How to Write Thrillers as a “Pantser”: Making It Work When You Can’t Plot in Advance
By Laura JarrattMay 3, 2022
Laura visits the site this week to share some insights from her writing process as a "pantser."
I’ve written a number of crime or psychological thriller books now and each is still a voyage of discovery in terms of the writing process. I remember being interviewed at the Edinburgh Book Festival and was asked how long it too me to plot out each book. The interviewer gave an audible gasp when I told her I don’t plot—I wing it as I write.
Yes, that’s right. I’m a pantser. For the unfamiliar, there are two types of writer. Those who plan their books in advance, setting out characters and scenes, breaking down the plot chapter by chapter, through from start to finish. And then there’s the ones like me, who fly by the seat of our pants. We just write and a book happens.
‘But your plots are so detailed—you must plan!’ the interviewed replied. Alas no, I am a dyed-in-the-wool pantser. I sometimes wish it was otherwise because it’s the most stressful way to write and it has sometimes led me down some wrong turns that it’s taken a considerable edit to fix. So how can a pantser like me get this genre to work? I’ll be honest—it takes a lot of nerve sometimes, and a factor I call ‘Saved by the Edit.’
I start with an idea, nothing more. With Two Little Girls, I had an opening scene in my head. It was very visual and that’s always a good sign for me. If I can see a strong scene like that, as clear as on a movie screen, I have something I can work with. Usually close on the heels of my opening idea, I get a sense of what the closing scene will be. The rest is a mystery until I start to write.
I’m a very slow writer in those first chapters. It can take me months to get the first 30k written because I’m finding my way. This part takes some courage and is where I’m most likely to go wrong and end up down a blind alley. It’s where I learn who my characters are, and also the place where I really find the plot. In Two Little Girls, I initially thought the opening 20k would be about Lizzie and Dan’s marriage falling apart because he would be unable to accept that she’d chosen between the girls. After writing that opening scene in the car, that was my expectation for where the book was going. However, Dan just refused to have that attitude as I created him on the page and I found myself writing about a very different kind of marriage to the one I thought they might have. This is one of the great dangers for me and probably the reason I can’t plot in advance. I create as I physically write. The characters grow legs and become real. I’ve heard writers describe how they feel their characters write the book, not them, and that’s really the best explanation I can give of what it feels like for me too. That’s why I say it’s a voyage of discovery. And in another way, it’s a lot like falling in love, where you’re learning about someone the more time you spend with them.
It wasn’t until I got to around 30k and sent a chunk to my agent that the plot really took shape properly. She sent me a confused note back asking why the book had suddenly taken a surprising twist and where it was going. When I told her, she was incredulous. ‘But that sounds like the best bit! Why didn’t you get there earlier with it?’
‘Because I didn’t know until then that it happened this way,’ I replied.
She’s been my agent for a decade so she’s used to me, and just sighed and told me to edit other stuff out and get there faster. After the first 30k, it’s much easier as most of the plot is set up as a series of natural consequences.
You can make it work as a pantser, but you do have to be prepared to be absolutely ruthless in editing a first draft. And I never write a full first draft before I edit, unlike many other writers. I edit in chunks as I write and I think perhaps this is how I get away with pantsing. I get to 10k very slowly and then I edit. Am I happy with the characters? Is enough happening here? Is there a sense of pace? When I’ve got that exactly as I want it, I carry on and write the next 20k which is the hardest part of the book for me. It’s really got to form a full Act 1 with a good hook into Act 2. I always think of my books in three acts. After reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, I actually tried to use it to plot Two Little Girls in advance and it was an utterly depressing experience of failure. I really can’t do it, but I did find some of his method very useful in editing, particularly for fixing flabby middles which is a problem for most writers. What Save the Cat did teach me was to view Act 2 in two parts and that really helped give my instinct some focus. As I see the word count build up, I’m mentally reviewing approximately where I am at each stage of Act 2 and while I might not plot it in advance, I do hold that route map of pace and action in my head to guide me. Sometimes that’s nothing more than ‘Hmm, there should be a twist coming up,’ and I channel my character and they tell me what it will be.
I find the last Act the easiest and the quickest to write. My first draft of this act needs few revisions. By now, I know the characters so well and the rhythm of the book is established. There’s often a climactic finale and this usually requires some real thought. I know I can write action scenes but they’re not easy to do. I find them quite draining so I have to take regular breaks when I’m doing them. But the last chapter is always pure joy.
And there you have it: how to pants your way through a thriller. Hold your nerve, trust your instincts but be prepared to be wrong and have to re-route. Take it act by act, and let the edits save you.
About Two Little Girls by Laura Jarratt:
When Lizzie’s car crashes with her two daughters inside, she faces a terrible choice. And when she recovers from her injuries, she must deal with the impact of that tragedy and the police investigation into it. As Lizzie and her family struggle to come to terms with the events of that night, things take an even darker turn. What exactly happened on that remote country road? Who is responsible? And can the family get through this together… or will the truth finally tear them apart?