Sunday 5 June 2011

Plotting In Your Pants

When it comes to writing a story there are the two widely known approaches. You can plan thing in advance and then follow the instructions like a map. Or you can wing it and see what happens as the story develops organically.

People have their preferences, but which is better? Which is easier, and which requires more effort? Does one lead to a dry, mechanical tale, and the other to a meandering, unfocused mess? How can you tell which suits you and your story best?

Harold Pinter, when asked about his process, said he just put two people in a room and waited to see what happened (if I did this I’d have two very quiet people, possibly with one doing a bit of whistling). Stephen King says he has no idea where the story is going until the characters tell him. The problem with following in the path of hugely talented writers of great experience, is that most of us aren’t as talented or as experienced.

Undoubtedly, sitting at a desk and just writing with no definite idea of where you are going has a romantic quality to it. The characters come to life, the spark of inspiration picks them up and hurls through fascinating events, and all the disparate threads combine in the climactic scene to produce a satisfying and illuminating solution. Wouldn’t that be great?

Unfortunately the reality is a little less poetic.

The brain has a tendency to go for the obvious answer and produce familiar concepts. Often the first idea you have isn’t going to be a very good one. And things can get complicated as more characters enter, new storylines develop, and you have to work in problems that seem insurmountable ... and then surmount them. It’s a lot to keep straight in your head as you fly by the seat of your pants.

So, it would be better to have it all plotted out like a blueprint, right?

Many of the same issues apply. When you work out a point-by-point breakdown of the plot — inciting incidents, turning points, revelations, scene and sequel — the sense of having everything you need right in front of you can be great. But it’s the same brain at work, and the tendency will still be to go for the obvious and the predictable.

In the exploratory method, you don’t know if it will be interesting until you get there. This can take a lot of time and discovering the story isn’t going anywhere when you’re 30,000 words in is tough to deal with.

In the pre-planned method, you can fool yourself into thinking everything fits together, complete with clever plot twist or suspense filled sequence, until you write it out and realise it doesn’t quite work. It’s easy to say ‘Chapter 12: Dave escapes from prison’ in your outline. But when you come to writing Chapter 12, you still have to come up with an interesting escape plan and execute it.

And there’s nothing as irritating as having everything mapped out down to the tiniest detail, and halfway into a story realising you’re boring yourself, never mind the reader.

Knowing every twist and turn of a story before you’ve even started takes just as much genius as making it up as you go along.

What both ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’ need when approaching a story is an idea of what the story is about. You have to start with something solid, an idea, a situation, a problem. Something for the characters to deal with. And that idea has to be interesting.

Then, before you write each scene, you have to have an idea of what the scene is about. And again, it has to be interesting. It’s this context that makes the action engaging, not what people say or do.

Many people who consider themselves pantsers don’t think they do this, that they just think: Right, at this point she goes back to school, let’s see what happens... and they start writing, but it’s only when (or if) they find the focus that the scene comes alive. If she goes back to school and gets into a fight with her arch rival Debbie McGee, then everything up to that point is just you finding out what the scene was about, most of which will be edited out (or should be). That’s one of the main problems with the exploratory approach, all the work that gets cut (often very reluctantly).

Let’s say my story starts with this idea: What if a man leaves his wife and then she wins the lottery? Not that original I know, but as an example I think it’s clear what the dynamic is here and should be easy to follow. Let’s say at this point we have no other details about the characters or the setting.

So, for the first scene I need a starting off point. Let’s say: What if a man comes home from work and finds his wife in bed with the neighbour?

Now, I can go two ways here. I can write out this scene and develop the characters as I go, and when I reach the end of the scene, make a decision about what to write next.

Or, I can put a pin in it as it is, just a rough idea of what happens, and move onto the next scene and come up with a rough outline, maybe of a few scenes, maybe of the whole story. The guy storms out of the house and goes to the nearest bar. Believable, but not all that interesting. What if he’s so mad he starts a fight with another guy in the bar? What if that guy is an off-duty policeman? The cop beats him and takes him to jail. What if while he’s in jail his wife is murdered? What if he gave a fake name when in jail and nobody believes his alibi? What if the cop and all the records disappear?

What I’m doing here is pantsing an outline. I can do various background stuff, world building and writing character bios, but when it comes down to it both methods require me to make shit up.  And whatever method I use I can end up in a blind alley with nowhere to go but backwards — there are no guarantees.

But the main difference between plotting and pantsing is that the writer who plots out the story needs to jump to the conclusion of each scene. In order to be able to say what happens next you have to not only say what the scenes about, but how it ends. For a pantser, you only find out how a scene ends when you’ve actually written the scene.

That’s really the only difference. If you’re good at deciding how you want the scene to end without having written it, then I would advise you to plan ahead. You’ll know much quicker if the story isn’t going anywhere. Actually writing the scene requires just as much imagination and skill in both cases, and there’s just as much chance the characters will decide what you had planned for them isn’t what they want to do, but that’s always a risk (and often a good thing).

I would point out that in most cases the reason a story like the one I describe above wouldn’t be very good is because the idea isn’t interesting enough. If a pantser wrote about a man arriving home, hearing noises, going upstairs, discovering wife and neighbour at it, and then ran out of the room, all in great detail and flowing prose, chances are it would be very boring. And if a plotter wrote: Jack arrives home to find Marilyn in bed with Fred from next door. He screams obscenities at them both and storms out. Then when I came to write that scene later I doubt I’d be very enthused.

What’s important is this: man finds wife in bed with neighbour, pretty standard story device, how can I make that unexpected? What if the neighbour is old Mrs Dinkins who lives with all the feral cats? 

That tends to be the step both plotters and pantsers tend to miss. Not just what happens, but why is it interesting to someone who isn’t the writer of the piece. As a plotter, I want the scene to end with my MC storming out, how can I get him to do that in an unexpected manner? As a pantser I’ve written the whole scene, and it ends with him storming out. Is it an attention grabbing exit?

Whichever type of writer you are, don’t move on to writing/planning the next scene until you have an indication that the current scene has something going on.  It doesn’t have to be earth shattering, but it shouldn’t be perfunctory, just getting from A to B.

Once you’ve got that first fairly decent draft written (for pantsers the first fairly decent draft probably won’t be the actual first draft, which will be all over the place), both approaches then converge in the rewriting process. Doesn’t matter how much you enjoy winging it, or  how much you are comforted by writing to a fixed outline, rewriting is taking what you’ve already got and making it better. Slowly. There’s no avoiding that part of the process.


MISH said...

Great post ! I think that the bottom line is , no matter whether you're a plotter or pantser , the trick is to think out of the box ... move beyond the ordinary & predictable ...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You covered both in such detail!
I create my characters and write an outline. But before the outline, I run the entire story through my head. (I pretend I'm at the movies!) If it seems logical but exciting, I create an outline. I'm not tied to that outline though - I often change things as I write.
And from my Friday post, you can guess I'm liable to toss some wild stuff in, just to see if it will stick!

Steph said...

I still have yet to write a book, but I have a couple ideas. They aren't completely thought out, but I do know what my themes are, and I have a few things mapped out, that I want to make sure I include. I think a combo will work for me.

Katie O'Sullivan said...

Great post - love the way you cover both plotting and pantsing without making judgements ;-)

And, yes, rewriting and revising are the keys to a successful draft!

Paula Martin said...

Fantastic post, mood! Made me realise I'm half plotter, half pantser. I have an idea where the story is going, but still allow my characters to lead me at times. Sometimes I have to drag them back, other times I sit back in amazement at where they've led me when they seem to have got it all sorted out, despite me, It's one of the reasons I love writing - the journey I go on with my characters.

Jen said...

I'm more of a panster than a plotter. I love the unexpected directions that pantsing takes me, but it does mean I'm liable to get distracted by an entirely new idea and leap into that instead. I have a filing cabinet full of bits and pieces that I've never finished. So I'm trying to be more of a plotter, just to give myself some much-needed structure. It's about discipline. And I have none.

Suze said...

Okay, first of all, kick-a** post. Secondly, I'm typing this response far too quickly because of limited time-- but I didn't want this post to get too far down in the blogroll and then not have time to come back.

Let it be said that I. Am. A Panster. When I try to plot, the story is freakin' dead in the water. Nothing, and I mean nothing, turns out deader, duller writing than trying to force my characters to follow an outline. And being a plotter, for me anyway, is the biggest disrespect I can show to that ethereal, always-spinning goddess of old, Calliope. That's it. (Damn, I wish I had more time to properly address this instead of writing on the fly-- I may even come back.)

In short, outlines may comfort inexperienced writers, but they don't teach them how to fly. For that you have to be willing to grope in the dark. And do a hell of a lot of rewriting. Therein awaits the magic.

I might be back!

Halli Gomez said...

Great descriptions of each. For me, I am disgustingly organized and begin with an outline - just a basic one for starters - and then I begin writing. I always end up having to re-write (or update) the outline several times before I finish the story because it always turns out that the characters have something different in their minds than what I planned for them.

Guess I am a plotter and a panster!

Ted Cross said...

I tend to know just one or two plot points that need to be covered by the next chapter, along with the POV character. I start typing and all these amazing things happen that I had no clue about!

mooderino said...

@Mish - I'd agree with that.

@Alex - I do the run it like a movie thing too.

@Steph - I think the vast majority of people use a combo, whether they know it or not. Good luck.

@KatieO - exactlymy point. Too many people get up on the outline/first draft, whereas things don't start to take shape until the rewriting stage.

@Paula - sounds like the ideal mix.

mooderino said...

@Jen - plotting can be just as surprising. Outlining is just another form of pantsing the story.

@Suze - I think a lot of writers feel the same way. I don't think outlining doesn't necessarily mean any less creativity. If you find it restrictive and tedious you're probably just doing it wrong. Imagination works the same in both cases. But if you approach it in a perfunctory manner, then that's what you'll get. The difference is when you write from an interesting outline you remain excited by the story through the process and there are just as many opportunities for magic to happen.

@Halli - i think we all are to varying degrees.

@Ted - I guess that's why we write, right?

Theresa Milstein said...

I found you from Jessica's blog. I liked your comment!

I blogged about this in April. I've always been a panster, churning out a draft in 2 months, and then editing it for the next many months. This last manuscript, I worked on and off the thing for a year. But I thought about it a lot. Even though I didn't outline or plot, I thought about many of the vital scenes before they were written. I also stopped after each 1-3 chapters to edit. As a result, I created a much cleaner rough draft.

Ellie Garratt said...

An extremely well-timed and helpful post for me! I loved this line, What I’m doing here is pantsing an outline'. Sums it all up.

Thank you!

Anne Gallagher said...

Great post. I outline in my pants. Always have. But I don't generally start to outline until about 50k. I get the beginning down, make my characters into people, but then as I approach the middle, I need to set down something on paper that I'll be able to use as a guideline to get to the end.

And love the husband finding the wife in bed with Mrs. Dinkins. Now THAT is a twist I didn't see coming.

Anonymous said...

I have an idea, but its a whole lot of winging it along the way. I wing almost everything. I'm plugging a few holes in my latest MS. Just winging it as I go along, relying on faith to get me fresh ideas as I'm constatntly painting myself into corners.

N. R. Williams said...

Excellent post. My first book I was a panster all the way and of course, much of it went in the trash. Now, with more experience, and doing my plot post on Monday also helps, I have learned to make a one sentence goal for each chapter. I'm still a panster with character development. I take notes though and open a word file for them.

mooderino said...

@Theresa - I htink the more thought you put in, even if it's daydreamingv, the stronger the overall story.

@Ellie - serendipitous!

@Anne - that's an interesting approach, use the first section to get to know what it's about, then outline.

@Stephen - of course if it works for you then there's no problem. It's all the people who start off like that and get lost 2/3rds of the way through.

@Nancy - I think having a goal, rather than restricting, actually opens up posibilities.

Thanks for all these great comments, much appreciated.

Lydia Kang said...

I'm a die-hard plotter, and it makes more sense for me as I have to do a bit of world building. You made some excellent points!

Arlee Bird said...

You make excellent points here. I think any writer has some combination of both approaches whether consciously or not. To just start blindly writing a story with no direction or guidelines sounds rather haphazard and chaotic to me. But to be overly rigid by adhering strictly to a outline sounds like the resulting product might be sterile and formulaic.

Tossing It Out

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I like to plot things out so that I know where I'm going with a story and not fill it with so much unnecessary fluff that I think is necessary at the time.

Michael Di Gesu said...

I know the general story in my head and then I GO at it.

This is a terrific thoughtful post Mood... Well done.

PK HREZO said...

You're right.... writing a first draft and just pantsing it is romantic and fun and whimsical. But it can also be kind of a mess when you're finished. I enjoy plotting a story outline as much as writing that first draft. I like to know the basics of what will happen before I write, then if there's a deviation, I can figure out why. I know many writers who just pants it every time. I'm always amazed by it.

TL Conway said...

Great post, Moody. I especially liked, "But when you come to writing Chapter 12, you still have to come up with an interesting escape plan and execute it."

The problem with my outlines is exactly what you wrote. I know where something will happen in my story but once I get there, I find myself pantsing my way through the scene because I don't really have an idea of how my MC is going to figure out how to save the world in this chapter...

Margo Berendsen said...

Your post title is GREAT. Plotting in your pants. oh my. Love it.

Also love that you nailed the crux of the issue in the whole panster/plotter debate. The step that too often gets overlooked: the what if? steps where you take off on spins and twists. I discovered this step via the Story Fix blog and it revolutionized my writing (well, in my opinion!). That and some other good related advice: always have your character do what you (and the reader) least expect.

Suze said...

Okay, I came back. I find it interesting that you're so certain an outline is necessary that if a writer doesn't seem to benefit from it, they must be doing something wrong. I'm not convinced everything I do is right by any stretch, but I do know that when I have a place where I want to take my characters, the dialogue comes out wooden (despised word) and forced. It's abominable. Whereas en medias res (did I spell that right?) my characters surprise me. I really believe the best writing is far more an exercise in channeling
than anything else.

What say you to that? I'm certainly open.

Anonymous said...

Gosh this is an ongoing debate that I guess reflects people's personalities as much as anything. I have been a pantser, but realise that is why i stall at the first hurdle. I think if you can get the main idea of your story well fixed in your mind then there's room for a little flexibility in allowing the story to take off by itself, but if the idea is sketchy then sometimes the story can also seem that way too. Great post :O)

mooderino said...

@Lydia - ultimately the thing that works for you is the best method there is.

@Lee - I agree.

@Michael O - I think that's a fairly common approach. Still leaves room for the unexpected.

@Michael DG - sort of a meantal plotter, physical pantser.

@Pk - some people like the security of having a full outline, even if it changes later. Others don't need anything, but it's quite risky if their imagination doesn't come out to play halfway through the process.

@TL - i think a lot of writers think they have a story all mapped out but they haven't identified what's interesting about the scene and so it feels flat when they get to it.

Margo - keeping things unexpected is a big step that writers miss, or think isn't right for their genre. Leads to a lot fo well written, pedestrian stories.

Thanks for all the great comments.

mooderino said...

@Suze - that's not what I'm saying. You don't have to outline, but if the reason you don't is because you find it stifles your creativity and is restrictive THEN you're doing it wrong, since it does neither of those.

There's just as much room for spontaneity and the unexpected in both versions.

Consider, when you have finished your first draft what you have is basically a very long, detailed outline. If you find knowing where a scene is going kills your creativity how will you rewrite an entire novel without losing your enthusiasm and abitlity to come up with new stuff?

My point is it's the actual scene that makes the difference, not the ending.

1. A man comes home to find wife in bed with lover.
2. A man comes home to find wife in bed with lover and at the end of the scene he storms out of the house.
3. A man comes home to find wife in bed with lover and at the end of the scene he jumps out of the window and flies into the sky.

Now, the first two scenes have no real difference. Even though 2 has an ending I've prescribed, whatever happens it won't really be hard to work towards. 3 has a bizarre ending and if i don't have a specific reason already in mind it's going to feel forced and contrived getting there.

But the real problem here isn't the ending, it's the scene, man finds wife in bed with lover. It's such a trite, familiar concept that it doesn't give the writer much more to work with than: man comes home and is surprised.

In order for a pantser or a plotter to write an interesting scene, the scene itself needs an interesting premise, and once you have that, whether you know or don't know the ending of that scene will not affect your ability to be inspired by it.

Man comes home to find wife in kitchen with neighbour, who she has just killed... he agrees to make it look like an accident. The only thing that worries him is that he could have sworn when he came in she was eating his flesh.

Even though I know how this scene ends, i don't actually know, but there's enough stuff here, both in the scene itself and in the ending I've decided on, to make it unexpected and interesting for me, and that's the key.

The idea of the scene has to be inventive enough to interest the writer, whether they're plotter or pantser.

Sophia said...

Yes to this, Mooderino. It'll be helpful to remember to ask what's interesting about each scene since I definitely had some filler scenes in my last WIP between the major plot points I was moving toward. Also love your point that the major difference between a pantser and a plotter is that a plotter has to know how each scene ends. I hadn't really thought about that angle before, I always got hung up on pansters not knowing *anything* rather than knowing the situation the characters get into but not necessarily how (or if) they get out of them. Thanks for sharing!
- Sophia.

mooderino said...

@Madeleine - i think it's very tempting to have a rough idea of the sort of thing that happens in the sceen and think that's enough to be getting on with. Some people of course can work with nothing and improvise great stuff, but a few minutes of quality control can amke all the difference sometimes.

@Sophia - i think a lot of pantsers make the same mistake and think if they start free-writing something will emerge, which it can, but it's risky.

Suze said...

Why does everything seem so incredibly brutal of late? Why couldn't the man come home to find his wife preparing an ancient recipe which allowed him to travel within his own nervous system by superposition and touch the face of both ancestor and progeny for the express purpose of recognizing his inherent unity with all creatures and have the experience come off like the playing of a major chord-- impossible for a single note?

Why does everyone seem to be violating, murdering, betraying, cannibalizing and stripping dignity like paint on a discarded chair?

This has nothing to do with what you've written in response to my question but it opened up another ... yep. Can of worms.

mooderino said...

@Suze - because drama is conflict.

Alison Miller said...

I believe writers have to go with what works for them, for their stories. Great post!

Suze said...

Drama doesn't mean any of your characters have to necessarily wear there innards on the outside.

Two cents.

mooderino said...

@Alsion - always.

@Suze - yes, i think it does mean that, it's just that the 'innards' don't necessarily have to be literal. Exposing what's (A) inside a character when they (B) don't want it exposed is what makes a story compelling. It doesn't have to be that (A) is blood and (B) is by force, those are just the most literal interpretations. But writing is all metaphor, none of it is even slightly like real life, and when I use the examples i do it's to make it as clear as possible, not to advocate a particular genre or scale or level of gore.

There's just as much violence in stopping a child seeing the old tramp who is the only person to ever listen to him and not ignore him, as there is in shooting someone in the head... in fiction. In real life, not so much.

You're allowed to add as many cents as you like btw, I view it as charitable donations and my begging bowl is always out.

Suze said...

'Exposing what's (A) inside a character when they (B) don't want it exposed is what makes a story compelling.'

Yes, there. If it is figurative, I agree. Though I had never quite thought of it in exactly those terms, before. I have written like this. And it hurts. For some writers, fiction is more difficult to separate from 'real life.'

I slink away to process. No pennies, tonight.

But I'll be back.

Rebecca Bradley said...

I tend to be a pantser but I know in detail the ending so it's just a matter of aiming in that direction and seeing what flows. My characters are growing with the process and I'm tending to do some of the plotting in my head between writing time. It's never far from my head no matter what I'm doing.

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