Understanding Your Style – From Leeanne Harris and DFW

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” 
― W. Somerset Maugham

I promised you the low down on the various talks I attended, so here was the first one: “Understanding Your Style” by Leeanne Harris,

For those of us who struggle with how to put together a plot, this one can be a real eye-opener. You’ll notice my quote from Maugham at the top of this post. It’s there to underscore the truth of Leeanne’s talk. Her whole point was, there’s a range of plotting styles you can use that are perfectly legit. For those of you struggling with outlines that kill your story, don’t fret. For those of you accustomed to pantsing your way through a novel, this might help you, too.

There are a spectrum of plotting styles. (I tried to input a diagram, but I’m still learning WordPress and it doesn’t like me right now.) There’s the Linear plotter who knows the inside and outside of each character and plot point before ever sitting down to write a word. This kind of writer will frequently write a synopsis and not vary from it at all.

Advantages to this kind of plotting include:

  1. It’s faster. Fiewer plot holes to fill in.
  2. In general, these people can churn out more books than pantsers.
  3. Having an accurate synopsis to hand into the editor/publisher means they can take that puppy to the marketing (read: bank) personnel and sell the book on synopsis spec.

Disadvantages: 1. The author knows what’s going to happen and can get bored. As a middle-of-the-road pantser, I can tell you my characters want to tell me who they are and what they believe. If I don’t let them, they’ll go out on strike and I have no book. This is why I say a linear writer might find this post helpful. If you’re bored or blocked on your book, change things up. *Gasp* Cut loose and do a scene in the middle of your book, or write what author Holly Lisle refers to as a candy bar scene: that battle or sex bit you’ve looked forward to writing since you came up with the idea. Then go on from there or write other scenes. Your linear style may have stymied you, so go around that block. The outline is there to help you. If it’s not helping, it’s time to move to a different point on the plotting continuum.

You can therefore guess the pros and cons of the Pantser or Big Picture life.


  1. The characters can come out much more lifelike, original and unplanned because they were.
  2. These stories are driven by a whole lot of passion and that gets transferred.


  1. Filling in holes, adding chapters, characters, scenes and what have you.
  2. You will need an understanding editor, agent, publisher and marketing team. They will want to try and sell your story based on your synopsis, but they’ll do it knowing the pantser’s synopsis and story may bare no resemblance to one another.

Linear writers feel out characters and write a synopsis. Everything is written in order.

Big picture authors write scenes as they pop into the writer’s head and can be moved at the writer’s whim. These people sometimes don’t write any sort of outline until events are about half done or even until they’re on the second draft and they have a clear notion of what the book’s really about. Big picture authors will leave notes or brackets to themselves to delineate scenes that still need to be written. (I do all of that, but I also I like to number my chapters as individual files. I had saved my first book as a huge file on my computer and the file became corrupted. TRAGICALLY, that means that file is no longer accessible and the world will never know what an enormous piece of trash that book was. I can tell you, though, this taught me to save my next book in small pieces: 1.5, 2, 2.5. Then if I need to switch a chapter, I change the name to 1.2 so it still fits numerically.)

Now we’ve all heard of plot and character driven plots, right? Did you know there’s a third type?

In a plot driven story, the situation occurs and the characters required by that situation present themselves:

  1. What women want.
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean
  3. Die Hard
  4. Belgariad, LOTR (and a whole host of fantasy)

In character-driven plots, the character dominates and drives everything – so much so that the story is even sometimes named after them:

  1. Sherlock Holmes
  2. James Bond
  3. Castle (T.V. Series)
  4. MacGyver

And then there are Theme-driven stories (I’d never heard of this category, but it makes sense to me.) In Theme-driven stories, the author gives the character a challenge and gives them a chance to solve the problem.

  1. Pride and Prejudice (and most of Austin’s books are about Pursuit of Love)
  2. Rob Roy (Honor)
  3. Braveheart (Pursuit of Freedom)
  4. Princess Bride (Pursuit of True Love)

Lastly, Leeanne talked about how plots come to authors. Characters can occur first, then you come up with a plot for that person to face. It seems to me that method makes the most sense with Theme-driven and Character-driven stories. Then you can build the story around that character. You can also find a situation and fit it with appropriate characters. This is ideal for Plot-driven tales.

Most of all, I want to reiterate Mr. Maugham’s statement. There is no correct way to do our job, folks. The only thing I know of that you must do as an author is write, so return to your word processors or note pads and do it, but let me know if this helps. I’d love to know how you approach this part of story-telling.





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9 Responses to “Understanding Your Style – From Leeanne Harris and DFW”

  1. Giora says:

    Thanks, Victoria, for the summary. I guess I’m a big picture author. I start with a basic concept and then start writing the building blocks. I start Chapter 1 and writes like one page. Then I jump to Chapter 2 and write a page. Then I open Chapter 30 (supposedly the last chapter) and write a page. Then I go back and write more pages in Chapters 1 and 2 and then after thinking how the plot should move start Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. I doubt that many authors follow my system of jumping around, but I never planned to be an author in the first place. As you concluded there are many ways to write a novel. My system of jumping from place to place while filling pages works for me. Have a wonderful weekend.

  2. Thanks for the report on Leanne Harris’s DFW class, Victoria. I found myself in most of the listings she gave. I just begin and then I write and write and write. Second draft, I correct, enlarge, etc – whatever occurs to me and whatever seems needed. (Sometimes I delete or move content.) Mostly, it’s just telling the story and the story and characters somehow dictate the story. If that sounds convoluted, well, okay!

  3. I do a bit of both. I try to outline the first bit and then shoot from the hip. I try to paint my proposals/synopses in broad strokes so I don’t surprise my editor too much.

  4. Victoria says:

    I like having major plot points laid out so I have an idea where I’m headed next. If where I’m at isn’t working, I’ll skip ahead or let a previously unknown/unexpected character take charge and see where he goes. Sometimes he has to be reabsorbed by me or a different character. Sometimes he’s gold and stays. I love the sense of variety!

  5. vicki says:

    BTW, Rashda (Mina) Khan has posted some awesome quotes from DFW at http://minakhan.blogspot.com, in case you’re interested.

  6. OOOOOO I like the new look!!!

    I’ve never had a character introduce themselves strongly enough to fit into that character category… I think of the three the character-driven story is the hardest, for many reasons.

  7. vicki says:

    I’d have to agree with you, Margo, though I do love strong characters and will enjoy a book without an obvious plot if the characters are compelling enough. Funny enough, I’ve had characters introduce themselves for short stories like this. Just never for a novel.

  8. I’d never thought about Theme-based books, but it makes complete sense. I do tend to be very linear when I write, but I do also allow my characters to do things unplanned. Completely messes up the plot sometimes, but usually it makes it better (once I figure out how to fix it!). Great post, Vicki! I may just try the out of order thing so I can finish my wip!

  9. vicki says:

    Me, neither, but yeah, I get it.

    I LIKE being linear, but things happen and the next thing you know, I’ve got voices from the end of the story intruding and I have to write them down or I’ll lose it. Those are the happy moments. I made myself write part of the ending the other day because I wanted to know where I’m shooting. Hope you’re not stuck! We were talking about you on Thursday night (were your ears blushing?) and agreed Eva has the strongest voice/character of anything we’ve seen from you so far. Ride that bronco!

    BTW, today’s post features you. LOL

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