Plotter, Pantser, or What The…?

I consider myself primarily a plotter. I usually have a good idea how a story is going to begin and end and a good concept of what will happen in the middle to get from that beginning to the end. That said, I also know I could also be called a pantser since I like to let my characters dictate what’s going to happen within those scenes and sometimes from scene to scene.

Back in May, I started the fourth book in the P.J. Benson Mystery series with an outline which indicated the beginning and the ending and the major steps to get from first scene to last. By the first of June, I had an opening scene. The time of the year: March. P.J. is nine months pregnant. She’s standing in her living room, looking out her front window, watching her husband and stepson playing catch. It’s (and I said this on the first page) a Norman Rockwell image.

From that initial scene, I worked on for a couple thousand words to the first indication there might be a problem that P.J. would have to solve. Characters were introduced or re-introduced and I had a start to the book. Except my start stalled. By the first of December I had expanded that first scene to a little more than five thousand words, but no farther. Every time I sat down to write, I found a reason to do something else. I couldn’t get excited about the story. Something just didn’t feel right.

And then P.J. stepped in.

P.J. steps into a bathroom

I was in that hazy, dream-state of sleep just before you wake up, and I see P.J. walk into a bathroom. P.J. hears a woman on the other side of a stall talking (on a cell phone) to someone about the danger she is in. Then the woman comes out of the stall, sees P.J., and comes close. She drops something into P.J.’s purse.

I woke up after that, but I would swear P.J. told me that was how the story should start. And she was right. My original opening scene was lovely (as I said, a Norman Rockwell scene), but slow and definitely not a hook.

The story now starts the moment P.J. steps into a bathroom, and I’m eager to discover what the woman dropped in P.J.’s purse and what danger that poses for P.J.. I haven’t tossed the original plot, I just need to figure out how to weave this aspect into the story.

My Takeaway

If we create characters we truly know, we need to listen to what they have to say (or show us).

Have any of you ever run into something like this? Or am I completely crazy.

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18 Responses to Plotter, Pantser, or What The…?

  1. cj petterson says:

    cj Sez: I think of myself as a pathfinder. I know where I’m going to start from and pretty much know how I want the story to end. It’s figuring out, scene by scene, how I can get from beginning to end that creates the excitement of writing for me. I try to follow the adage “Get your characters up a tree, then throw rocks at them.”

    • Maris Soule says:

      cj, if you saw me throw rocks, you’d know how safe those characters would be. Of course, any characters off to the side might be hit. That said, I do like your adage.

  2. No, you’re definitely not crazy! PJ was trying to tell you how the story starts. What I’m wondering is whether she solves the mystery before or after the baby is born.

  3. Diane Burton says:

    Not crazy. As lovely as that first scene was–so domestic–it doesn’t have the oomph that the bathroom scene does.

    I do the same as you do–I know the beginning (usually, could change) and the end then let my characters lead the way. Good luck.

  4. Hi Maris,

    I’m a lot like you. I start with a plot but as I write I often make changes. Writers need to be flexible. We live with our characters and they become real to us. So they often cause us to change our books. I’m working on a new Kim Reynolds mystery now and having similar experiences.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Good luck with the new mystery, Jacqueline. It is interesting how the characters start giving us directions. Frustrating at times, exciting other times.

  5. Kristin Kent says:

    I totally let my characters run the show. My first novel had a basic outline, but that all went out the window when my characters really started speaking to me. My original outline is nowhere near what the finished product turned out to be. I’m immediately intrigued with your character in the bathroom scene. That’s a great start to a mystery plot.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Kristin. The moment I woke up, I wrote that scene down. Now I just have to figure out what happens next. (I need P.J. to visit me in another dream.)

  6. I’m another one who writes like that. Sometimes my original chapter one becomes chapter two or three or there about. Glad PJ got your attention. Now if my current characters would just cooperate as well with me…

  7. Thanks for this topic. I’m currently working on a story where I know the major story elements but I can’t get excited about the opening. For me the opening needs to grab and excite me. It doesn’t. My characters need to talk to me.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Here’s hoping they start talking to you, Connie. As I said, I’ve been there. I know how frustrating it can be to have all the words written and not feel the energy.

  8. Amy Brown says:

    I’m glad you listened to your subconscious and thanks for sharing your process. I loved your beginning!

  9. Funny you should ask! I recently threw out the beginning of a ms when I realized why my characters weren’t cooperating. I was telling the wrong story for these people. I just wish they’d let me know that a bit earlier than on the eve of deadline. Luckily, my editor wasn’t ready for the ms yet and I was able to start over–in the right place this time.