[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]
I’ve been thinking a lot about something that came up at RavenCon earlier this year. It’s a question of primary importance to all writers: Are you Plotter or a Pantser?
A Plotter is someone who who has to plan out each story, scene by scene, before they dive in. The most characteristic element of this way of storytelling is having a detailed outline of every plot point before you sit down to write. This is often done by writing each chapter (or scene) down on an index card and then shuffling or rearranging the cards until they have a consistent, logical flow. This often means the first cards set up a conflict, the middles cards describe rising tension and the final cards give us the climax and resolution. (See the photo for an example of this.)
A Pantser is someone who dives in before knowing how the story will develop. To borrow an old phrase, they’re “flying by the seats of their pants.” A good example of this, I’ve heard, was E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. A vision of a character at the Barabar Caves came to him and he just started writing from there without much of a plot in his head. (I could be wrong about this, so apologies to any Forster fans out there!) Somehow, with the way he was wired that was all he needed and the plot just sort of fell into place from there.
I’ve asked a lot of other writers what the best approach is. And most people seem to say: “You have to find out which one you are.” And there’s only one way to do that: trial and error. Eventually you’ll find out.
Am I a Plotter or a Pantser?
So, I’ve written lots of different stuff at this point. Novels, novellas, short stories. And what have I found? Well, I’m still working it out. But with each story, I’m leaning more and more toward being a Plotter.
Take my latest short story, “P” (I have not added a working title yet, as draft 1 is not done). The story started out as many do: just a character in a situation. And then…Bam! Something happens to this character. Action! But then what happens next? You see, it starts as just a scene, not a story. There’s no backstory to this character. There’s no ongoing conflict. So, your subconscious starts building it out, starts fleshing out this character and their world. But there’s no order to it. No structure. Your mind starts filling in more and more. And that’s good and well, but it can lead you down blind alleys or to dead ends.
I’ve found that it’s best to stop a moment and do what I call the “CSP+K” prewrite. That is a template for a short story in which I list:
- C: The Characters
- S: The Setting
- P: The Plot
- +K: The Knowledge I need to write the story.
In the CSP+K, I used to describe just the basic plot, but increasingly I write the whole plot structure down, point by point. I didn’t use that blown-out approach when I began writing “P.” I wrote the first chapter or two and realized I was headed in the wrong direction. So, I completely stopped the writing process that day and dove into my plot. I switched chapters, added in small chapters to create bridges and deleted other chapters that did not move forward the plot. I basically took the time to make sure everybody involved—meaning the characters—knew exactly what was going on and where we’re headed.
With that done, I copied the basic chapter outlines over into my manuscript. As I write in the manuscript, I delete these short explanations of the action and fill them in with real action and dialogue. If that’s not being a Plotter, I don’t know what is.
I’ve also noticed I’ve done this in other works. Some say it ruins spontaneity. But so far, I haven’t found that to be the case. I actually write MORE freely because I’m not worried about my story going off the rails. The plot points serve as guide to make sure I don’t go too nuts. But then again, I’m not a Pantser. And what might work for them, would never work for me.
Find What Works for You
At the end of the day, don’t take any of this too seriously…in the sense that this is a system I’ve found that works for me. You might be a Pantser and this would be horrible advice to follow for you. Or you might be a different kind of Plotter, in which case this system wouldn’t work for you either.
My advice? As always: Get Black on White. Find what works for you through trial and error. Write and keep writing. That’s the only way to find a system that works for you. It might not be easy, but it’s the only way to find your voice and write what you want to write.
Good Luck and until next time…
Keep reading, keep writing,