Wednesday, September 20, 2017


 by Janis Patterson

One of the saddest things about an inadequate education is the ability to remember quotes but not be sure about who said them.

One of my favorites is “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I think it was Robert Frost who said it, but don’t quote me on that.

I suppose I should give you a disclaimer – I am a thoroughgoing and proud pantser. I work on what I call the suspension bridge system, meaning I know where the story starts, and approximately where it ends, and a couple of plot points in the middle. Then the rest is just putting in more plot points where they’re needed and stringing the story webwork in between. Half the time I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Like every writer, I have friends who are devout plotters. They fill out multi-page character sheets, detailing everything from his grandmother’s maiden name to his favorite flavor of Jell-O. Then they do scene-by-scene outlines, practically noting every time a main character raises an eyebrow. They say it keeps them on track and makes them more efficient. I’ve tried it (I’m always open to ways to improve my craft) and all it made me was bored. Incredibly bored and sleepy. In one class I plotted minutely what should have been a very interesting book about terrorism, antiquities smuggling and dirty bombs. Sad, but it’s a book that will never be written. By the time I finished the outline I was soooo bored with it that it will never be written. By me, at least.

Is dedicated pantsing fraught with potential problems? Of course, but then so is rigid plotting. So is any kind of putting words in a string to tell a story, however you do it. Sometimes I hit a wall and have to back up, but surprisingly rarely. My personal belief is that a good book grows organically – that each action/scene grows logically out of what has gone before. Sometimes it takes me a while to go from one point to another, but not often. It’s really easier than it looks, and your characters – if they are real people and not just cardboard puppets – will tell you what to do. My characters just walk in, tell me their name and what they will and will not do. If I try to go against their will, they stage a silent sit-in strike until I give in, which I usually do. 

Case in point : in my current work in progress, I realized that I had to have a character deliver a crucial piece of information about a series of murders. Only problem was, this character had been the first victim, and ghosts didn’t fit into this story. Last night at dinner (The Husband treated me to a luscious hamburger at our favorite place) I was chatting about the story, and he was listening most politely, when all of a sudden the penny dropped and I knew what had to be done. The expression on my face must have been remarkable, because The Husband looked up, startled, and asked if I was all right.

“The brother! It’s the brother.”

Well, he doesn’t have a brother, and mine died many years ago, so he became much more alarmed about my mental health. After all the years we’ve been married he should know better, but… Immediately I explained that the first victim had a brother, who may or may not be killed himself after delivering the important piece of information my sleuth needed. The Husband’s comment? “Oh.”

Once I tried to explain my working process to The Husband, who is a science-oriented military man. He listened politely, then said, “Sounds like possession.” Maybe he’s right. Whatever it is, it works for me.

One last note – this organically-grown, pantsing way of writing is not, repeat NOT, a license to drag in unrelated action or utilize the dreaded (and unbelievable) Deus ex Machina to solve everything. Neither can you blame a convenient wandering homicidal maniac who has been unheard of until the final chapter. Your clues have to be there. You have to play fair with the reader and give them enough so that – if they are quick and clever – they have a chance to solve the mystery. (You don’t have to dump the solution in their laps, though!) It’s not necessarily easy, but it is very satisfying for both writer and reader.

Just remember – no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. And surprises keep things interesting, don’t they?


Jacqueline Seewald said...

There's more than one way to approach writing mystery. Organically grown is good as long as you don't go off on a tangent and find yourself creating a lot of scenes you later must kill.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I too am a pantser. I thought the quote was, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." Yes, Frost, but I think he was paraphrasing someone else. (Alas, my inadequate education shows . . .) Your story development sounds a lot like mine, though I rarely discuss my plotting problems with anyone else. I stare at the screen and wonder, "Whatever will I do now?" I usually come up with something.

Radine said...

Loved this blog--and boy, do I "get it." THANKS from another pantser. Radine

Maria G. Swan said...

Yes, that's the way to do it. Great bog. Maria Grazia Swan

Patricia Stoltey said...

Being a pantser is fun! I love when a character's behavior or a sudden plot twist in my own wip takes me by surprise. I've also tried plotting and outlining, but it didn't work out. :D