The Power of Pantsing

There’s a pretty well-known trope describing how people write novels. It breaks writers down into pantsers and plotters. Plotters plan out the sequence of events, outline what happens in their books, and generally have a strong idea where the ship is going. Pantsers, on the other hand, write by the seat of their pants, with little or no planning in advance. Though I have seen people cross over from one camp to another, it generally doesn’t stick. As a writer, once you’ve found a method that helps you to get your work done, you’re unlikely to mess with it, if only for superstitious reasons.

George R. R. Martin, who created Game of Thrones, has a slightly more thoughtful view of the two types:

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

I bring this up to confess to what you might already expect: that I am much more a messy gardener than an architect, despite the fact that I have a civil engineer father and brother and I did very well in my Math SATs. And I’m not going to take sides, because anyone who’s tried to write anything longer than a tweet knows that whatever gets the writing done is good and useful.

One of the manifold joys of this method, though, is the occasional surprise. I’m working on a standalone novel at the moment, not one of the Elder Darrow series, and it’s a good deal more challenging. As one of my writing coconspirators reminded me the other night, I’m inventing an entirely new world and a new set of characters, where if I were writing another in a series, I’d already have some of that work done for me.

This book is coming hard, for some reason. Usually, even as a pantser/gardener, I have a rough idea what’s coming two or three chapters ahead. With this one, I start out every morning with only the barest wisp of light to follow through the fog, and at the end of the day’s session, I generally have no good idea what tomorrow brings.

Except that last Thursday, I realized I needed a McGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock invented the term—it’s an object that serves as a plot device, like the sled in Citizen Kane, or the statuette of the bird in The Maltese Falcon. When I say I needed it, what I mean is that I discovered that there was a McGuffin lurking somewhere in my plot. Unfortunately, as a certified gardener, I had no clue what it was.

So I forgot about it until I was Zooming with some friends later that day, and I confessed that I had a McGuffin, but I didn’t know what it was. General commiseration and so forth, and then their cat walked across the screen, and when I woke up the next morning, I knew what the McGuffin was, not completely yet, but I had the general idea. And I could go on. Could have been the cat, could have been the company. Damfido.

Which is only to illustrate for me the general hilarity involved in never being quite sure where you’re going in writing a book. While I didn’t know what the McGuffin was, and I still don’t know exactly where my story is going, I’ve done this enough to believe in the power of the pantser. It is an article of faith in my writing process to trust the mystery—it rarely lets me down. As my spirit musician Jimmy Buffett might say: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you.”

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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3 Responses to The Power of Pantsing

  1. ABC says:


  2. I couldn’t be a plotter if my life depended on it. Many of my short stories start with a character’s name and nothing else, but it’s generally like watching a movie in my head and works well.

  3. Judith moore says:

    Interesting. I assumed the process was outlined.

    Sent from my iPhone


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