Plum Line

Today I thought I’d contribute my two-cents worth regarding the eternal debate…pantser vs. plotter.

It’s really not a debate as much a personal preference. Do you outline your plot (plotter) prior to sitting down and writing a manuscript, or do you tend to fly by the seat of your pants (pantser) as you write? In case you don’t already know, there is no right answer. Both methods are viable and used by multitudes of writers. Pantsers tend to believe that outlining stifles their creativity, preferring to have their story emerge organically as they write. Plotters, on the other hand, see their method as allowing them to map out intricate story elements and avoid unnecessary re-writes or revisions. The amount of detail in these outlines range from the very basic on a single piece of paper, to the highly complex that encompasses an entire notebook by itself.

Me…I’ve always been a plotter. Writing mystery/suspense novels, I find it necessary to use this tool to ensure clues are dropped and time related events are coordinated properly. But as it turns out there’s another reason. Let me illustrate it for you.

Anybody who’s been around construction, or undertaken a home project or two, recognizes the term plum line. It's a piece of string, coated with colored chalk, and when you roll it out and snap it against whatever you're working on it imprints the chalk on the surface. This provides you with a visible reference point to ensure you either remain level, or lay things out in a straight line. And when your finished, the chalk is easily wiped away, leaving no trace of its assistance.

Although I outline and plot events in my chapters very carefully, I still allow room for it to breath and grow. When I'm writing I make adjustments to incorporate idea’s I may not have previously considered, because it makes sense at the time and it moves the story in the direction I want to go. But sometimes a small change early on can turn into a major deviation when the project is completed. Soon-to-be published author Rosslyn Elliott just recently posted a description of a similar process on her blog, Inkhorn Blue. Without a plum line to keep you centered, to maintain a point of reference, a writer can easily drift away from their core premise. The result could end in disappointment.

When I completed the final chapter of my last book, something felt off. I couldn't really pin-point what it was, but I had this unfulfilled sensation. I hadn’t referred back to my outline while writing the last third of the book (a mistake) so I decided to go back to it in case I missed something. What I discovered was a minor change I had added early on that snowballed until the way the book ended was thematically different than what I’d outlined. I had drifted off the plum line my outline was supposed to be guiding me with. I made the necessary adjustments and my happy face was back.

What about you? How do you tell when the flow of your story is veering away from your plum line?

52 comments

  1. I do a little of both I start out as a "panser" but as i move forward I become a plotter

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  2. My book I just finished I wrote panser style. I found that I had a ton of revisions to do and of course I can't forget my big rewrite in May- when I rewrote the whole thing from start to finish. Now I'm in the process of beginning a brand new book and I think I'm going to give outlining a try- not too detailed though. This will be an interesting process, that's for sure.

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  3. More of pantser, I guess that is why all my jeans have a thread bare rear end :D
    Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

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  4. I am a panster, hands down. But then, you just read my post about the same thing. It's interesting the different methods we writers use.

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  5. i've only done the panster thing, but i think there is wisdom is plotting... i plan to plot a bit better next time around (rewrites as a panster are horrible!)

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  6. I used to be a pantser but after a revolving door of plot problems and characters that I would kill off coming back like a bad soap opera I had to become a plotter. I never outline to much but try to give each scene the beginning and the end so that whatever creative pantser left in me wants to do in the middle is fine but I still merge back to the ending of that scene so I am prepared for the next and I don't veer off course too much.
    With my imagination straying away from the plot caused 4 months of shaking angry fists so plotting it has become.
    Another lil thing I do is write four or so chapters and then go back and edit. Clean as I cook if you will. This way I am not only getting some primary edits done but I can see if strayed at some point and don't have an entire MS to screen.
    Now..if I just had one completed. bah!

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  7. We so have the same attitude when it comes to outlines. I also tend to leave a little wiggle-room but the main road map is set.

    I can tell when I've gone astray of that map because I really do get the feeling of being lost. The words come harder and I'm not sure where to go next. Getting back to my outline tends to get me back on track.

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  8. I'm a summarizer. I don't/can't outline the details, but I find I need to know my destination. So I'll do a very brief synopsis and keep track of any major plot points that I need to throw in. So I guess I'm sort of a middle-of-the-road-er.

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  9. I used to be a pantser, but I'm pretty solidly a plotter. I find it easier to write the chapters when I already know what's going to happen.

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  10. I'm technically a pantser, but I also have a pretty good idea of where things are going to go imprinted on my brain, I just don't put it to paper.

    I'm not opposed to trying outlining though. I'm sure it will happen some time.

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  11. I'm a mixture of both - depends on when the mood strikes ;)

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  12. I'm a bit of both. I try to nail down exactly what my character wants and how she'll get there before I start writing, then fill in the bits in between!

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  13. That was very interesting because I hear so many people say that if they veer from their outline, they let it go organically and don't force it back. But I can certainly understand needing to go back in order to make the mystery component work out. Myself I'm a total pantser. Disorganized all over the place. Shameful.

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  14. Summer R ~ I'm hearing from a lot of writers that are using a combination of both.

    April ~ Great minds.....right??

    Erica ~ I tend to edit a bit as I go also. But its a very broad stroke at that point.

    Kelly ~ I feel that Pantser use an internal outline.

    Lisa ~ To me, without some kind of guidance a story can amble all over the place. It may be organic...but possibly confusing and not very entertaining reading.

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  15. I'm an outliner. And when I veer from the main line, it' usually because I've thought of something better.

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  16. This is a great analogy DL! Well said. Personally I do outline, but I keep it very basic and try to only use it loosely, allowing the plot and characters to grow on their own a bit.

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  17. I don't have the discipline required to be a plotter. I'm a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants gal all the way. :-)

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  18. Pantser. BUT, it does make for several hellish rounds of revisions to fix the gaping plot holes and screwy timelines. (hence I call it Revision Hell/RH)

    But, I am sorta making an outline for my revisions right now...hoping to help me get through this round of revision easier/faster. We'll see if I can stick to it, or if it makes it more hellish.
    (I haven't had time to even finish the outline, let alone begin to use it. *sigh*)

    Have a wonderful weekend, my friend.
    Lola

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  19. i am a terminal pantser.

    i think i need help.

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  20. Your analogies are always so intelligent and thought-provoking. I realized I'd come off my plum line when I ran into a mental road block and was, quite simply, halted. I couldn't move forward until I worked through the plotting issues on an outline.

    I tell people I'm a pantser...as soon as my outline is complete. In other words, my brand of creative magic comes alive in the details, the descriptive writing, not in the overall plot ideas.

    Great post!

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  21. Thanks for the shout-out, DL! Your 'plumb line' is a great way to conceive of the novels's central drive and focus.

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  22. Hi Don,

    I thought I would start reading your blog again since our goal is to double the number of hits. The few times that I do write I would say that I am a pantser. I have an idea in my head but it is constantly changing as new ideas pop into my head.

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  23. I would actually hope that all writers are both, seeing as how there are pros and cons to both methods of writing.

    My first book was entirely un-plotted, and whether I'm being naive or not, it seems fine to me. But then I started work on its sequel, and... I found myself up crap creek without a plum line. :]

    So now I am indeed a pantser and a plotter.

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  24. Tahereh ~ Dance with the guy that brought you to the dance!

    Rosslyn ~ Thank you! Your Butterfly explanation fit what I do perfectly.

    GW ~ Thanks bud! I make my thought settle down and behave before I commit them to paper!! :)

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  25. Interesting discussion. I've written two novels (published one), and in both cases, I was a pantser from the start -- beginning each novel with a one-sentence idea. However, an interesting dynamic occurred in both stories as their plots unfolded: I'd get instant ideas for future events in the story and I would jot them down. So, I guess, in some ways, I'm a plotter in the second half, but only after my pantser intuition has had its power and taken me on the joyful ride. I love the process of surrendering to invention!

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  26. Outlines make me about as happy as synopsis writing...(and that's not happy.)

    bru

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  27. I know about plumb lines but I'm a panster. I admit I know my basic plot in my head when I begin and it changes. But so far it seems plumb and true but that could change:)

    Great analogy!

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  28. I do a little of both too. What does that make me? Plantser??

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  29. I'm a panster and a plotter... it's like an uhealthly combo sometimes. My story starts to flow in my head, that's where the plotting comes in, I'm mapping out my world, my characters, everything, only because eventually I'll start typing.

    That's where I watch the plum line. I have the ideas in place, now it's important for me to start writing it and still allow myself breathing room because no real points were made.

    So maybe it isn't unhealthy... maybe it's just right :)

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  30. I'm a total plotter. I use a book called "First Draft in Thirty Days" which should actually be called "Outline in Thirty Days", because that's what you end up with. But the point is that your outline is so complete it's like having a first draft. So I really do take about a month to outline before I write a word. And I think that process is as creative or more than the actual writing, I don't fell stifled by it at all, just a little frustrated because I'm so anxious to dive in and start writing!

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  31. I'm a recent convert to outlines, but I still end up making stuff up as I go along. So, I'm somewhere in the middle, I suppose.

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  32. I love the "plum line" idea. I think that's basically what I have. My first book was definitely all pantser. I was all over the place and really had to revise and edit - a lot!

    Book 2 is sort of written out in a summary. I use it as a guide. When I get stuck, I go back to my summary and see where I went wrong. But I still like the pantser part, too. Sometimes the story just goes where it needs to go.

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  33. I'm somewhere in between. I'm good to go if I have a beginning and ending. Everything else in between... well, I guess that's what revisions are for.

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  34. Terry ~ If it works for you, then its the right way!

    Jennifer ~ I would be lost without my outline...and tend to ramble. My rambling isn't what anyone would want to read.

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  35. I've gone off plum when writing a school paper, but haven't in Fiction.

    I think that is because I give a very basic main goal for my MC to shoot for. I do this after I have been in that MC's head for a while and know what makes the MC tick(before I start full on writing or planning story line).

    I do a rough sketch of things and people I want in the story and then I start writing as if I am that MC living that life with those life moments and people. I know the MC so I know how he will react to the situations I planned.

    Sometimes I get surprised (like life) and the MC or story or folks/situation gets changed or even re-routed (like life) but I always find my way back to my MC goal and by then created more layers to the story by my detours (like life). When I edit, I am just taking out the bits that bore me or can be combined with other scenes or other characters (not like life). So I am a pantser with a road map. ;-D

    And I agree that with mystery/suspense or with a large cast of characters, you should use a plot. It just cuts down on confusion and makes a more detailed and tighter weave of a plot.

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  36. I'm a plot-pantser, a little of both. Excessive plotting seems too suffocating, but no plotting can leave me rambling. I try to find a happy medium.

    Have a great weekend!

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  37. Except for small details, I don't veer much. I run my story through my head like a movie, from start to finish, before jotting down the outline. So it's rare that something major changes.

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  38. Pantser. But then again, I haven't finished an MS yet! Maybe I should plot...but that would be too constricting....so I'll pants...but then I never finish...but then...

    Do you see my problem? I'm actually an "indecider."

    michele
    Southern City Mysteries

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  39. For me it depends on the story. My one story I keep trying to "just write" and have all kinds of problems with the plot. I need to seriously work out an outline for it. Another one has a completely different sort of plot and pantsing is working just fine. All it has is a basic premise for the wrap-up.

    I think it would be interesting to see if there is any sort of correlation between type of plot story to percentage of pantsers/outliners: like mystery type stories have higher percentage of outliners than a travel type story. (Just my supposition, not a real fact)

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  40. I know what you mean about a plumb line. I tend to use a certain outline to keep me on track. I guess the trick is to make sure the line is true. For one of my WIPs, I drew a line that, well, veered off to a side. The last half of the book ended up feeling very wrong with the themes of the text and needed to be reworked. A good line is essential.

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  41. i was going to say "well hello sir..." but i actually wanted a response and i'm pretty sure last time i called you sir, you didn't like it. ;) in fact, you almost took my award back, if i remember correctly.

    i am most DEFINITELY a pantser, unless it's a paper for class that requires a certain format and such.... THEN it takes some preparation.... i don't like preparation.... i love writing from my heart.... prepped papers turn into a big glob of garbage (to me).... i read my papers and stories 50 bazillion times and think "ugh.... it doesn't flow!"

    pantser, for sure. the husband better watch out. ;)

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  42. When I've tried plotting, I go blank, but I've heard of a couple of writers who start a project by their pants, and plot at the 1/2 way point. I hope this will be me!

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  43. Jaleh ~ I was thinking the same thing regarding the orientation between the type of story and Pantser vs Plotter. My guess is that authors that write stories that are heavily plot driven (mysteries, thrillers, etc) are much more likely to be Plotters as suppose authors who write character driven stories (romance, travel, comedy, etc).

    Will ~ There a couple people here who have responsed with that same sentiment and use the method you describe. :)

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  44. I kind of go about the whole process backwards. I start out knowing how my story will end and go from there. I outline as I go. It's probably more work but I've never been known to do things the easy way. Great post!

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  45. Oh my word, one of the best analogies for an outline ever. And a superb argument for it, too. I used to be a pantser, but no longer. It hurts too much.

    Okay, a total lie. I'm still a bit of a pantser, and it still hurts. I'll say instead that I shouldn't be.

    Masochist? Or lazy?

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  46. Hey DL! Your idea for a blogfest was so cool, I used it at my writer's club on Deviant Art as a new contest - http://thewritersmeow.deviantart.com/blog/34277348/
    Gave you credit and a link. Used your description, too! Thanks, hope that's cool.

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  47. Just wanted to send a reminder about guess that character blogfest this week!! Can't wait to see your entry!

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  48. I'm a combination, too. I started with a rough outline - all major turning points jotted down, but quickly the outline turned into writing so I just went with it. The major points are still the same, but all the stuff in between has changed. For example, my MC was originally married with kids. Now she's a newlywed desperate to have kids...a minor change but as her husband wants to wait it creates more conflict.

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  49. My outline is VERY loose! I have an idea of where I'm going, and how to get there. The bits in between just come to me as I'm writing. So far, it's working!

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  50. As I have so far written mostly short stories, I have been one of those blind, organic writers without a plot.

    I have posted about this before: this dilemma that every writer faces, and if I ever do write a longer piece of work, I will definitely have a plot outline of some sort.

    Nice post

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  51. Julie ~ Very LOOSE would probably be a good description of my outline as well.

    Damyanti ~ Thank you for the link. Very interesting take on the subject!

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  52. Me? Mainly pantser.
    I started writing novels sort of by accident. I had just finished doing a major study and got used to a computer as a tool for writing. Getting on a bit in years, I decided to write my autobiography. I came to a point where I was fifteen and, out of the blue, my friend's brother, nearly old enough to be my dad and not long back from the war, pinned me against a wall and kissed me hard on the lips bruising them. So began a secret romance until I was about sixteen — nothing more than kissing but all done under the noses of her big family. It came to an end when he clearly wanted more. We hardly ever spoke to each other before and after. Thinking about it, I wondered 'what if?' So began the first book of a trilogy post-war Britain to the turn of the new Millenium.
    A lot of me (I too became a dress designer) went into the books, and the settings are one's familiar to me. But my imagination carried me away on a roller-coaster ride. The characters — good and bad — took over, new ones stepped in and forced sub-plots but all part of the whole. So a little planning but surprising turn of events seemed to come from nowhere. In the beginning I did not intend to write a novel.

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