Workshop 25: Special Ops: Outliners and Pantsers Combine Forces
Author friends Rene Gutteridge and Susan Meissner come from opposite ends of the writing technique spectrum, but both manage to write page-turning fiction despite their different methods. In their ACFW conference workshop Special Ops: Outliners and Pantsers Combine Forces they talked about the differences—and similarities.
Although Meissner is an outliner, she said her outlining is not done in ink. “Intuition still plays a part.” She knows it’s important to not resist change, but recognizes the essentials of story before she writes: Story arc, compelling characters, relevant setting, relatable conflict and believable responses to change.
Gutteridge, however, is a pantser purist. “I have a very basic outline, big ideas of the beginning, middle, and end,” Gutteridge said. While some writers research extensively, she thinks endlessly about her story—especially before she begins writing. “I don’t have files or folders beyond that, just notes at the end.” She’s always mindful what she needs to change as she writes.
“I never know who the bad guy is,” Gutteridge said. “A beloved character could die at any time.” Though she knows there will be holes in her story, she doesn’t know what they are until she gets there. For her, the plot isn’t the main thing—it’s more what happens to the characters. She likes to experience the story from her readers’ perspective as it unfolds. “If it’s a good idea, it’s going to stick.”
Meissner begins with Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method—though she doesn’t do all the steps. She researches upfront to avoid having to step out of the story to plug a hole.
One thing Meissner also uses when contemplating her story arc is picturing it as a circle with clock numbers on it. The hours 9:00-1:00 are in bold. At 9:00 the story begins in media res and then starts going. Then, she puts eight dots between 9:00 and 10:00, then eight more dots between 10:00 and 11:00, and so on. Each of those is a plot point. This adds up to 40 chapters that are each 10 pages long. Meissner may not know what happens at 11:00, but she knows it has to be big. She makes this list in pencil.
Gutteridge believes the strength of writing by the seat of the pants is that pantsers are more in tune with how the reader will experience the story. For her, the thought of extensive research is overwhelming. Her goal is to “spend less time writing about writing and more time writing.” The excitement of discovery as the writer will be close to what readers experience.
Both outliners and pantsers have a sense of direction, but the plotter has a map or an outline. They suggest if a writer feels frustrated with the journey, try something different. Meissner found she used less time editing because she worked out the story kinks before.
Meissner and Gutteridge offered their counterparts advice:
What the outliner can teach the pantser
- You use maps to help get you where you want to go and keep from getting lost. You can always back up a chapter and try a different route.
- You can always change the map.
- A map reminds you where you’re headed.
What the pantser can teach the outliner
- Don’t be married to your outline, only date it.
- Writing into a corner is a celebration, not a suicide.
- Like your characters, just don’t love them because you may have to kill them (but they hardly ever come back to haunt you).
Pants image courtesy of smokedsalmon/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Snowflake image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net