by Janis Patterson
In one of my discussion groups not long ago the perennial discussion of pantser vs plotter came up. Again. It rears its head every couple of months, and each side has its devoted and vocal advocates. One member – a downy little newbie – asked what the names meant and how were they different, a simple request for information that ignited a lively discussion of the various virtues of each.
Basically it boiled down to the facts that plotters like to have everything planned and laid out in varying degrees of exactitude. Some even use detailed cheatsheets to create their characters, some covering everything from their eye and hair color to their favorite flavor of Jello. (Don’t laugh – I have seen this.) The story is laid out in either a paragraph or outline form, sometimes going three or four or even more layers deep if it is bullet-pointed. Plotters say it keeps them on target.
A pantser is one who writes ‘by the seat of their pants.’ They have a basic idea, or perhaps even just an opening line, then sit down and write from there, letting the story and the characters take them wherever they want to go.
Full disclosure : I am – and always have been – a definite pantser. Even in school I loathed outlining, thinking even then that it was the best way I could think of to kill creativity and spontaneity. Yes, I was a very precocious child!
There is danger in pantsing, though, especially for the newbie – unseasoned? marginally skilled? – writer. It gives one the opportunity to wander all over the place with no story structure. One of the hardest things to convince newbies is that pantsing does not mean writing without structure. It only means no preconceived, written out structure. The story has to be a cohesive whole, with proper foreshadowing and rational action and reaction as well as a beginning, story arc and an end (yes, even in fantasy/scyfy). Otherwise all you’ll have is a great number of words – not a book.
Another danger with pantsing is that of writing yourself into a corner – meaning you have not set things up properly. A story has to flow as a whole, not just be a string of really nice scenes. Everything has to interact and work together. When newbie (and let’s be honest, not-so-good) writers find themselves in this corner, all too often they fall back on the old ‘and the cavalry rides over the hill’ trick. In other words, something happens to save the day but it’s never been set up properly or integrated into the story or even foreshadowed. That’s not only a cheat, it’s a cheap cheat, and the readers know it.
I’m always trying to hone my skills, so a couple of years ago I took a plotting class about which everyone was raving. It was quite good – just not for me. You took ten boxes; then in each box you would put five plot points. Under each one of those you’d put two minor plot points. Seems like there was another layer with plot points under each of them, but it’s been too long and I don’t remember. Theoretically when you finished you would have a very detailed outline for a 100K book.
I did all this. Came up with a really nifty romantic adventure involving a female race driver, her murdered brother, a dirty bomb, a terrorist plot, two luscious men… a story that will never be written. Oh, everything is there, and it hangs together beautifully, and I am bored to death with it before writing the first word.
I do not take boredom well. Also, as someone intelligent whose name I cannot now remember said, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. One of my perennial strong sellers was pantsed, and two of the main characters were not in the original concept of the book. They just walked in and took over. Had I been slavishly following an outline they never would have been born, and the book would be so much the poorer for it.
Don’t get me wrong – writing is hard work, whether you outline or (especially) if you are a pantser. Perhaps more if you’re a pantser. Reining in a rampaging imagination while giving it enough freedom to create is not easy. If you’re a newbie writer, or a writer who’s hit a rough patch, I’d suggest trying both and see which works for you.