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.

9 Answers 9


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
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 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.) Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 16:52
  • How do you "let them decide"? They are figments of your imagination, concepts in your head. There is no other brain, decision-making-entity other than the writer yourself.
    – Tvde1
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 8:46
  • @Tvde1 IMHO: Think about them as similar to mathematical models. Mathematical models are imaginary, but they have their own internal logic. Characters get inputs (data about external world, actions/words of other characters, etc) and produce outputs (words, actions, emotions, thoughts, etc). You create models of your characters, set them in certain environment, and then use your mind to figure out how these models will work, and where they will lead the story. And if you're a planner, instead of a discovery writer, then you need to find models that will produce a story that you have in mind. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 10:20
  • @Tvde1 And if instead of it, you make the characters to do anything that you find convenient for the plot, no matter how out of character this is, then you produce so-called "holywood zombies". For more, I recommend you to read “The Abridged Guide to Intelligent Characters” by Yudkowsky Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 10:25

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
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 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 :) Commented Sep 21, 2011 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
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 14:30
  • So, John, you're saying that sometimes the characters make the decisions for you? ;-) Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 15:57
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    It's not my fault, @Jürgen. The voices in my head force me to do it! Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 17:13

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
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 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. Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 15:55

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). Commented Sep 21, 2011 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 Commented Sep 21, 2011 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. Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 16:45

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."


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? Commented Feb 2, 2013 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? Commented Feb 9, 2013 at 16:52
  • @ZayneSHalsall - True, if they've only written this way, but nowhere does this say this is the case. Commented Feb 9, 2013 at 16:54

I am a discovery writer. The main and broad definition is that a discovery writer does not outline stories beat by beat, or chapter by chapter, or even Act by Act.

The reason for this, as I found for myself about 35 years ago, and have heard from many other discovery writers, is a psychological quirk we have: For us, outlining drains the life out of the story. For us, it feels like the story has been told, all the creative work is done, and with an outline in hand that we have to follow, writing the actual novel is a six month slog to the end.

For us, it also makes the characters feel forced and artificial. Because for us, our characters feel like real people in our imagination, that develop their own personality. We make up a lot of their past history on the fly. Their personality develops and changes, and we come to know them, and think about how they would "really" respond and behave in new situations.

This is opposed to the plotter's approach; because they write an outline first, and that gets done if a very short time span relative to writing the whole novel. In that outline, the characters and what they will do is all laid out, in super-condensed form. Any personality changes are not informed by the actual dialogue and action that occurred in the full-length book form; and that can ring very false to readers.

I think readers sense inconsistencies and character forcing, and enough of that reduces their immersion in the story.

Discovery writers do have problems, however. There may be a tendency toward wish fulfillment; making things too easy on your hero. That's a mistake, and boring, heroes have to struggle, emotionally and/or physically, it is their perseverance through struggles that endears them to readers. There is no perseverance if everything falls into your lap!

Discovery writing doesn't have to mean there is no plan at all!

I am very familiar with story structure; the 3AS (Three Act Structure) is one useful one. I use a 4AS that is quite similar, it just breaks Act II into two equal parts, with different purposes (increasing complications in Act IIa, decreasing complications in Act IIb).

I know, based on page count, approximately where I am in a story, and I write the kinds of things that are supposed to appear in that part, for a good story structure.

Also, I have thought about at least my hero for a few weeks, I have thought about her "main problem" (what the book is about), and most importantly, I know at least one plausible way she can eventually resolve it. Usually by changing something about herself and overcoming a weakness.

I always give my characters an important weakness, something that will get in the way of their success in this particular mission. They always have some great skill at something, but it is never enough on its own to complete the mission. When they try to rely solely on their skill, they fail. I make sure they succeed at something with that skill unrelated to their main problem, but also ensure their failure trying to use their skill is realized, too, when it comes to the main problem.

Likewise, anytime I introduce a mystery, or love relationship, or enemy relationship, I keep a note on how it can plausibly be resolved. I'm not plotting it out, but I need to keep some idea of how it can end, and subconsciously I will write toward that resolution.

I check these "end points" after I complete each scene, and if my new scene poisons an end point (makes it implausible or impossible), I have to fix it, scrap it, or come up with a new end point that will fit. And then possible revise what I have written so far, so the story will remain coherent with the new end-point.

There is a lot of revision, and scrapping, in discovery writing. A novel has to be a coherent whole, everything must seem to fit together, the events and decisions have to follow each other plausibly. In discovery writing, the individual scenes will naturally flow and feel coherent, but you may have to work extra weeks to make the overall flow of scenes, the entire story, feel coherent.

So it isn't entirely a free for all, we can still write with constraints. The inciting incident still occurs in the middle of Act I, which is 25% of the story, so around 12.5%, give or take. The beginning of the story introduces the hero and their Normal World and them interacting with others in that Normal World. The Inciting Incident grows until, at the end of Act I, the hero is forced out of their Normal World and mindset. Complications pile up to seem overwhelming in Act IIa, 25% of the book. In Act IIb (25%) of the book, new complications cease, and old ones are getting resolved. Until Act III, when the final conundrum that started it all, the Inciting Incident, is what is left, and the final confrontation is planned and executed, around the middle-to-end of ACT III. Then the hero returns to their Normal World, or a new Normal, as the end of the story.

Discovery writing is more of a bottom-up approach, Plotting is a top-down approach. They are equally valid, which you prefer is up to your personality type.


A discovery writer is one who doesn't plan. Essentially me.

While there are a few definitions on how strict that has to be, some say that if you don't know EXACTLY every single detail of a story ahead of time, you're a discovery writer. Others say you have to know nothing ahead of time, just a "I'm writing an aliens story!" and then begin to start writing. As for me, I pick some middle ground. You can have a basic concept, and a few milestones to reach. You can figure out your characters and setting ahead of time, and still be a discovery writer.

There have been plenty of famous authors who have had this style. Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, J K Rowling, George R R Martin, Rebecca F Kuang, Harper Lee, and many more. So if you are like that, you're not alone.

  • I don't see what this adds to the existing answers.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 15:08
  • @Chenmunka It doesn't, to be honest. Just my interpretation of what's here!
    – Murphy L.
    Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 16:38

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