Plotting for pantsters

NC route2Most writers who identify as pantsters do so because they can’t or won’t use outlines for their work. They like the thrill of the unknown, of putting finger to keyboard and jumping into a story without any idea of where it’s going. I know this because I am one. In fact I can’t outline to save my life.

But plotting and outlining are not quite the same thing. A plot is like a road map; it defines the destination of the story, and offers possible pathways for getting there. But if you don’t want to take the highway, or even those twisty country lanes, a plot will allow you to set off cross-country with just the position of the sun as your compass.

Outlines, on the other hand, are more like a GPS device. They tell you when and where to turn. They can even tell you how long it will be before you reach your destination, and they definitely take the guesswork out of driving. But some people like to get a little bit lost.

Personally, I find GPS devices unbearable, but that is only my personal preference. Maps, however, are fine because they give me the choice of where and how to go. And that is why I’m okay with plotting.

But why, you ask, would any pantster want to plot in the first place?

Well, I can only speak from personal experience, but I’ve found that once a story reaches a certain level of complexity, I have to plot …or perish.

Before I go on, however, I need to make another, defining point : complexity is not the same as plot. You could have one hundred characters all running around doing their own thing, but all that stuff will not give you a plot. A plot has a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the actions of the characters have to be woven into those structural grab-bags in a meaningful way. Events have to flow. They have to make sense. They have to progress. They have to get somewhere.

Not all stories have to have a plot, or get somewhere, but all the stories I love to read do, even if the plot is no more complicated than the development of a single character from one state to another.

As someone who loves science fiction stories, my writing style is complicated by the fact that I love tight plots that build tension amongst the characters, and in the minds of their readers.

I’m not talking about mystery style ‘tight’, of course. I suspect all mystery writers are plotters because keeping the reader guessing is the purpose of the genre, and if the writer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next then what hope is there for the reader?

No, the type of ‘tight’ plot I’m talking about is more like what you find in a thriller. Thrillers do not try to surprise the reader, until perhaps the very end. Instead, they turn the reader into an invisible spectator, one who can see far more of the game than any of the naïve characters. Thus the spectator sits there, biting his or her nails as the characters wander blithely into and out of danger, often without even knowing they have done so.

It is this helpless awareness that creates the tension in thrillers. Of course, a good thriller always keeps something in reserve so the reader is never quite sure if the inevitable is really going to be inevitable.

Unfortunately that final question mark in the story means that the author has to have some control over where the story is going, and this brings us right back to plot again. How does a pantster meet the requirements of the story without either boring the reader stupid with predictable action, or confusing them with a plot that goes no-where?

Marian Allen, author and blogger, discussed this issue in her post ‘Deadly Duck into Good Duck‘ just today. And yes, the post is humorous while making some important points.

For me, plotting as a pantster is a circular, rather time-consuming process. Imagine it like this. I start out on a journey. I’m marching along happily in the sunshine, just enjoying the view. But then storm clouds begin to gather. Ut oh…not good.

I look around for shelter. Where the hell am I? I whip out my trusty street directory and after much head-scratching, I work out a route to the nearest bus shelter.

Off I go, determined to reach that bus shelter before the storm hits. But just as I round the first corner, what should I see before me but a five star restaurant! Running inside, I have a delicious meal followed by a decaf latte, and by the time I’ve finished, the storm has passed and I can carry on strolling through the country-side once more.

If you could see my street directory, you would notice that my progress is more zig zag than ‘as the crow flies’. But that’s okay because along the way I pick up beautiful flowers, and lovely, odd-shaped pebbles. Plus I get to see into some interesting houses along the way. [No! I am not a sticky beak or peeping Thomasina! This is for research purposes only.]

Then, when I finally reach my journey’s end, I look back at the distances I’ve covered, and all the fascinating things I’ve found along the way, and I order them into a travelogue. The guide I create is not straight, and it does not take in all the things I discovered along my own journey, but it does include all the best, brightest, most exciting things. And of course, the route always leads somewhere.

In more prosaic terms, I restructure and edit until I’m blue in the face to ensure the reader’s journey is as enjoyable as mine was, just without the potholes. Sometimes things work as planned, sometimes they don’t, but as a writer, I can never leave the reader stranded somewhere with no bus shelter in sight and a storm brewing.

Plotting of some sort is as necessary as grammar and punctuation. We forget that at our peril.

 

Advertisements

About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

37 responses to “Plotting for pantsters

  • Stephanie Allen Crist

    Not so small. 😉 I’ve been moved and alerted by your posts, and environmental fires (versus house fires) aren’t really a danger in our area. But I pay more attention to the areas that do face that danger. It became especially real for me after visiting my brother in Colorado and seeing the forest fires smoking in the distance.

    Like

  • Stephanie Allen Crist

    I understand what you mean and I can relate to it. But it’s a part of myself I lost after 9/11. When I felt cozy and safe in my own little disconnected world, I could philosophize and theorize without taking it personally. It was fun, engaging, appealing. Then, the world out there became all too real.

    Even with such a shock to my system, it didn’t all fall away at once. I got involved in politics in my effort to figure out why anyone would hate the America I knew that much–only to discover that the America I knew was only one facet of a complex jewel. Of course, I also learned that the jewel I loved had blood on her hands in ways I couldn’t have fathomed.

    Between the grizzly and futile nature of politics and the multi-faced nature of my own country, I realized that philosophizing and theorizing doesn’t mean anything unless you care enough to make something of it. And, in the end, it was my boys that real nailed that home for me.

    I’ve learned that, unless you care enough to do something about it, you don’t care enough to know what you’re talking about.

    Like

    • acflory

      There are things I care about, passionately, but trying to change the odd attitude here on my blog is about as far as I can go to change things. It’s not enough, but it’s the limit of what I, personally can do.

      Like

      • Stephanie Allen Crist

        I completely understand. I care about a lot of things too and I try to educate myself about them. As per the discussion going on in the other post, before 9/11 I was a lot more ignorant and a lot more sure of myself concerning both guns and gangs/poverty. Now I know better.

        When it comes to acting, I stick to neurodiversity, because it’s something I am passionate enough to do something about. So, I’ll discuss other things, but when it comes to writing (nonfiction) outside of a blog, I’ll stick with what I’m willing to act on.

        Like

        • acflory

          Interesting. For me that ‘willing to act’ thing is fire danger in my area. I’ve put a lot of my money where my mouth is and it’s the one area I become almost evangelical about. Nothing like your passion for neuro diversity but in a small way it’s me trying to protect what I love.

          Like

  • Stephanie Allen Crist

    Broad is a good word for it.

    It seems that a major distinction is how comfortable one is getting lost. Personally, I hate it. My husband enjoys it, but he also has a better innate sense of direction. He’s navigated our trips more than once by sun or stars because I took a wrong turn. I just can’t do that. I prefer to know the lay of the land ahead of time and find my way from the comfort of my own computer before I had out on my travels.

    The same applies in storytelling. It’s not that I’m not creative about it, but I usually spend years dreaming up the world and such in advance, so the creative cauldron is bubbling over by the time I start writing according to my plan.

    On the other hand, the novel I’m working on now I planned as I went. I took the world and the concept I’d created and planned, chucked the characterization and the plotting I’d done, and went a whole different direction. Only time will tell if it actually worked.

    Like

    • acflory

      Ah hah! I suspect you’re more of a hybrid than you think you are. 😀 Bottom line, I think we’re all hybrids to some degree. I find I /have/ to disengage my analytical self, or I can’t write at all. I think it’s because I find it a lot easier to be analytical than creative. So getting ‘lost’ is my way of balancing out the hybrid parts of my own nature.

      You, however, are probably more balanced to start with. Ultimately it’s the story that matters, not how we give birth to it. 😀

      Like

      • Stephanie Allen Crist

        Yeah, I can’t imagine separating my analytical self from my creative self; they’re too intertwined. One of my biggest frustrations in life is knowing there are creative solutions to world problems and not seeing them implemented. One of my biggest frustrations in reading is when characters do the same, but it’s also part of the draw, because stories usually come out better in the end than the world does.

        When writing, I’m always looking for that solution and I’m also grappling with the flaws in my characters that make them unable to see it or implement it. Part of the draw there is that by understanding characters better through reading and writing, I’m able to understand real people a bit better too. My analytical and creative sides are very much intertwined. 🙂

        Like

        • acflory

          It just occurred to me that perhaps I misused the word ‘creative’. I can be creative about a whole heap of things, but I guess my early training was to divorce emotions from analytical thought. So I can philosophise quite happily about all sorts of things without taking them personally.

          That’s great in some areas of life, not so great where writing is concerned. There I believe you need emotion, but it is precisely that side of myself that I find hard to access. Not that I don’t ‘feel’. Rather I don’t …emote. Meh. I guess the bottom line is that we do what we must when the story drives us. 🙂

          Like

  • Stephanie Allen Crist

    I guess this really does show the gulf between pantsers and planners. My plans are nothing like a GPS; instead, they’re very much like a map–if only a map could convey more than terrain. My plans identify what needs to happen, be it a location to visit, a character development that must occur, or a resource to acquire. But the plan does not dictate how this must happen, just (roughly) when it must happen.

    I never know how long a work will be by the time I’m done and I never know how everything will unfold. I merely have a skeleton of the story ahead of time and I flesh it out as I write. The knee bone always connects to the leg bone and the neck bone always connects to the head bone, but the flesh surrounding it is a mystery (more or less) until it’s written, depending on how clearly the ideas that sparked the story fleshed out certain portions of it.

    It’s still a work of discovery, but I’m never really lost, because there’s always a next destination.

    Like

    • acflory

      lol – I like the concept of a skeleton, and I do understand where you’re going with it, but even that much pre-planning would stiffle my ‘creativity’, at least at the beginning. Once I have a handle on the world and the characters, then I can do a bit of planning but… lol

      I guess the truth is that we all write according to our own needs. The labels we attach to said methodologies are broad to say the least!

      Like

  • Vicky Adin

    OK folks – me again and full of apologies. I absolutely hate auto-correct. I know how to spell the words I want to use but apparently my computer doesn’t agree with me. I am not a panther – or should that be cougar? I am a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘planner’

    Like

    • acflory

      lmao – oh that is awesome Pantster Power! Rawr. 😀

      Like

      • marianallen

        Hey, Vicky! I’m a panther, too! I did a post about it on The Write Type: http://writetype.blogspot.com/2013/03/plotter-pantser-or-panther.html

        “One way or another, we stalk the wild creativity where we know it’s most likely to be and then, when we spot it, we leap! We leap upon it! Fast! Like: LEAP!”

        ~grin~

        Like

        • Vicky Adin

          Maybe I should stick to being a panther after all – I quite like the title and after all it does make sense. I have images in my head, themes to follow and an ending I know will happen – but in-between it’s like stalking in the jungle. Who knows what I’ll find. I’ve written one biographical narrative – Daniel – the disillusioned soldier, about a NZ pioneer, patriarch and pacifist. I absolutely knew every detail of the story and took aeons to write it because I didn’t have the freedom to make things up. In the end, it turned out to be a great story. The two novels were also loosely based on genealogical finds but I made the choices how the plot unfolded. I had great fun with both The Cornish Knot and The Art of Secrets. Not a plan in sight. In fact, when things seemed to be going down a path I didn’t want them to go, I changed the story until the characters did want I wanted them to do – at least I did in The Cornish Knot. Charlotte was rather more insistent in The Art of Secrets and she had her way in the end – and she was right.
          Glad to be part of the discussion.

          Like

        • acflory

          I think you ladies may have started something! I like Panther as well. 😀

          Like

  • Vicky Adin

    Great blog. I’m mostly a panther, but I usually know the middle and end. But because I love travelling the back roads, taking the scenic route and stopping along the way just to see if I’ve missed anything interesting I can’t for the life of plan what happens between point A and point B. I’d have missed out on lots of interesting people and places if I’d stuck to a plan (in real life as well as in my books).

    Like

    • acflory

      Welcome Vicky. 🙂 A writer after my own heart! I totally respect writers who can outline and plot everything out in advance, but my brain simply doesn’t work that way.

      Please make yourself at home. The people here are wonderful. They make blogging a delight.

      Like

  • Yvonne Hertzberger

    My process is much like yours. I call myself a pantser but I do have a general plot line in mind. Once I’ve let the characters have their way I go back and make sure it all works and often rearrange things.

    Like

  • dvberkom

    What a fab post! I raise my glass to full-on pantsers–I used to be one, but after writing stories with plot holes big enough to drive a planet through and the resulting rewrites I realized I needed to do something different. I now use a hybrid system but allow plenty of space for back road travel and detours. Like Mel said, I like to be surprised while I’m writing– and it’s more likely readers will be, too.

    Like

  • melparish

    Great post – I love the GPS metaphor. Whenever possible I like to travel on the back roads – it’s so much more interesting that way (even if it does take a little longer) and who knows what you will find that you would have missed if you follow the GPS (or the interstates) – and that’s the way I look at my writing style too. If I allow myself to follow my characters rather than direct them who knows what new side of their personality or past they might reveal or what actions they might take that I would probably never have thought of in an outline. Besides, I like to be surprised while I’m writing so having an outline would take the fun out of it for me.

    Like

    • acflory

      Couldn’t agree more! Especially about letting the character reveal hidden sides of their personalities. Strangely I’ve found that it’s often those odd little quirks that eventually lead to some major turning in the plot. It’s almost as if the character, or my sub-conscious says ‘here, shove this in, it’ll come in useful later’. And it does. I love those moments. 😀

      Like

  • davidprosser

    I love a lady with a sense of adventure.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Like

  • EllaDee

    You’ve clearly not been in the car with the G.O. and I… Sweetpie’s voice can often be heard advising “Re-routing, re-routing” 🙂 Your street directory version reads much like one of my crazy dreams.

    Like

  • marianallen

    Super post! Thank you for leaving a link to it on my blog, and for referencing my post. (Yours is much better than mine!) Hybrid works best for me, too, although, like Candy, I can “pants” a short story, but need a firmer plot structure the longer the piece. I’m too easily distracted; next thing you know, I’m lost in the impenetrable woods and only Baba Yaga can save me!

    Like

  • Candy Korman

    I like your analogy of a GPS —very good. I’m actually attempting to GPS a mystery novel. My “pantser” M.O. is very effective for short stories & novellas, but for full length novels my lack of planning seems to be holding me back. Trying a new approach.

    Like

    • acflory

      Good luck! I find that outlining dries up my creativity but a hybrid approach seems to work – so long as I can live with the MANY rewrites.

      Ultimately all of these things are just tools. I’m sure you’ll find the most comfortable way to use the tools at your disposal. 🙂

      Like

  • laurieboris

    Excellent post. My hybrid “plantsing” style keeps evolving. I had to abandon the stricter plotting because I grew bored and irritable. I am now writing with a vague, crayon-drawn map and doing the more active plotting on the second draft. Feels better.

    Like

  • laurieboris

    Reblogged this on Laurie Boris and commented:
    Plotting versus pantsing… AC Flory lays this out so well, unbearable GPS and all.

    Like

Don't be shy!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: