story. Many of them say they allow their characters to drive the story, often surprising themselves as the story unfolds. Is the story more artistic or creative as many claim, I don’t know.

On the opposite side of the debate are the plotters. These people plan in advance who their characters will be, what events will befall them and how things will come together for the predetermined conclusion. Although the format and intensity of detail may vary, a plotter outlines the story before they begin.

If I had to pick a side I would have to say that I am a plotter.

Since my favorite genre to write in is legal mystery, for me the process of writing a story often starts with a basic question I ask myself; How far is too far undercover, Can citizenship be imposed on a person or Can you go to jail for following the law? I take this basic question and I write myself a one or two page synopsis showing how I think this situation could come up in someone’s life and how it could affect them, it’s a mystery so I am pretty sure it will affect them drastically.

Knowing at some point in the story there will be a need for legal argument, even if it is not a formal trial, I have to be prepared to present both sides of the issue. My outline reflects the research, sometimes hours of research, I have conducted. In a novel with a criminal prosecution I must know every element of each crime the prosecutor will charge the defendant with. In outlining it is important to make sure to leave a path of discoverable evidence for the police to follow to the accused, while providing for enough reasonable doubt for the defense to use in its defense. While some people may be able to, I know that I cannot hope to cover everything if I write this without a detailed plan.

By the time I sit in front of my computer ready to start on the first draft of my novel I have an extensive outline, but as I said before I would only call myself a plotter if I was forced to pick a side.

Even with all the detail I put into the prep work, I write part of my stories with only the most minimum detail and that part is the private lives of my characters. Sure I know whether my main character is male or female, single or married, if their parents are alive and living across town or in another country, but as long as their personal life doesn’t impact on the mystery I let it evolve as the story progresses. I think what amazed me the most writing without an outline was the time I found I was writing a backstory to explain the scar my character had and said to myself ‘What scar?’ because there was no scar in the outline and then later in the book the scar became ‘important’. How is it that my subconscious knew something before I did? It is at times like that I understand why some pantsers are often so surprised at what they have written.

The debate between pantser and plotters will most likely never be settled, so for now I am going to just straddle the fence and write my own way.

Tell me, have you picked a side?