Writing the Book You Plan – Or Not

goat-620474_960_720Okay, I’ll preface this whole thing by admitting that I am a pantser. (Dang MS Word keeps wanting to change that to punster. Hmmm…) I do not outline, I do not do chapter synopses, I do not like green eggs and ham. (Sorry; keep getting sidetracked.) I may not know where the end or even the middle of my book is going to go. I get attacked by an idea, let it stew for a bit (anywhere from hours to days) and if it doesn’t evaporate with the morning coffee, I sit down and start writing.

So it may not be surprising that my books often end up being very different from what I thought they were going to be.

When I began my book Stone’s Ghost, I had it in my head that it was going to be a light, fluffy ghost tale with a touch of romance, similar in feel to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or The Canterville Ghost. Very quickly, however, my main character took over and introduced a very dark and dramatic tone to it all, something that I could never seem to override. I wasn’t too far into the book when I realized it was not going to be what I thought at all, and I just gave it its head and let it go where it wanted to go.

Similarly, when I started my latest yet-to-be-released book, Sonnets for Heidi, I knew from the get-go that it was going to be very sad, tragic even, and depressing. I really wondered if anyone would want to read it. However, I felt it was a story that needed to be told and I continued. Imagine my surprise when I got to the end and the story finished not on a cautionary downer as I expected, but on a soaring note of hope. Who knew? It certainly caught me flat-footed.

More recently, in my current WIP, I had my two main characters fairly clear in my mind, but just within the past couple of days, a new character has emerged, and he’s a real kick in the head. He’s down to earth and funny, and I really like him. Now where did he come from? Heck if I know.

So my question is: do plotters have this same experience? As a pantser, it makes pretty good sense that when I sit down to write and don’t know where I’m going, there’s a good chance I’ll end up somewhere surprising. Edge of my seat with my hair on fire and all that. But plotters? When writers plan down to the smallest detail, when they’ve got all their chapters blocked out, their story bible all up to date, their characters psychoanalyzed, and the final scene already written, do they ever get surprised? Do they ever find that a character has lobbed a curve ball at them? Really, I want to know.

I always get a chuckle out of non-writers’ reactions to the fact that I don’t know where a story’s going to go, or I don’t know how it will end. Often, I’ll hear, “But you’re writing the story! How can you not know what’s going to happen?” Heh. It’s easy. Because I’m not writing to an outline, my characters often will slip a stray thought into my mind, like, why don’t we …? And I’ll think, ooh, good idea! Next thing I know, I’m off in the weeds. Only thing is, very often they are really interesting weeds. They can and do add a new dimension to the story, or they add texture I hadn’t considered. And the thing is, once I start leaning in a new direction, I tend to keep leaning that way, and the story goes further and further afield from my original idea.

Some might think this not a good idea. Some might object to the fact that my original idea has now morphed into something totally different and beyond recognition. Some might think I should delete the last hundred pages, get back to my original concept and stick with it.


The fact of the matter is, I like it when my book surprises me. I like it when I don’t know how it’s going to end. I like to be as surprised by the ending as my readers are. I like to have the final twist dawn on me slowly, then bubble and boil and bring up all sorts of heretofore unimagined connections. Yeah, I really like that.

How about you? Do you always get the book you thought you were going to write? Do you stick to your outline no matter what, or, like me, do you relish getting lost in the weeds?

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

41 thoughts on “Writing the Book You Plan – Or Not”

  1. I’m happy in the weeds with you. So far I do tend to end up with a book close to what I had in mind, but I don’t outline. Where’s the fun in knowing how it’s going to go? How can I not listen when a character insists on going in a new direction, or being who he or she is? I do cheat a little bit when I’m getting close and jump ahead to write the end, though. At that point my anxiety about how it’s going to end outweighs my pleasure in the suspense. But of course, everything is rough draft, so who knows how much of it will stick? If we can’t enjoy the discoveries in our writing at least some of the way our readers do, it’s just another job. And in that case, I know an awful lot of them that pay better…

    1. Sandra, I think you nailed it when you said, “the discoveries in our writing.” I love that. I love being surprised by what comes out of my head, out of my pen. I think if I had the whole book planned out, I might not even write it. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Like you, I enjoy being surprised at the words that show up on my screen. One advantage, I think, is that there is no subconscious foreshadowing. I know my readers are often surprised by a turn of events because I was myself. Here’s to writing in the dark!

    1. Writing in the dark, yes! Not only that, sometimes when I re-read my own books, I come upon a phrase or a paragraph and think, “Damn, that’s good! How did I do that?” And I still don’t know. All I know is that I love this process!

  3. I can identify with your writing style. I do light chapter outlines, but leave spaces between each chapter, because as I write, my characters are always going down different, and often more interesting, roads than what I’ve put in the outline, and I just let them run with it. I’m always a bit surprised, and pleased, with where they take me. I guess that makes me a plantser, doesn’t it? MS Word will have a great time with that one. 🙂

  4. I have no damn clue where any book is going when I start writing it. Even when I’m half way done, I still don’t know. It goes where it goes. My muse drinks her Scotch neat and so do I. This probably explains a lot.

    In school–during the dark days when we were forced to submit term paper along with their outlines–I wrote the outlines after the term papers were done. If some clown wants a synopsis now, that’s what I’m going to do.

    The surprises of this approach are much better than the occasional concerns that the darned thing might not be working.


    1. Sounds like we’re all in the same dark closet, doesn’t it? In my current WIP, I was on chapter 4 before I had any idea what the 2nd and 3rd acts were going to do, then just a couple days ago, it all sorted itself out and became clear. Good thing, because I felt like I was driving a car up to a chasm and there was no bridge to drive over!
      And your process of writing the outline after the paper sounds suspiciously like writing the blurb, even picking the title, long after the book is done. Thanks for adding that.

  5. I have been a pantser in the past, but NO MORE, I say. After my last novel (no. 3) I vowed for my next novel I was going to outline more. I found I wasted so much time muddling through the plot, taking wrong turns and ditching approx 30,000 words because I was writing in the dark.

    1. Gina, interesting that the pantser process didn’t work for you. I can see that throwing out 30k words would feel like a lot of work for no gain. I’d be very interested to hear how it goes for you as a planner. I hope you’ll let us know once you get into it. It would make for an interesting discussion when you can contrast the two methods and see which works best.

  6. I think I am somewhere between you and Charles. I don’t write down any outlines but I do have a beginning and an ending in my head, with the odd key scene in between. And I seem to be able to stay with those, for the most part. In between, though, my characters boss me around, behave in unpredictable ways, and even insinuate themselves into the story unexpectedly. Trying to force them into a preconceived mold doesn’t work. Still, they do stay on the road I’ve shown, with a few sidetrack adventures along the way.

    1. Normally I’m probably about where you are, Yvonne, with a few key scenes, some idea of the ending, but that’s all. With my current one, I didn’t even have that. I do now, though, and it’s coming along well. I just love the way the story seems to materialize, like flesh growing on bones.

  7. I have no opinion on the pantser versus outline question, However, you’re welcome to come with me to the next meeting of Parentheses Anonymous.I had to double check to make sure that first paragraph wasn’t mine. 🙂

    1. Hey, parens are perfectly acceptable in essays and non-fiction posts like this. Fiction, maybe more questionable. And I won’t go with you to your next meeting because that would be admitting that I have a problem. I can quit parens anytime I want (and I don’t want). 😉

  8. “Do plotters have the same experience?”
    Speaking for myself, yes! As I said in my Storyboarding article, “Storyboarding is not a rigid plotting device. The whole point of the board is that it’s flexible.” (Flexible because scenes are written on index cards, in pencil, and pinned to the board, thus allowing for all kinds of things to change or be rearranged.)

    Like you, I’ve had characters fall out of the sky onto the screen (or paper) while I’m writing. I’ve had characters open their mouths and utter something completely unexpected, sometimes bringing my fingers to a halt on the keyboard, wondering how THIS is going to turn out!

    Here’s an example that’s still vivid in my memory. I knew I needed to have a scene where the MC, a teenaged girl, confronts another character, an older man, but I had no idea what their dialogue would be when they met. As usual, I put the characters in their assigned places on the “set,” looked out through the eyes of my MC, and called for action. I could feel her trepidation. She was nervous. Worse, this man was half naked! (Oh no, that’s not where I was going AT ALL! Oh wait, he’s not half naked as in *indecent;* he’s chopping wood and his shirt is off.) Okay, but she’s still nervous – and he’s sweating. She’s afraid to startle him, so she clears her throat. He looks at her. Then he reaches for his shirt, but has trouble getting an arm through one of the holes, so she has get closer to him. She has to *help* him put on the shirt! Now, she can *smell* him! (Well, my goodness, that was unexpected!) He says “Thank you,” and then he … smiles! (He’s smiling? This guy who’s been such a jerk all along? Hmmmm.)
    So yes, pantsers are still (thankfully) at the mercy of the muses! lol

    1. Like Charles, sounds like you’ve got a good blend of both worlds. Interesting, isn’t it, that we remember the places where lightning strikes and our stories take on a life of their own (It’s alive, ALIVE!), but not necessarily those parts that turn out exactly as we’d planned them. There may be satisfaction in the latter, but more of a thrill in the former.

  9. I’m a pantster in the beginning, plotter in the middle and pantster at the end again because the ending /always/ catches me by surprise; I know it’s coming but fool myself into thinking it’s still somewhere ahead. And then it isn’t. But that’s the fun of writing the first draft. We write it to for ourselves. 🙂

  10. I’m a pantser, too, so I always have characters pop into my mind. I actually really need them to appear because I tend to have a very small set of core characters, no matter what the novel (I’d suck at fantasy because I don’t have enough peripheral characters). I think it’s great when characters pop in. That’s your brain telling you to think outside the box.

    1. Yes, I love it when I’m planning a cameo appearance and the character becomes a minor star! I, too, only plan two or three major characters, then let the rest show up as they like.

  11. I tend to start at the end and write backwards, asking myself, “How might that have come about?” Of course, this requires that I write forwards, from some point. But that requires some world-building which always winds up begging the same or a similar question like, “Why did that happen that way and not another way?” It’s like an archaeological dig, or some other work of discovery. Patience is required. Yes, characters reveal themselves more fully (eventually), gaps get filled in, multiple possibilities slowly dwindle as pieces of the puzzle are uncovered and assembled, and some of the competing theories are eliminated. But how I narrate these things into a story is where the writing really is, the real work. Ideas abound, begging to be put into prose. Alas, only some will work. Some might fool me, and for a long time, too. But, in the end, the story dictates which idea works and which does not. Then it’s back to the dig site, back to the laboratory, back to the microscope (or telescope), or back into the weeds to look for something I missed. Or something that I dropped along the way that I suspect might be more valuable than I first thought.

    1. Once or twice I have started knowing the end, but even in those times, the ending turned into something different by the time I got there. I love the idea of an archaeological dig, uncovering hidden gems that we might have missed before. It’s nice to know so many other writers enjoy the process like I do!

  12. I write a loose, never more than one page outline, that I use to get started and generally frame my story.. Do I get off track, yes some of my favorite characters come to life while I’m off script. Usually one or two major plot elements are missing – sometimes I know it and sometimes I don’t. For me the actual writing process helps uncover these things. I suspect it’s just part of my inexperience as a writer, but I need that to connect to my creative side. That bit of bias out of the way, I’d be surprised if non-pansters didn’t go through a similar process. They just do more of it before they put fingers to keys (or pen to paper). While they’re laying out their plots, outlining chapters, storyboarding, or whatever other organizing devices they use I’m sure they’re also revising, redirecting, and creating their stories. In a way I envy them, but it’s just not something I’ve been able to do, yet.

    1. Armen, I don’t think anything you’ve described in your process marks you as inexperienced. From what we’re seeing in the comments here, it’s more common than I had thought. And when you talk about planners just doing more to start, maybe it is more a matter of degree and not kind. At least we haven’t had any planners chime in yet to refute that.

  13. I mainly write nonfiction, but, for my grandchildren, I make up stories as I go along, and I am absolutely delighted when they suddenly inject a character or idea into the story. I have no difficulty having no plan when I start, and it seems they don’t either. So I encourage this kind of creativity in the very young children who have no fear of rejection, and I am constantly learning from them. I think I will be writing again for children sometime soon.

    1. That’s very cool, Ester, that you can inspire and captivate your grandchildren with the joy of storytelling. I have no doubt they’ll grow up to be voracious readers and will really appreciate a well-told tale, even if it is off the cuff.

  14. I pants:

    * In my first novel, I thought one character was going to have a simple, charmed life. Hah! She ended up in a very chaotic situation.
    * When I wrote a romance, I added an old family friend character to give background on the romantic interest, but two chapters later I discovered she was integral to the whole story and crucial to the resolution of the non-romance storyline.
    * In the third novel I finished, I had no idea how to get from the opening to the finale, but as I got ready for each new section, I got something in the mail, or read about something in the news, or… up popped germane pointers that took me where I needed to go.
    * The only book I never wrote was one I talked through quite thoroughly with a couple friends.

    I think, though, I’d probably better become a Planner soon, or no reader will ever have a chance to read any of these unpublished gems.

    1. Kae, interesting, especially about the book you never wrote. Maybe, talking it out used up all the creativity, all the drive. I don’t know. And, hey–go ahead and publish those puppies. Check out my post from last Tuesday for how to get your ducks in a row.

  15. I think we might be identical twins, Melissa. 🙂 Right now I’m struggling with two characters who I want to live happily ever after, but there’s a problem. Every time they meet, they have an argument that makes the chances of them ever wanting to see each other again very slim.

    1. LOL, J.P. Twin daughters of different mothers? I wrote a romance ages ago like that; it took me a while to figure out where the attraction began, and how it finally overcame the hostility. Sounds like you need to find that first little spark of attraction, then follow that. Good luck!

  16. I wonder if the difference between plotters and pantsters is the way we ‘see’? I need to see what that initial rush of creative adrenaline brings before I can start to see the story as a whole. Plotters, however, seem to see it all in advance, so to speak. I kind of envy that as it would save me an awful lot of rewriting. Sadly my brain just doesn’t work that way.

    1. I honestly don’t know. I just love having the story come together in front of me, sometimes just barely in front of my pen (or keystrokes). I wish a few more plotters would weigh in here so we could get that contrasting viewpoint.

  17. The ‘plotters’ are probably disgusted! I have a friend who plots meticulously who is quite incredulous about my ‘method’. But I, like others here, enjoy the journey into the unknown, possibly more than I enjoy the embarkation at the beginning or the arrival at the end. Which may explain why I rewrite my beginnings and endings so much …

    1. Judi, thanks for letting us know. Maybe I just don’t know any plotters. I did have one publisher who actually told me he thought my method was a myth, that no writer would sit and wait for inspiration before writing, but I do. I’ll bet there are as many variations on method as there are writers. Viva la difference!

  18. The only one of my books that was fairly close to what I started out writing is The Cabin, and even that threw me several surprises. The Storyteller’s Bracelet was nothing like what I started; in fact, I threw out about six chapters that I thought were the main storyline, but turned out to be useless. I much prefer being surprised by my characters to trying to make them fit into a rigid outline.

  19. And now for the opposing side… 😀

    I begin to think this plotters/pantsers thing is a false dichotomy. I call myself a plotter, but I am not one to waste words on a whole set of preparatory exercises when I could be *writing*. So I don’t do character studies or detailed outlines. What I do instead is to sit down and sort of blather on for a couple of pages about who my characters are, where I think the major conflicts will be and what they’ll be about, themes I want to explore, and so on. Once I have that very general idea of where I’m going, I’ll write a beats outline — usually 10-15 paragraphs, numbered to correspond roughly with the chapter numbers, putting my brainstorming ideas into some sort of order that resembles a narrative arc. That’s the outline I write from. It is often not very detailed. Sometimes it even includes sentences like, “Webb gets the McGuffin by…erm, I’ll figure it out when I get there.” And when I get there, I figure it out.

    Sometimes my characters look over my shoulder at my beats and go, “Yeah, no. Let’s try that a different way.” In Fissured, I wanted Joseph to be much more of a jerk to Naomi, but he wouldn’t do it. And in hindsight, I’d say he was probably right; if he’d done what I’d wanted him to do, it would have severely damaged their relationship — and that would be a big problem now that I’m nine books farther along in the story. 😀

    So plotters aren’t always strict constructionists — just as pantsers don’t all sally forth without a thought in their heads to how it will all turn out. 😀

    1. I have a feeling you’re right about that, Lynne. As I said somewhere above, I think it’s more about degree and not kind. Maybe we’re just all on this huge continuum, going from writing without a single note to full chapter outlines and deep psychoanalysis of our characters. I generally start with about a page of bullet points, maybe 5 or 10 pivotal points in the story arc, a sentence or two about the main characters, and then dive in. I’m really glad to know that so many of us stay open to the process and to the subliminal messages from our characters. As you found, they usually DO know best!

  20. I always treat the characters in my stories as people I gradually get to know over time. As in real life, I come to understand who they are and why do they certain things, after a while. Forcing my mind to create personalities, conversations, etc. doesn’t help me produce a better story. It’s the same reason why I don’t set a goal of writing X number of words per day. Regardless, a writer will do whatever it takes to get the story done.

  21. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, Alejandro – so I found that really insightful. It is the way I, too, prefer to get to know my characters. And on occasion to find more characters (I had a whole bunch of people turn up at the end of my SF book ‘Is death really necessary?’ – I had no idea they were necessary until they began arriving!). The plotters and planners would probably say that one should know one’s characters inside out before starting to write the story. Indeed, I have taught a creative writing course, the (excellent) materials for which say exactly that. Fortunately the course materials are also wise enough to tell students to do whatever works for them!

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