Most 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.