Monday, April 10, 2006

Technical Thoughts: Pantsing vs. Plotting

The skies have cleared, the sun has come out, and it's the 10th. Which means it's time for my inaugural post in the Warner Women blog, or risk the Bloginatrix's wrath. While ordinarily I might provoke just to see what happens, indulging my inveterate curiousity as a writer, today I am suffering a shortage of caffeine (remedied while I type this, thank goodness) and I've decided not to mess with the woman who holds the whip.

Which is probably a good life strategy, come to think of it.

Right now I'm ignoring the fifth Danny Valentine book while I do some revisions on the third. This is in self-defense, for the characters have declared mutiny and I'm waiting for the dust to settle before I venture back into those waters. I am also knitting up a storm, which is one of my coping mechanisms. Somehow a few rows of clicking needles and yarn manages to untangle most any plotline.

Speaking of plotlines brings me (eventually) to my subject today: pantsing versus plotting*.

I am a pantser. There's nothing I can do about it. The characters are in control, they disgorge their story whole onto the page, and I'm merely the fingers they use to tap out their fates. Of course, word choice and revising is all in my purview, but in the heat of creation I'm a total pantser. I can't outline to save my life.

When I do outline a story, the characters seem to take a nasty satisfaction in changing the story on me at the last minute. I think I tried to plot out three books before learning my lesson and just letting the story lead me.

This has its drawbacks, of course. For one thing, I have to go back and bring out the underlying structure in the book in my initial revision, and sometimes little plot tails get hung out to dry. Characters are oddly insistent on little things that are brought back into the story and made important later, but sometimes even they forget. I rely on my beta readers to tell me what a story's missing, and the gods have blessed me with some very picky, very wonderful betas. Pantsers need supportive peers a little more than plotters do, and plotters tend to need editorial support a little more than pantsers do.

I do envy plotters. I've edited quite a few of them, and am always amazed at how they can write to spec with manageable characters who stay (mostly) between the lines. Much of my writing angst seems like it would be solvable if I could only corral my characters and make them bloody well behave. Whenever I edit a plotter, I am struck by how tight their story is in the first draft and how little I have to nudge to get the story arcs in a manageable pattern.

The drawback to plotting, of course, is the temptation to "force" a character to do something uncharacteristic, for the purposes of the story. Plotters are sometimes uncomfortable without a triplicate map of the foreign country they're trying to penetrate in writing.

There are other differences. Pantsers tend to mumble when working on a plot line, and plotters tend to be always searching for pen and paper to get the idea out of their heads so they can add it to the outline. Pantsers are more prone to take on aspects of their characters in the midst of large projects, and plotters are more likely to "play God" with their characters and introduce a deus ex machina. Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto, I wish I could call the whole thing off and be a plotter. I really do.

It's like people with curly hair and people with straight hair--the grass is always greener, I suppose. Pantsers like me often wish they were plotters, and I've had a couple plotters buy me a drink and tell me they wished they were pantsers. To add insult to writing injury, my writing students are usually aghast when I detail the difference between pantsers and plotters. The incipient pantsers are usually stunned by the thought that anyone would outline a story, and the incipient plotters are usually stunned that someone wouldn't. A few students smack their foreheads and say, "My God! You mean it's okay to outline/not outline?"

To which I reply: whatever gets you there. Which is the great thing about writing. One can always refine, play with, discover new things that help the Muse come out and play. I live in the great hope that some day I will find a form of outlining that will tame unruly characters and keep my first "clarity" edit (the edit I do before anyone else sees the finished project) from being such an unholy mess.

Yeah. It's nice to dream, isn't it?

* A pantser is a writer who writes without an outline or synopsis as part of their planning stage. A plotter usually utilizes an outline and sticks fairly close to it.


Karmela Johnson said...

But what do you call this type of writer?

Someone who utilizes an outline as part of their planning stage but who writes without referring to said outline.

Because that's ME! I can't seem to begin without an outline/synopsis, but when I start writing, you can't pay me to stick to said outline.


Michelle said...

I need a map. I may do some off-road siteseeing, but if I don't have my synopsis things don't make sense. I figure, whatever works, do it. I tried pantsing. Doesn't work for me.

Paula Quinn said...

For me, it usually depends on the book. Having written both ways, I prefer being a pantser and letting my characters take the lead. I don't think there is anything more sinister in the world than a synopsis. I'd rather go to Stephanie's dentist and have a root canal.

BTW, Lili, great blog. Welcome!

Elizabeth Hoyt said...

Sinister synopsises. HAR! You crack me up, Paula. I think my synopsises are just lame and kind of desperate in a sad sort of way. If my synopsis was a woman in a bar she'd be a little drunk and willing to go home with just about anyone. How's that for a bizarre image?

I'm a plotter, but I take exception to Lili's thesis that only pantsers mutter under their breath when writing, I know I sure do.

Lori Wilde said...

After 35 books, I don't think the only difference between pantzers and plotters are that plotters write it down and pantzers keep it in their heads until they write the story. I do think if a pantzer really wanted to become a plotter they could and vice versa. It's all process and what works for you for one book won't necessary work for another. I don't think it's at all like have curly hair or green eyes. Creativity isn't static. It's a moveable feast. Either way writing is damned hard. Do whatever works for the project at hand.

Zoe said...

I'm a plotter. When I first started writing, the idea of using an outline didn't even occur to me; inevitably I'd get stuck somewhere around the early middle of the book, with no idea what these characters should do now that I'd introduced them. My outlines have gradually gotten more and more detailed. I sometimes feel insecure about being a plotter though - after all, there are so many people out there who say you're not really being creative unless you just let the story take control. But for me, if I try to do all the plotting at the same time that I'm doing the actual writing, I can't devote enough attention to either, and I don't spend enough time on any of my scenes because I'm too busy trying to get to that next idea I have before I forget it. If I do most of the figuring out what's going to happen beforehand, though, I can devote enough attention to it, and then devote enough attention to the actual writing when I'm on that part. And I don't have to worry about forgetting my ideas, because they're all written down. (Maybe that's the difference - that the pantser usually gets these ideas most easily when actually writing. I know that's not the case with me; I've had it happen, but it's not the way it happens most naturally for me.)

There is a major downside to being a plotter - when the plotter gets a cool idea for a novel, she can't just get started on it; there are plots to work out and outlines to be done. It can get frustrating.

Milady Insanity said...

I'm another one who plots and pantz, depending on the book.

Plotting gives me less stress but it is undeniable that pantzing is more fun when the going is good.

Diane Perkins said...

Great post. I'm always reassured when I read about other pantsers, because I secretly believe that one should know where one is going when one writes a novel. I did manage to write a synopsis for my Warner book #3, aka Blake's story, aka untitled. But it is taking on its own life and I already know that the way I ended it won't work.
....and it's due May 31.