Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Pantsers, Planners, and the Box Myth

Sphinx Ink has an interesting response to my question, How Do Pantsers Write a Book Proposal? It seems that after she mused on the subject, author Tim Hallinan—a pantser--contacted her by email.

According to Hallinan, he writes the first 10,000 words of his manuscript, brain storms possible developments and plot points both by himself and with friends, writes it all up into a short synopsis and sends it off.

You know what? That’s actually not all that different from my approach. I suspect the main difference is that I take the time to think those developments and plot points through a bit more carefully, write it all down, and then use those brainstorming sessions as a guide when I sit down to finish my novel. Hallinan basically ignores his synopsis and sets off on a journey of exploration. Some of those ideas he uses, some he doesn’t.

There seems to be this myth that pantsers write character-driven books while those who preplan their books create plot-driven stories that become—to use Tim Hallinan’s unflattering description—“a box to squeeze characters into.” No, no, no, no!!!

When I sit down to preplan my books, I don’t build a plot and then stick my characters into it. I ask, What would X do next? How would Y react to that? What is he thinking and feeling at this point? What’s the worse thing that could happen to X? (“Put your hero up a tree and throw rocks at him.”) My plots are very complicated with lots of twists and I like being able to shift things around at the planning stage rather than after I’ve invested months writing scenes that then need to be changed. It’s why the more books I’ve written, the more I’ve tended to preplan. I’m a basically lazy person. I don’t like wasting time and effort, and I don’t like tying myself in knots with rewrites. I also have this thing about control.

I understand that for pantsers, preplanning takes out all the fun. For me, it takes out a lot of the frustration and anxiety and severely reduces rewriting. It’s a trade off I’m willing to make, and can make, since I still enjoy the process of fleshing out the scenes I’ve envisioned.

How much do I preplan? That varies. Sometimes I’ll write down snippets of dialogue if they come to me. But mainly I focus on the conflict in a scene, and the outcome. When I was writing my medieval, THE LAST KNIGHT, for instance, I had a segment where the hero is thrown into prison and the heroine is locked up by her uncle. In my outline I had written, “They escape.” When I finally got to that point in the book, I looked at those two words and thought, “Yeah, right! HOW do they escape?” That was not preplanned. That was a fun, rollercoaster exploration that was actually four escapes—the heroine escaped from her room, then freed the hero, then together they escaped from the castle, and then the next morning they escaped from the walled city. Was it plot-driven? Yes, in the sense that I knew they had to escape (or the story would have ended). But it was also character driven, and character revealing. My heroine was the kind of woman who was risking her life to save her brother; of course she wasn’t going to simply sit in her tower room and say, “Pass the embroidery thread.”

There are also times when I’ll reach a scene and realize it’s wrong, that a character wouldn’t do what I’d envisioned. What I don’t do is squeeze my character into my preconceived plan. I change the plan. In MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS, I was halfway through when I decided I needed to change the murderer. I’m a big girl. I can handle that.

But I also don’t allow my characters or my imagination to lead me astray. I keep a fairly firm hand on the reins, always conscious of where I’m going. That’s a personality thing, though, and has nothing to do with whether I write plot-driven or character-driven. I mean, I used to write historical ROMANCES, remember? No genre is more character driven than that!


Chap O'Keefe said...

Your writing methods are very similar to my own; your reasons for following them likewise. Hallinan certainly has it wrong if he thinks Planners write plot-driven stories that squeeze their characters into a box.

For each of my 20 western novels I've written a synopsis preceded by sketches of the six or seven most important characters.

The eight- or nine-line sketch deals largely with earlier life, driving forces and aims. Physical description is minimal. Like you say, you don't build a plot and stick characters into it.

I don't know if my publisher reads the sketches or dives straight into the story part of the synopsis. Doesn't matter. It's there for my help, so I can be sure my characters act true to their characters. The people in Pantsers' books often don't.

And like you say, who needs to get tied in knots with rewrites?

Steve Malley said...

What neat insights into your working methods, and Chap's too!

Angie said...

I'm a pantser but I do a lot of thinking about my plots. I usually start out with a very general idea of what's going to happen, maybe some ideas of a few key scenes along the way, and a beginning. The farther from the beginning (or, once I've started writing, the farther from where I currently am) the more nebulous my plans are, but I have enough control over my plotline to be able to plant early clues and red herrings and seeds of plot devices which don't go fully functional until some time later. And sometimes something I did earlier for a completely different reason becomes usable for a neat plot twist farther on; that's always fun. :)

If I run into a roadblock partway through, I "babble" about it. That is, I sit down in a different file and type out exactly what the problem is, with a full explanation of the situation and the characters and everyone's goals and obstacles. I talk about what I've thought of to fix the problem and why that won't work and just basically analyze it all to death, as though I were explaining the problem to someone else with the goal of, once they had all the info, asking them for advice. And in fact, that's how I originally tripped over this method -- I was in the process of asking a friend for some advice but I found that after babbling on about my story for two or three pages I'd worked out a solution. It's worked several other times since then.

I also keep notes files on longer or more complex stories, especially if I'm researching things. I start out with notes on each character, major ones on top and supporting and minor characters farther down the list. I'll put down everything from family and profession and goals and likes and dislikes to how they like their coffee and whether they call it a "couch" or a "sofa." Anything I make up (and I do most of my characterization on the fly) that I'll want to remember later to stay consistent goes into the notes file. Setting info and a basic plot description usually go in here too.

I focus on plots but my characters are very important too, and as you said, the whole basis of plotting for me is to think about what my characters would do in X or Y situation. But I don't plan my characters out thoroughly ahead of time, at least not on paper. I think about them and get a feel for them in my head, then start writing and let them grow organically. It's weird but it works. :)

And no, I don't cram my characters into a box either, LOL!


Bernita said...

Dividing writers severely into pansters and plotters is very boxy.
Most of us probably use a combination of approaches, and those may vary from project to project.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have read some books where the characters certainly seem forced to jump through plot hoops periodically without regard to any internal personality quirks. I didn't think this was a problem that only "planners" would fall into, though. I can see how it might be more likely to occur with some planners, just as meandering, unfocused fiction might be more likely to occur among pantsers. The extremes to either side could certainly become problems.

Lisa said...

You're on to something. I think the dividing line probably is a myth and how writers view themselves is much more a product of personality than process.

Payton L. Inkletter said...

I think I must be a panster somewhat, even though I started my novel with a very clear general idea of what I want to impart, and that clarity remains 180 thousand words in. As to the particulars, I cannot remember the number of times I’ve sat to detail and advance a section of the story when the places I go and the particulars that coalesce literally amaze me, having not the slightest inkling beforehand that such ideas would arrive.

I wonder if one can become addicted to this freedom of being caught up in the story and going places with the characters without planning it? But I now am faced with the need to make and maintain files for characters, timelines, research, and so on, for I can’t keep it all tight anymore. Thank God for word processors and the search function!

I note Candice’s point of keeping a fairly firm hand on the reins, and I admit I most always know where I’m going overall, just not often the means of transport or the ports of call. And yes, it makes more work for me later, but I don’t think I would achieve as interesting a result if I pre-planned substantially the detail and stuck to it. However, what works for me will not work for all, of course. I think Angie has a good method. I appreciate her point of finding she can use earlier ideas in unexpected ways later. It pays to file away what we cull elsewhere, I think, for possible use later for a better effect in a changed circumstance of our construction.

However, Bernita, Charles, and Lisa are making a pertinent observation regarding the false dichotomy of panster vs plotter, don't we think?

Timothy Hallinan said...

Gosh, it's nice to see all this discussion. I would like to point out, though, that I never said that people who outline their books create plots that are "a box to squeeze their characters into." What I said was that I don't do that. I wasn't talking about any writer except myself. I have found that I write better stories (and have more fun doing it) when I let the plot grow out of the characters as I'm writing.

And I agree that it's probably too rigid to divide writers into planners and pantsers. All of us do some of both in the writing of every book. Even the most vehement pantser has scenes in each book that he/she knows well in advance are going to have to be written, and I'm certain that even the most enthusiastic planner has moments when the characters take over and reshape a scene, or maybe a whole series of events.

And, by the way, I personally think it's counterproductive not to give a development like that some really serious thought, because by the time the writer gets to that scene, he or she knows the world of the book much, much better than he or she did when creating the plot outline.

Having been so diplomatic, though, I'll generalize anyway: When things go wrong in the writing, I think it's more likely that a planner will end up with a plot-driven book and that a pantser will come up with a structure-free rambler.

As a committed pantser, I've grown accustomed to the fact that I'm going to have to go back and strengthen story structure after I've finished the first draft. That's the one thing I envy planners (and also screenplay writers who turn to writing novels): that structural security.