Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hallinan (and Others) on Plotting Versus Pantsing

Timothy Hallinan (author of Breathing Water) discusses the two basic approaches to composition at The Blog Cabin. Excerpts:
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. ...

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.
Read the whole thing. Most authors would be satisfied simply discussing their personal approaches, but if you've ever spent any time on Hallinan's blog, you know he's into providing value for his readers. Not only does he answer the question himself, he punts it over to authors such as Stephen Jay Schwartz (Boulevard), Rebecca Cantrell (A Trace of Smoke), Helen Simonson (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand) and Leighton Gage (Dying Gasp). So far eight writers have contributed their two cents, and new posts from new authors are publishing each and every Wednesday.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
Susan NYC)


Michelle D. Argyle said...

Interesting. Thanks for that link! I'm a mix between pantsting and outlining. I think that's a good place to be. :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

As a for better or worse pantser, I will mosey over and take a look.

Loren Eaton said...


Have fun with the series! Hallinan routinely features great stuff like this on his blog. I find it most instructive.

Loren Eaton said...


Alas, I am an inveterate plotter. Although usually they fall apart about halfway through and throw me into existential self loathing while I sweep up the pieces.

B. Nagel said...


Sigh. It sounds like I'm in middle school again. Remember when everyone wore umbros shorts, and somebody was always trying to pants somebody else? Because that always ended well.

Unknown said...

I've never been able to manage the slightest bit of planning. I just stir my gumbo and periodically a story pops up fully-formed.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, Loren and thanks for being so nice. The plotting vs pantsing thread has three weeks to go (and some really good writers). So far, plotters outnumber pantsers 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 -- one person with a foot in either camp.

Then I'll write my own blog for a while. mostly about my book coming out in August, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, but THEN we'll have what may be the most interesting writing thread yet: THE BOOK THAT ALMOST KILLED ME. A dozen excellent writers will tell about their roughest book, what kind of trouble they got into, and how they got out. Should be something there for everybody who writes, published or aspiring to be published.

B. Nagel said...

Looks like John Grisham is a plotter.

Or should that be 'plodder.'

Either way, that's one Mississippi writer who's made out alright while living. [-<hope]

Loren Eaton said...


Regarding pantsing, there are reasons why much of my middle-school experience has been repressed. Let's just say that I'm never going to allow myself to be hypnotized onstage.

Loren Eaton said...


Darn it, stop making me envious!

Loren Eaton said...


Oooh, that new thread sounds fascinating. I'll definitely keep my eyes peeled for that one.

As always, thanks so much for stopping by!

Unknown said...

Trust me, it's not all wine and roses. Relying so heavily on intuition and spontaneous connections means that I'm a lot more susceptible to "I just don't have any ideas." Also, ADD becomes a factor. And sometimes I really really really should write things down so I don't forget them in between.

Oh, and don't ever forget writing yourself into a corner. Not knowing where the story ends when you start it sounds all romantic and poetic and crap until you get to the 3/4 mark and go, "Wait. Now what?"

Also, my plots tend to be simple and highly character-focused. I'm really good at shorts and nanofiction. I could never produce something like, say, "A Game of Thrones." Well, not and have it be any good. It'd take me a decade and I'd need a whole team of beta readers to point out all the bits and bobs I tossed in and then forgot about.

Loren Eaton said...

I have a similar problem with endings, only it's more like, "I know how I want it to start and where I want it to end. How do get there?" Plotting helps a little, but usually I end up going through endless drafts.

Novels seem ... hard to me. I think it's the multiple plot lines. How do you make sure they don't tangle? One is tough enough for me right now.

Timothy Hallinan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy Hallinan said...

f I may be presumptuous, I think the key to writing by the seat of one's pants is knowing the characters inside out, even the minor ones. I find that a thorough understanding of the characters, plus a commitment not to force them to do something they actually wouldn't do, eliminates a lot of bad plot developments before you go through all the trouble of writing them.

Second, EVERY book falls apart in the middle, no matter how you write it. The Dread Middle is where 99% of unfinished books hit the rocks. Every writer I know -- including some who have sold hundreds of thousands of books -- has the experience, in book after book, of thinking "This one is a toss." But most of the time, continuing to tell the story in a way that's true to the characters ultimately brings an ending in view. It may be a completely new ending, but I think that's usually to the good.

For me characters come first and last because the best definition I know of plot is that plot is what characters do. And I think sometimes plot becomes confused with a box to jam characters into.

Loren Eaton said...

Every writer I know -- including some who have sold hundreds of thousands of books -- has the experience, in book after book, of thinking "This one is a toss."

You have no idea how encouraging this is for me to hear. When I hit this point, I get incredibly discouraged. I've got one piece that's gathering (proverbial) dust because it feels like it's stalled. Maybe I should brush it off, give it another go.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, Loren --

Here's what I do when I get stuck like that, which I do on every single book.

1. I write a few very concentrated paragraphs on what interested me in the story in the first point. What were the possibilities I saw? In the story, characters, setting, even philosophy, sometimes. What was I most eager to write? Why the hell was I willing to give this a year of my life?

2. I reread what I've got, doing a retroactive chapter outline as I go. Each chapter precis starts with day, time, and place, so I get a better handle on the book's chronology and geography. Then there are 3-5 sentence boiling down the events in the chapter. Every character in the chapter is named, and any character who enters for the first time in named in red. If I bring in a character but don't name him/her, I write in parentheses, (Name of character/Unnamed) and put that in red, too.

Then I take a hard look at the outline, keeping in mind all the stuff that first interested me in the story.

This does a bunch of things for me.

It makes the whole thing feel fresher and gives me greatly increased familiarity with everything that's already on the page.

It often shows me where I've gone wrong or, even better, suggests a better direction to go in.

Frequently, you can sharpen a story by changing the point at which a character appears on the page. This process helps with that.

Finally, it gets me writing again without being terrified of failure, because what's the big deal? I'm just outlining, right?

Worth a try, anyway.

Unknown said...


I think that's the best example possible of the difference in the two writing styles. If I did what you describe, I would kill any book or story I was writing deader than any amount of writer's block. I can't think of a less appealing activity with regards to writing; I'd literally rather do my taxes. And once I was done with that outline, I would never be able to write that story, because it would already be finished.

(I try to always get to the end of a scene when it's time for me to stop writing, because otherwise when I come back I already know how the scene ends and I lose all interest in finishing it.)

Loren Eaton said...


That strikes me as excellent counsel, particlarly your last two sentences: Finally, it gets me writing again without being terrified of failure, because what's the big deal? I'm just outlining, right? For this current project, I've felt as though I have a good idea, and that very potential makes me afraid of messing the entire thing up. Maybe I should kick back and try a more structural, bird's eye view. That might break me out of the compositional paralysis.

Loren Eaton said...


Do you really think that approach would take all the joy out of it for you? Interesting. I dunno, getting stuck is what makes it miserable for me. I mean, I try to write through it, but the results often feel as forced as they actually are. I think I'm going to give the outlining a try on that piece I'd emailed you about.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Scattercat, I think it's worth emphasizing that I don't recommend that as a swell way of passing an idle Sunday, but rather as something you do as an alternative to letting your book die on you.

For me, nothing kills the joy of writing more than outlining in advance. If I know how the story is going to come out, it's no fun to write it. But when I'm well and truly screwed, the retroactive outline is a way of getting a much better grip on what I've already written and seeing where I've gone off the tracks.

I'll frequently find a point at which I've made someone do something uncharacteristic so I could get to some reversal or plot point that was sort of beaming at me. And when I spot that, it's ALWAYS where the book went wrong.

But, you know, we all write differently.

Unknown said...

I don't do well with planning. The way I fix a stuck story is by dropping it back in the pot. Sometimes I can pull it back out and use the parts for ingredients elsewhere, sometimes it's just something that informs my later writing.

As far as the novel goes, when I go back to it, I mostly just skim the recent bits and meditate a bit, then keep on trucking. I tried outlining once; I ended up with a handful of disconnected words and a few wasted hours.