Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Plotters vs. Seat-of-the-Pantsers


Writers typically fall into one of two camps: those who plot their books before they begin, and those who do not.

The latter types like to live dangerously and fly—or rather, write—by the seat of their pants. Believing that advance planning kills their muse and destroys their interest in a story, they jump in with little idea of where their story will go. In a romance, they’ll start with a “cute meet” and fumble their way forward from there. In a mystery, they don’t know ahead of time who will turn out to have committed the murder or why; sometimes they’re not even sure who—amidst all the characters magically appearing on their pages—will actually be the one to fall victim to a foul deed and start the mystery rolling.

In the hands of a master, this “winging it” approach can be highly successful: James Lee Burke, for instance, says he can never see more than two or three scenes ahead as he writes, yet what he produces is brilliant. Unfortunately, with many “Pantsers”, the result is all too often a wandering storyline, gaping plot holes, an unbalanced story arc, and a host of other dastardly results.

As you can see, I’m not a fan of this approach. Yes, it can work, and work well. Yes, there are best-selling writers who use this approach. But then, there are a lot of books published every year—including best-sellers—that I find just don’t hold my attention. And you know what? I’ve discovered, after a little bit of digging, that most of the writers whose books I put down are Pantsers rather than Plotters. Now, that might tell you more about me as a reader than anything else—unless I’m reading something beautifully literary, I like a tightly knit, well-constructed book with a good story arc. There are obviously many readers who don’t mind a more rambling, casual, disjointed tale. The Pantsers are for them.

If a recent discussion on the DorothyL mystery listserv is anything to go by, a surprising number of mystery writers—like romance writers—use the Pantsers’ approach. There seems to be something about the act of plotting out a story in advance that kills their joy in writing it. Some Pantsers do massive rewrites to pull their ramblings into something cohesive—and publishable. Others seem to be able to tap into their subconscious so successfully that they claim their books require almost no rewriting. There’s a lot of New Age-like talk about whether Plotters are left-brained or right-brained, but the discussion is seldom flattering to the Plotters. Plotting is often portrayed as plodding and pedestrian; the antithesis of creative; Pantsers typically see themselves as the truly creative ones, giving birth to an almost mystical product.

Frankly, I’ve never been able to decide if I’m left or right brained. I am very analytical and very methodical—I was, after all, an academic. Yet I’m also very creative—for many years I planned to become a professional artist. One of the reasons I like plotting my books out in advance is that it gets all that analytical stuff out of the way, so that when I sit down to actually write, I can just relax and let the story flow without worrying about structure.

Incidentally, there is a third kind of writer. These people never plot anything out on paper, and they don’t use notecards or post-it notes. But they’ve given so much thought to their story before they begin that they already know their story arc, their key scenes and major characters. They may not be plotters in the traditional sense of the word, but I don’t think they can really claim to be writing by the seats of their pants, either. They just have amazing memories. I’m not one of them.

Next time, we finally get to roll up our sleeves and have fun. The plotting begins.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've used both methods at different times. I find it handy to have an outline even if I don't refer to it often. It's nice to have notes to go back to if I need to find out "what was supposed to happen next." It's also easier to work that way if the muse is not singing. I would think these days when so often it's important to have character and plot closely interwoven that an outline is more important than ever.

cs harris said...

It's been so long since I didn't plot my books out in advance that I've been thinking lately it would be fun to just sit down with an idea (for a book not under contract--I'm not that brave!) and see what happened. It's a different writing experience. And I know from the past that some of my best passages come from an unharnessed muse.

Chap O'Keefe said...

I'm a long-time Plotter and currently contribute to a British publisher's series of traditional, genre westerns. Each of the 18 novels written and accepted to date has been written to follow an initial outline of about 2,500 words. The outline concentrates on plot and characterization. Action tends to be telescoped to mere cause and result.

Until April of this year, when I was thrown out by the Big Boss Man, I belonged to a closed, Yahoo chat group of readers and writers of the series. One of my surprises was how many of the writer members were Pantsers, trusting to what they self-indulgently called their "writery instincts".

Maybe coincidentally, I found the Pantsers were among those whose work I consider, as a reader, the least satisfactory. At least one writes under more than one name, committing over and over the sins you mention -- wandering storyline, gaping plot holes, unbalanced story arc -- but largely escaping discerning readers' rejection, maybe by the switches of byline. These writers believe they are emulating the late Louis L'Amour, a notably self-professed Pantser. My suspicion here is that L'Amour belonged, perhaps unconsciously, to your third class -- that he was a man with an amazing mind capable of holding all the necessary relevancies over the period of the writing.

For me, a shortish genre novel represents around 200 hours of work. Practical considerations dictate that I spread this over at least a couple of months. The outline is a safety net of reminders rather than a tight web of bonds. When I wrote my first fiction back in the 1960s, nearly everybody used outlines, even for comic-book scripts and short stuff. Editors demanded it. Today, commercial light fiction is a much smaller scene and many of the practitioners write very much part-time to please themselves rather than shrunken markets.

As you say, the Pantsers see themselves as having the fun and being the truly creative ones. But with computers the second and third drafts -- the "massive rewrites" -- are a feasible proposition. It was not always so. Retyping hundreds of pages, complete with feeding a clumsy contraption with messy carbons, was a hugely discouraging and distracting process.

cs harris said...

I'd never thought about the contribution computers have made to the tendency by so many to simply sit down and write without any preplanning. I'd be curious to know how much advance thought (as opposed to pen-and-paper plotting) Pantsers actually give to their books. I suspect it varies widely.

Anonymous said...

Computers have changed the way we write, think and work. Writing is far easier because of them but the writing that results may not be better.

I no longer outline like I did in university but use mind mapping and other fluid methods of planning. Its feels less binding and suits how my mind works.

cs harris said...

mind mapping? That sounds interesting! I'd love to hear about it.

Anonymous said...

Mind mapping is like brain storming. You begin with your central idea in the middle and then let the ideas flow off and don't worry about the links intially. Here's a link to a picture of a mind map http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map. Mine are not so elaborate. I usually do one for the main story ideas then on each main character. It is very fluid and I change them as i write or add as new ideas come so that I don't lose the idea if it is not needed right away.

I came across mind maps while working with my eldest who is dyslexic. Mind maps are used as a way of helping dyslexics get their ideas out. It's not as intimidating as a standard outlines and I find it more creative as at first there is not need for structure or links but just getting the ideas on paper. Edit later.

Anonymous said...

All this talk about plotting and pantsing is always done as if one really has a choice. Lucky people who actually have a choice about it.

I want to be a plotter but when I plot, I get really trite, awful stuff or I get nothing and very soon have a real mess. When I am pantsing I get true inspiration and things I never see coming and it fits together in ways I couldn't see.

It's the only way I can write anything worth reading.

It is a nerve racking way to write, one just has to have faith that everything is going to work out in the end. I'd rather be a plotter but I am coming to accept that I just can't be.

jelly andrews said...

Thanks a lot for sharing this information. But I guess I like the idea of being a plotter. It is nice that you have a guide in your story. It would avoid wandering in your story line.

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