DSC_0194-finalMarilyn Meredith, another of the Ladies of Mystery, wrote a blog in July about whether you as a writer are a plotter or a pantser and how to know which you are. Plotters of course plan everything out even before they start to write. They may outline or write all the scenes down on 3 x 5 cards which they post on bulletin boards. Maybe they don’t do a formal outline, but they have a pretty good idea of who the characters are, what the plot is, and who the bad guy is.

I was never able to do an outline, even when it was a school assignment. The whole process seemed beyond me. So, clearly, I have to be a pantser, someone who sits down daily at the computer and doesn’t have a clue where the story is going. Most of the time this works for me. I have a vague idea when I finish one day where I’m going to do the next. The scene unfolds in my head as I write, the characters take over and the story moves along. I said, usually it works. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t and that’s when I pull up the unsticking ideas I’ve gathered over the years.

Stephen J. Cannell, a great mystery writer, now deceased, spoke at a meeting of the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter to which I belong and passed on a good thought: when you’re stuck, think about, “What are the bad guys doing?” He said he used that often as a way to approach the story from a different perspective.

As the writer, this works because you are now out of the head of your protagonist, the head in which you’ve become stuck, and are thinking about the story from the point of view of the bad guys. Sometimes, often for me, I don’t know where the bad guys are going either, but looking at the story from their point of view usually gives me an idea of what they’re up to.

I used this dictum in the book I’m currently editing, PSYCHIC DAMAGE, which is due out in the spring. I had two of the bad guys talking about the heroine who has something they want. I wrote a scene, and the scene got me unstuck. Later I realized I didn’t need it, but it had served as an unsticking tool.

As a pantser, I find that my subconscious often puts clues in the book which help me get unstuck. What does this discovery, found in Chapter Two, mean in the scheme of the novel when I write it? Often I don’t know when I write it, but I’ve learned to have faith that I will find out the meaning further along in the book. And it is often an unsticking tool, something that clarifies where the story is going. I’ve learned not to delete those clues that I don’t understand when I write them. They may come in handy later.

I got another unsticking suggestion from a friend, also a writer. She suggestion that I try writing from the point of view of another character or characters and see what that told me about the story. And it worked. I wrote from the point of view of a man who disappeared, and he told me enough about what his plans were to get me unstuck.

I suppose writers who outline don’t get stuck, or they get stuck in the outline process, not in the writing. But I do enjoy writing when I don’t know how things are going to turn out. If I had it all outlined, I’m afraid I’d feel as though I’d already written the book.

I remember one writer saying that when she got to the end of her book, she realized that no one could have committed the murder, so she had to go back and make it possible to solve. That does happen to us pantsers, but it’s all part of the fun of writing.

What about you other writers? How do you get unstuck?


  1. I’m half and half. Usually when I get stuck it’s because I wrote my characters into a spot they wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t intruded. So I take a break from the story and subconsciously think about it and when I come back I know what needs to be done to fix it. Good post!


  2. I was at that SinC/LA meeting with Stephen Cannell too! What I remember was how he managed to deal with his dyslexia to become a great writer. Even plotters can become stuck as well. I was stuck on my WIP and discovered I had framed the wrong person for the murder. I changed that and I added more red herrings. The fun never stops!


  3. Those unsticking ideas can be helpful for us plotters, too. I’ll get stuck in the middle of my plotting — while I’m not in the middle of a page or chapter, just creating notes, it’s still stuck. Considering the plot from someone else’s perspective is a great technique to work through whatever hurdle I find myself facing.


  4. I’m a pantser too. and like you if I outline or chapter by chapter what will happen then I’m through. I just can’t get up any want to and fill in what the story is when I know it all. I have 2 books completely outlined and 2 books with all the chapters and what will happen in them. I just have never gotten enough enthusiasm up to even start to work on them. I understand how you feel. It is great to see a post from a pantser, I begin to think everyone is a efficient and organized plotter and I’m just the one in the group that is out of step. Thanks for your post.


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