I’ve now published two novels and I still don’t know whether I’m a plotter or a pantser. I’ve tried starting with just an idea, only to see the idea exhaust itself in the opening sections. That’s what happened with my third novel that I have begun working on. So I tried the alternative approach and set out to write an outline. But the more detail I added to my outline the more labored and manipulated it felt. What the hell?
I think back to my earlier two novels. I realize that in both cases I went back and forwards between outlining the plot and just writing scenes until I felt confident that–what? What was it that gave me the confidence to start writing the first full draft?
In the case of my first novel (Money Matters), it was the voice of my narrator. While I am a mature man, I chose a young woman to tell the story. Once I had discovered her voice, once I had entered her consciousness, I could recount whatever she was doing, speaking, or thinking with confidence. That voice belonged to a young woman in her twenties who had not yet got her life together. She despised the materialism of the Los Angeles culture to which she belonged. Yet that left her earning a subsistence wage from part-time jobs, dependent on her realtor sister whom she disapproved of for a room she rented in her apartment, and threatened by the forces of big money when she dared to act against them. In other words, I could have her take on the role of an amateur detective and know instinctively how she would react and how she would describe her reaction in any circumstance. After that the writing just flowed (although I had to undertake a lot of revision – as is always the case once you’ve finished the first draft)
The second novel (Dangerous Conjectures) offered a different set of problems. It had two narrators, a professional married couple in their thirties, set during the opening months of the pandemic. I began by outlining each day’s events as their lives careened out of control due to the spread of the coronavirus and of a particular conspiracy theory, QAnon. I had each character (he a scientist who only trusted facts, she frightened for her life by the growing threat of the virus) narrate alternate sections in the present tense. Nothing wrong with that? It just didn’t work. I couldn’t sufficiently distinguish between the two voices. And making each section a consecutive day in their life recounted in the breathless present tense gave the entire narrative the feeling of a diary. The solution came when I rewrote the novel using a third-person omniscient narrator and the past tense. Each section still reflected the alternating viewpoint of the two characters, but the impersonal narrator held their accounts together while removing the sense of breathless reporting that the present tense had given the narrative.
So evidently narrative voice counts for more in my experience than either plotting or pantsing. That doesn’t mean that you don’t need an outline at some early point in the writing process. Without it you will lack any sense of drive or forward movement in the book. Nor does it mean that you cannot inspire yourself by writing out individual scenes before you know where the story is going. In fact, that kind of ad-lib writing can tell you how the entire story can best be told. But what matters as much as anything is just how you tell the story. Because any story can be told in a number of ways. And which you choose will alter the nature of that story. Very likely it will also alter the elements of the story itself.
What this amounts to is that you can start off writing as a pantser or a plotter, but, in my opinion, you need to alternate between them until you find a narrator and a voice that best suits your understanding of what the story is about and why you’re telling it. Never forget that the narrator is an important figure in the narration, at least as important as the major characters – even if one of the characters is the narrator.
Brian Finney is a writer and Professor Emeritus of Literature at California State University, Long Beach. Educated in England, he obtained a BA from the University of Reading and a PhD from the University of London. Between 1964-1987 he taught and arranged extra-mural courses for the University of London. Since immigrating to the US in 1987 he has taught at the University of California, Riverside, University of Southern California, UCLA, and California State University, Long Beach. He has published nine books, including Christopher Isherwood: A Critical Biography (1979) which was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society (KDP 2011/2018), and two novels, Money Matters: A Novel (2019), a finalist for the American Fiction Awards, and Dangerous Conjectures (2021). He is married and lives in Venice, California. Connect with Brian on Twitter @brianfinneywri1 or visit his website at www.bhfinney.com.