I’m Not a Pantser. I’m an Extreme Pantser.

The Derek Murphy System

I’m not just a pantser. I’m an extreme pantser.

Most pantsers begin with a story concept- a “what if” or a setup. My process begins with a walk. I could be anywhere- on my way to a bus stop or trawling through a supermarket. As I amble along, lost in my thoughts, an image will pop into my head. The first few times it happened, I ignored it. But then one time, I came home and wrote down what I saw. And that’s how I started writing novels.

Once I have the image on paper, a context to them will emerge. Then characters will appear, and these will bring other characters as well as a setting. Scenes will form as characters come into conflict, which will suggest other scenes, until eventually a story forms. It’s only then that I start seeing a plot. After that, I exist in a fictive dream for months until I finish the final draft.

While this is a fun way to write, a major drawback is that you don’t always end up with a salable high concept work of fiction. After writing two books this way, I’ve concluded that this is a poor strategy for getting published. Of course, it was never a strategy in the first place.

After coming to this realization, I started looking into alternative writing processes. Last week, I came across a blog post here on WordPress about novel outlining.

The article spotlighted an uber-novel outline developed by Derek Murphy, one of the hundreds of novel writing gurus one can find on these here interwebs. According to the creator, this outline is good for most “commercial fiction,” though he doesn’t elaborate which genres. The outline he provides not only focuses on elements of a story but also their placement in the novel on a chapter by chapter level. Murphy identifies 24 story-plot points, all of which originate from the Hero’s journey as described by mythologist, Joseph Campbell, and popularized by Hollywood development executive, Christopher Vogler. Using the Derek Murphy System will produce a novel with 24 chapters.

Vogler’s Hero’s Journey overlaid onto the three act structure

That’s pretty neat.

But then I started thinking about it, and my initial enthusiasm waned. Part of this is my pantser nature. A part of it is not.

One issue is point of view. Murphy uses the Hero’s Journey as the source for his guideline, which is a natural fit for him as he is a YA science fiction/fantasy novelist. But even if the Derek Murphy System is appropriate for fantasy, the outline ignores something basic to that genre, namely multiple points of view. The Hero’s Journey typically centers a single hero. It highlights the transformation of one person. So, it’s hard to know how to deal with other POV characters in the 24 chapter outline. Do they get their own hero’s journey? If there are three POV characters, then do we get 24×3 chapters in a book.

Also, I find the Hero’s Journey an odd way to think about non-fantasy genres or even writing in general. Murphy’s outline has the inciting incident at chapter 3 or 4, but this is too late for say a mystery or a romance. And aspects of the Hero’s quest, such as the mentor, don’t necessarily appear in those genres. Sure, mysteries and romances can have them, but it’s not a key genre trope. Philip Marlowe, a detective who most typically resembles a hero, doesn’t have a mentor. Rarely does he have allies and friends. He’s usually a loner. A solitary man against a dirty, rotten world.

(Let’s be honest. Most heroic myths don’t have all the elements of the Hero’s journey either)

And a lot of novels these days are two books in one. Many of the urban fantasy novels I’ve read over the years are one part action adventure and one part erotica. How is the writer supposed to incorporate the Hero’s Journey into such dual fictions? Likewise, if you are writing a mystery for the first time, what you want to consider while outlining is not only the detective’s character growth but also other basic aspects of mystery fiction such as the placement of red herrings.

In conclusion: a template like this is useful, but it has its limits. And if you think back to the last few books you’ve read, very few (by which I mean none) will have any structural similarities with the Derek Murphy system. There’s a reason for that.