Tag Archives: Marian-Allen

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.


Now this is what I call an intriguing challenge!

Much as I love being nominated for awards, I just don’t have the time or energy to accept them these days… unless they have a really interesting twist. Marian Allen provided an irresistible twist today when she :

liebster 2a. Nominated me for a Liebster Award, and

b. Threw down the gauntlet by saying I/we should answer the following questions in the voice of one of our characters!

These are the questions :

How long have you been blogging?
Why did you choose the topic(s) for your blog?
How do people find your blog?
Do you feel comfortable promoting/advertising your own stuff?
What’s your happiest earliest childhood memory?
If you could have any critter, real or imaginary, as a pet, what would it be?
What would you name it?
Why would a woodchuck chuck wood?
Vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore?
What are you reading (not these questions, silly! what book?)?
What is your superpower?

Now as most of you know, iVokh are very low tech creatures – no phones, no cars, no computers – so I can’t exactly have any of them talking about blogging. Besides, the language barrier would make it painful for them, and us. Likewise, Miira, my very high tech character from Innerscape, is not a blogger either.

But… the idea fired my imagination, so I’m going to add a twist of my own and have Emmi answer the questions… as the world’s oldest gamer!

[Emmi is the main character in my first ever short story. She is rich enough to have the very best gaming equipment, and so old, virtual reality is the only place where she can live a life that is still worth living.] Here goes!


“Good evening, and welcome to Tonight on OR. My guest tonight is Ms Emily Sandhurst, the oldest gamer in the world.”

[The holo expands to include a diminutive woman seated to the right of the presenter. The stylish clothes cannot quite conceal the exo-skeleton that holds the woman upright.]

“Thank you for joining us Emily.”

“Please call me Emmi. I haven’t been called Emily in close to eighty years.”

“Oh course… Emmi. Would you mind telling us how old you are?”

“Fifty years older than I feel, and ten years younger than I look.”

[Giggles sound from the background, and the interviewer smiles appreciatively].

“As you can see, Emmi’s wit is still razor sharp at 110!”

[After the laughter dies down the interviewer becomes serious].

“So tell me Emmi, how long have you been gaming?”

“I played video games when I was a child, of course, but I didn’t return to gaming until about ten years ago when the technology made immersive social interaction a reality.”

“But you’ve chosen to do more than just interact on a social level. Why choose fantasy gaming?”

“Well, it started as a dare. Or perhaps challenge is a better word for it. I wanted to see if my brain was still capable of doing the things my body couldn’t. As things turned out, it became an addiction, When I’m in OR I can be the real me, instead of this geriatric hulk.”

[As Emmi speaks, the holocam pans in for a closeup of her face. Every wrinkle in her sagging skin is shown in cruel detail].

“So how do other gamers react to you?”

“They just accept me as a person.”

“Do they know how old you are? And do you think that would make a difference?”

“I don’t make an issue of talking about my age, but I don’t pretend to be something I’m not either. I’m sure some of my historical references have left many of them scratching their heads. On the whole though, most people in OR don’t care.”

“Speaking of historical references, what would you say is your happiest childhood memory?”

“Mmm… that’s a tough one. I think it would have to be about climbing the fruit trees in our garden and eating warm, sun-ripened apricots.”

“I can only imagine how wonderful that must have been. But I believe you had pets back then as well?”

“Oh yes. Dogs, cats, birds, horses. We had them all.”

“So what kind of animals did you like the best?”

“I still love both cats and dogs, but I’ve always had a secret yen for a fox. They were classified as feral pests back then, but somehow I always saw them as having the best features of both cats and dogs.”

[Slightly puzzled laughter from the audience].

“If you had had a fox, what would you have called it?”

“Vuk. The name comes from an Hungarian children’s animation back in ’81. 1981 that is.”

“You do enjoy strange words and sayings don’t you? Can you explain this one?”

[The closeup of the presenter’s face is replaced by a circle of letters floating in space. As the circle turns you read ‘Why would a woodchuck chuck wood?”]

“Oh! That one. Well that’s a bit like the one about ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ isn’t it?”

[As the holocam pans across the blank faces of the studio audience, the presenter coughs, and shuffles his notes. He is reknowned for using archaic props, but this time the paper in his hands serves as a handy distraction].

“So Emmi. Tell us a bit more about yourself. Are you a vegan or a vegetarian?”

“Actually I’m an omnivore.”


[More paper shuffling can be heard off camera].

“It says here that you love books. I must say I’m rather partial to hearing a good story myself. Are you listening to anything interesting at the moment?”

“I don’t listen to books young man, I read them, and as a matter of fact, I’ve just finished reading an early twenty-first century novel called The Lady of the Lazaretto.”

“Lazaretto? Is that a religious reference?”

“No, Lazaretto is a medical reference, and the story was set on a quarantine planet.”

“Oh! I see. So it was science fiction. Was it any good?”

“Yes, it was excellent.”

[A pale yellow glow begins to swirl around the presenter’s feet, cueing him to wind the interview up].

“So, Emmi, one last question if I may, about your gaming. What would you say is your avatar’s best super-power?”

[There is a long pause as the holocam zooms in on Emmi’s face again].

“She doesn’t take bleep from anyone.”

[Gasps sound from the audience].

“Ah… quite.”

[The theme music swells in the background]

“Well that’s it for another night. Would you please give a round of applause to Emmi Sandhurst, holder of the Guinness Book of Records title, Oldest Gamer in the World!”

[Fade to black]


As you can see I’ve taken huge liberties with both questions and answers, but I had great fun doing it. 😀

And now it’s your turn. Give it a go. It’s a fun writing prompt and a nice way of passing on the Liebster love. Oh and don’t forget to thank Marian Allen for kick-starting the fun!


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