By Popular Demand: Pantsers, Plotters, and — Puzzlers!

Over on Karen Huber’s blog a few days back, I mentioned a term I snapped up somewhere, an alternative to the two writing poles of plotters and pantsers — the puzzler. Several people in the comments were quite enthusiastic about the term, so I figure it just might deserve a blog post of it’s own, rather than a mention hidden in some comments somewhere.

I always knew I was more of a plotter than a pantser. Some of my writer friends can take a couple of prompts and immediately start writing a story. I can write stories from prompts too, many of my stories have been written that way, but I just can’t do the “immediate” part. I have to brainstorm and play with ideas first. More than anything else, I need to know the ending before I start. If I don’t, I invariably get bogged down somewhere in the middle and don’t know where to go from whatever corner I wrote myself into.

At the same time, however, plotting out every single chapter and every single plot twist before I start writing is nearly as foreign to my nature as spontaneously writing a complete story from a single first line. There are a couple of short stories I’ve written that I plotted out almost completely before writing them, most notably “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide.” That was necessary for that story, because each of the disasters had to follow the one preceding it, and the whole arc had to have a very strong, increasing sense of inevitability.

But plotting every single scene like that for a whole novel? It would drive me crazy.

My usual process starts with brainstorming basic plot, characters and setting, and doing the initial research. (I rarely write anything that doesn’t require research.) As I brainstorm, I jot down ideas for potential scenes, which I might start organizing in some kind of orderly fashion. But before I can get from the beginning to the end, one or another of these scenes I’m brainstorming grabs me, and I have to start writing it. And then another, and another. While I’m writing these random scenes, I also start getting to know my characters better, which gives me a better idea of the kinds of complications that would fit their personalities. And so I start jumping backwards and forwards and filling in the blanks, puzzling out the plot as I go.

To a plotter, the process probably sounds very random. But neither am I writing by the seat of my pants. I can’t even start without a bunch of notes on characters and scenes and plot arc and usually a fair amount of research.

I cannot claim to have come up with the term, but when I googled it to try to find the brilliant originator, all I found were other writers who also heard the term “puzzler” at some point or another and happily adopted it as their own. Me too. :)

Anyway, in my own puzzling way, I got another 5000 words on Chameleon in a Mirror completed, despite various other projects. (Although, to be perfectly honest, not so puzzling this time around, since it’s a rewrite from scratch.) Chameleon is now coming in at 86,000 words, of a projected 100,000. Not much more to go! Maybe with the finish line in sight, I can pick up the pace a bit and finish by the end of the month. That would be a great new goal. :)

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27 thoughts on “By Popular Demand: Pantsers, Plotters, and — Puzzlers!”

  1. I can completely identify with being a puzzler! Years ago, I taught a young writer’s workshop and called my class “Growing Plot and Character Together.” Same idea that as you get to know your characters, more plot possibilities present themselves, and as your plot progresses, you get to know what kind of characteristics your MC needs to make it work smoothly. I just wasn’t clever enough to think of the term Puzzler. Thanks!

    Good luck with finishing – sounds like you’re on a roll.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer! Yeah, I think a lot of being a puzzler has to do with that growing together thing. A lot of the pantsers I know are very character-centric writers, and they just let the plot go where the characters do, but that doesn’t seem to work for me. Maybe my characters are too boring without plot. *g*

  2. Aha, Ruth, now I have a term for how I usually write. I have plotted things, and pantsed some short things, but I’m usually puzzling as you describe.

    It sounds like you’ve done very well on goals this Round (as usual!) Have a wonderful week!

  3. yup thats me a puzzler – although I have been known to let characters wander down their own path – beginnings and endings in particular are hardly ever written until I have the puzzle clear – good term thanks:)

  4. I love this! I’m definitely a puzzler although sometimes it gets frustrating because the random scenes that I write don’t always fit together. But thanks for explaining this and I will definitely adopt it!

  5. Bit late to this post, but wow can I identify. Our processes aren’t that different, although I probably research less. I’ve always called myself a plotser (half plotter half pantser half crazy) but the term Puzzler makes far more sense. Thanks for helping me calm the “half crazy” part – totally adopting this term :)

  6. I loved the post. I’ve never heard the term puzzler, makes me wonder what closet I’ve been hiding in. :D
    I write roughly the same way. It does seem a little random, but it works. I’ve always called myself an in-betweener. The Plotter in me needs a plan, but the Pantser can’t write a story that is completely planned out. Takes all the fun out of it. So I do something inbetween plotting and writing by the seat of my pants. :D

  7. Brilliant post and I love the term puzzler. I identify with it and it describes very well how I need to know some of the big picture (plotter part) yet also leave something to be discovered and puzzled out (pantser part).

  8. I love this term. I’m more of a hard core plotter, but I know a lot of writers who probably fall into the puzzler category. I’m glad someone came up with a better term for it than plantsers.

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