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Plum Line - Revisited

This was originally posted in August of 2010.

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

It’s really not a debate as it is 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 – both adult and YA -- 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, will recognize 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. Nowadays they use lasers to create the lines, but the concept is still the same.

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 nears completion, and without a plum line to keep you centered and maintain a point of reference, a writer can easily drift away from their core premise. The result could end in disappointment, or at a minimum major re-writes.

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.  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? 


  1. I've always outlined. Even if I don't refer back to it often, once I've committed something to paper, it's ingrained in my head.

  2. I bounce back and forth between the two. I have found that I write a lot faster when I don't outline though. But I do always start with character sketches.

  3. I can't outline. If I do, I never finish the book because I know what happens and writing it bores me. Pantser all the way! But when I change things midway, I leave myself notes so I know what I need to go back and add or tweak when I revise. I sometimes leave books a year or more before I revise them, so those little notes are important.

  4. I have a rough draft of my ending before I begin. That gives me a visual plum line. If I'm not working toward that ending, I'm off course. I think it's the old computer programmer in me. In programming, you always figure out the desired output first and work from there.




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