From an answer to this question: How do I successfully structure a long fiction piece?

I think I can infer the meaning from the usage but some elaboration would be helpful.


Stephen King, by my understanding, was a discovery writer. I will paraphrase what he wrote in his book On Writing.

You create some real, believable characters, put them in a challenging situation, and then let them decide where the book would go. If you have done enough work on character development, then your characters should be able to decide how they would act in a certain situation.

The writer should not then try to force the characters to act in the way he would want to act. If the characters you created would want to run away from danger, for example, you should not force them to be brave.

The fun in this approach is that the book can take strange, surprising turns, which can surprise both the readers and the author. The disadvantages that I know about are, it is very hard to pull off, and not a good approach if you are under a deadline by an editor.

Also, this approach works well, if like Stephen King, you can easily type 300,000 words for a novel, and then trim it down. If like me, you struggle to reach even the 50,000 of Nanowrimo, this approach will fail miserably.

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    Elmore Leonard famously does this. I "borrow" a bit from acting in my approach. You know how actors are supposed to moan about how their interpretation of a character "wouldn't say x"? Well the real answer to that in many acting circles is "well then your character interpretation is wrong". If I need a character to act a certain way at a certain point and it would seem far fetched to have them act that way given what's gone before I tend to go back and find the roots of that action in the earlier parts of the novel. I consider this "editing". – One Monkey Sep 21 '11 at 11:15
  • I don't think it's that hard to pull off. I do this, and it's how I get to know who my characters are. It makes writing a much more natural, organic process than planning out all the details before starting to write. (I write stories, not novels.) – Ken Mohnkern Jul 25 '17 at 16:52

The definitions for this term will vary wildly. I would say if you have not plotted out your story (which happens in which chapter and why) before you start writing it down, then you are a discovery writer.

The most extreme: You have a vague idea, grab your pen/keyboard and start writing your novel. That's what I would suggest to a bloody beginner to gain some experience. But normally you are likely to get consistency problems (and other issues).

The more common discovery writer will draft characters with a background, has an idea where the story should go and starts writing from there. The idea is that the characters and their needs drive the story. So these writers let the characters make their own decisions during the story and adjust accordingly. Yes, that sounds weird, because it is still the writer who makes any decisions about the characters, but it really feels like that the protagonists took over and you only write down what they dictate.

There are other variations for this writer type. I, for example, know how the story starts, ends, and have some "milestones" in the middle I want to reach. But sometimes they are not reached, because my protagonist has different ideas (yeah, it really feels like that).

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    I tend to have a very clear idea about what I want to achieve but I want always to start the story in purest mundanity and turn up the fantasy elements (usually). I tend to think deeply about the central characters and, whenever I introduce a new character I let them have a little scene and then I go away and think about who they are in more depth. For me writing a novel is like "join the dots" that whole thing about JK Rowling writing the last chapter of HP and then putting it away until she'd written the rest? That's how I work always, more or less. – One Monkey Sep 21 '11 at 9:38
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    @One Monkey: Sounds like your "join the dots" is like my "milestones". But my characters "miss" one dot sometimes and draw a new one :) – John Smithers Sep 21 '11 at 14:11
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    That's very much how it goes. Sometimes you think "A then B then C then D" and actually what happens is "A then B then E then C forget D"... – One Monkey Sep 21 '11 at 14:30
  • So, John, you're saying that sometimes the characters make the decisions for you? ;-) – Jürgen A. Erhard Sep 21 '11 at 15:57
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    It's not my fault, @Jürgen. The voices in my head force me to do it! – John Smithers Sep 21 '11 at 17:13

Expounding on John Smithers's excellent answer:

I would say if you have not plotted out your story (which happens in which chapter and why) before you start writing it down, then you are a discovery writer....But normally you are likely to get consistency problems (and other issues).

Yes, and I would take this definition even a step further: if you have not plotted out anything about your story — where it goes, what happens, how it ends, not just each chapter — that makes you a discovery writer. I worked with a writer like this once; she told me that sat down at the keyboard and typed to see what the characters would do, because as the writer, she herself didn't know.

This may be fun for the writer, like doing improv acting, but the result is not necessarily satisfying to the reader. (Or the editor.) A good story needs a coherent plot which hangs together from beginning to end and characters who behave believably (not just arbitrarily). This is, IMHO, hard enough to do when you do have a thoroughly outlined plot beforehand, so doing it on the fly is even more difficult.

One of the issues I find with, for example, Stephen King's suggestion (see what the characters do) is that what real people would do in real situations may not make for a good story! :) It may be typical and believable for two friends having a disagreement to have a fight and then stop talking forever, or to talk the issue out and make up calmly, but neither of those outcomes are dramatic, or allow the story to move forward.

I would distinguish this from having a goal for a section (chapter, scene), and saying "I need Peter to do this, Nathan to do that, and Claire to have this reaction" and just writing to see how you get there. To me, that's being flexible and allowing your characters to be themselves.

  • Disagree there. For one, this emphasis on "story" is a bit, well, one-sided. Sure, it may be the prevailing type of book/novel out today (I do not want to say "market"). But is it the only possible way? And for another... these outcomes are not dramatic if you put it like you did. The job of a writer also is (okay, can be, depending on personal style) to find the dramatic thing in there. And: are not lots of dramas rife with such scenarios? People stop talking with each other, or make up (or both) all the time. In dramas. Dramas that sell (or get watched). – Jürgen A. Erhard Sep 21 '11 at 15:51
  • But: the most important thing, always, is to do what works for you. If discovery writing doesn't, don't. If minutely planned writing doesn't, don't. If something in-between, like a goal for a chapter and then "writing to see how you get there" works for you, do it. :D – Jürgen A. Erhard Sep 21 '11 at 15:53
  • Jürgen: (1) "The emphasis on story is one-sided." Can you explain this? Why would one write a novel if not to tell a story? (2) In my example, two people stop talking to each other, and... the world goes on. The people around them don't care, nobody divorces, nobody tries to force them to speak, it's just over. It's realistic, but it's not very interesting to a reader. One has to introduce drama to that scenario, as you pointed out. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 21 '11 at 16:45

A discovery writer is someone who begins writing with little or no idea of where the story will end up.

An alternate term is "pantser," referring to someone who writes "by the seat of their pants."

  • Really? Then that's totally not what I am. I broadly know where I'm going but I "discover" the key specifics of the character arcs and plot points rather than planning them. Is there a term for that? – One Monkey Sep 21 '11 at 8:21
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    @One: you appear to be somewhere in between. As always, none of these types appear in their pure form in the wild (okay, very rarely). I mean, you would have a rough idea where the story will go, or... well, you'll at least have a number of characters. So, "little or no" is... flexible. And subjective. – Jürgen A. Erhard Sep 21 '11 at 15:55

I do this alot too... I like to say that my character's are fully formed upon creation... but we don't know each other well enough for them to share intamint details with me initially. For example, in one of my projects, I know a character is currently being raised by her single father. I also know that her mother was a very big role model in her life. I also know that her mother is a Navy Aviator and that at present, has no contact with her daughter. What happened to her mother? I don't know that. There are hints that she's dead, but nothing definative. Nothing that could clarify that. That story is personal to this character and I have yet to earn her trust to a degree that she'll want to tell me that knowledge.

As the story is not yet fully written, it could come out in the book... Or it could go in a sequel... or it could never come up. Quite frankly, any guess at the answer to the question is as good as the audience's guess as it is mine.

Now, this doesn't mean I don't plan. I know where she is and where she is going to go, and several critical steps in between... My dialog and my action sequences tend to be written more on the fly though, so she could surprise me and reveal new things.

I do find this a great way to write because it preserves for me the same surprise the audience will feel if when they read it. Helps me walk away from the current story with a cliffhanger suspense. It's also great as one of my personal recurring themes is "Character is who you are in the dark" or the idea that we are only truly ourselves when we think no one will see us. Glad to know it has a name to it.

I'd also suggest looking at Greg Weisman's works and Gargoyles. There are various episodes that owe their creation to flukes in production... (much of the entire second season was created to get a one off season one villain some more screen time, after the production team was impressed by the voice actor.). In another case, a voice actor's accent changing the word "humans" to "human" to the ear, and recolored character model used to save budget on another episode would link two seemingly unrelated characters with enough lead time that they could put the hints to the relationship in a few planned episodes in the interum.

Perhaps the most famous example of this would be Luke Skywalker's parentage. As originally concieved, Lucas wanted Luke's unmet father to be included in Empire Strikes Back. But as the story took form, Lucas found himself with little time to introduce yet another character to the cast... and answer where had said dad been all Luke's life... He would also have to lay groundwork for the Emperor and would need to kill Darth Vader (a very menacing villain) soon as the Emperor would be the real villain... and then Lucas solved all of these problems with making the evil Vader represented personal... and the rest we say is history. Not to be outdone, this same problem would appear in Jedi. The hint of another "Jedi" was sowed in Empire and needed to be followed up. Initially, this "Other" would have been Luke's long lost Twin Sister and she would have been introduced in Jedi, intending to be the focus character of the sequel trilogy. However, it was again in the complexity of the script for Jedi that the introduction was a monster, and as little of a role Carrie Fisher has in Jedi, it was even more reduced in the initial concept for Jedi... so Lucas decided to writ Leia as the twin. Ultimately the follow up trilogy was changed drastically to focus on making the first two trilogies the saga of Vader's fall and redemption, but had Lucas continued on it's likely Leia would have come close to Rey from The Force Awakens.


I've just discovered that I am a discovery writer. I sat down last March and in 8 weeks, I completed my first novel of 90,000 words. I added 10,000 words after I read my manuscript the first time. It was completed without a single note or idea as to where my story was going and I am working on the sequel which is more than half completed. When I write, I really don't know what the characters will do until I start typing which i find really exciting.

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    Welcome to Writers! By writing the novel this way, how did it change the final product? – Neil Fein Feb 2 '13 at 15:58
  • @NeilFein: If they only just discovered being a discovery writer, and the first novel was completed as a discovery writer, how (and to what) can a comparison be made to determine how the final product was changed? – Zayne S Halsall Feb 9 '13 at 16:52
  • @ZayneSHalsall - True, if they've only written this way, but nowhere does this say this is the case. – Neil Fein Feb 9 '13 at 16:54

For those who write nonfiction, discovery writing may start with a question, a question to which you want an answer, and think others might also have a stake in the question.

Once I have decided upon a topic, I begin the questions. My biggest question is always "so what."

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