I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the whole pantser vs. plotter debate. It’s on my mind now as we start up this last round for the year and on the eve of NaNo, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the subject. I was, for many years, an inveterate pantser, with some romantic notion that exploring a novel organically was like getting lost in Ireland and finding unexpected treasures. Which, yeah, you might. But more likely you’ll wind up wasting your limited vacation being stuck on some rutted track (i.e. wrong path) with a flat tire (i.e. broken plot) and no cell service, without being rescued by some handsome Irishman with a twinkle in his eye (i.e. good editor to help you fix it) (y’all, I write romance…go with the analogy).
I started my quest to learn to plot when I got out of grad school and got a real job. Or I should say jobS. I worked 2, then 3 for a long long time, which meant that my time was a great deal more limited than it was in school. Whatever else you may say about pantsing, it is incredibly inefficient and tends to require multiple drafts because you do all your discovery in the thick of the prose. For someone like me, who tends to write slowly, this is a Very Bad Thing. You can’t build a career as a writer if it takes you years to write a single book. Well, unless you’re Diana Gabaldon or Kristin Cashore. Which most of us aren’t. But I digress. I wrote about the transition in detail for Left Behind and Loving It in 2009, if you care to read. But I thought I’d talk about some of the misconceptions floating around out there about plotting–a word which, by turns, invokes a reaction of hives, making the sign of the cross to ward off evil, or is, at the very least classed right up there with the vilest of profanity by many pantsers.
Misconception: Plotting means I have to know everything about “What happens” in the story.
Wrong. And this was probably one of the biggest eye openers for me. What I finally learned is that what I REALLY was looking for was not actually how to plot–I never had any trouble coming up with stuff to happen. What I was looking for was that formula for making sure that what happened in the story actually, functionally WORKED. I was really looking for STORY STRUCTURE. Think of this as the skeleton of your story. Just like we each have an underlying skeleton that’s more or less the same, so too does story. There are certain components of plot that serve a particular function in a story and need to hit at a particular point for correct narrative pacing. If you read no other book on craft, read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. This book changed my writing life and showed me what I was missing.
Misconception: Plotting ruins all the surprises and joy of discovery and I’ll get bored.
Not true. Well, a qualified not true. It depends on the level of plotting you’re doing. If you feel like you have to plot out everything, down to the specific conversations and what that character had for breakfast, then yes, I can see how you’d get bored. If you’re plotting that kind of stuff, you don’t have a clear idea of what the point of plotting IS. What I need to know for a scene is what it accomplishes. How it moves the story forward. What is the action? How is it personal? And most importantly of all, what is the conflict? If I happen to clearly hear some of the dialogue, I’ll jot it down, but in general, I want a high level overview of the scene. That leaves plenty of room for surprises. I can’t count the number of times a scene turned into more than I intended or the characters took it in a direction I hadn’t anticipated–which still fits within the bounds of what I outlined.
Misconception: Once I outline, I have to stick to it. I can’t change anything.
Y’all, that’s just stupid. You didn’t sign a contract when you wrote that outline. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head to force you to stick to it. One of the great purposes of an outline is to give you a roadmap–because if your brain has a destination in mind, it’s free to consider other details. That doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t take a detour if you hit a road block or a bridge turns out to be washed away. If something’s not working, CHANGE IT. Case in point, I plotted out To Get Me To You (Available for preorder! End shameless plug) back in February–beginning to end. I dove in the writing of it in March. I hit roadblocks with my middle not once, but twice, which necessitated that I go back to replot (and rewrite a fair chunk) of the middle. I prefer not to think about how many words got relegated to the scratchpad. But this whole process saved me MONTHS of work. Because I stopped, traced it back to the point where it stopped working, tried another idea, and followed that thread through to the end (something that took a matter of days) instead of pushing through with the idea I had and winding up with a book that would’ve been fundamentally broken and required another draft or three. I’m bearing down on the end of the book now, and just yesterday I ended up replotting the second half of Act 3 (thankfully, not yet written at all) because my black moment wasn’t…well, black enough. And once I did that, my shero looked at what I had and was like “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” and yelled at me until I changed it. Three times. And all of these periods of stopping and reorienting involved changing the outline. It’s so not a big deal.
Misconception: There’s a right way to plot.
I’m sorry, that’s just ridiculous. There are as many ways to plot as there are writers in the world. What works for one person, won’t necessarily work for another. Just because you may have tried one method of plotting DOES NOT mean that you can’t be a plotter. It just means that method didn’t work for you. Keep trying stuff. Feel free to pick and choose the bits and pieces that do seem to help you out. My process has continued to evolve over the last five years, and I expect it will continue to evolve over the rest of my career. And that’s cool. One of the things that I’m learning, too, is that every single book is different. I have elements of my system that are consistent, that I go through for every book, but I always deviate somehow. And that’s fine too. Keeps things interesting.
So if the very idea of plotting makes you quake in your boots, I challenge you this round to try something new. Play with some kind of plotting. You just might be surprised at the results.
All that having been said, it is time to STATE YOUR ROUND 4 GOALS!
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