Thursday, December 16, 2010

Pantsers And Plotters

The following topic has been coming up a lot in author and blogs lately: what is it better to be as an author, a pantser or a plotter? Is one or the other easier/harder? Pros and cons of the two? I've evolved into sort of a mix, which is why I thought I'd blog about this subject a bit.

J.K. Rowling's Plot Outline OOTP
A plotter is an author who draws up an outline, jots down information about characters, story line, world building and plot. A plotter is basically somebody who knows a little or a lot about his/her story, before actually beginning the writing process. From what I’ve read, J.K. Rowling is a plotter – which, I think, is clearly visible in the wonderful story arch she creates throughout her Harry Potter series.
Here's a guide to plotting like J.K. Rowling

A pantser is an author who just starts writing based only on a single idea about plot, character or world building, without a clue about plot, characters and their development past this initial idea – these develop as the author delves further into the story, flying by the seat of his/her pants. Ergo, pantser. Apparently, Stephen King is a pantser. Since I haven’t read any of his books, I can’t really judge whether this is noticeable or not.

I used to be a complete pantser. I’d get an idea in my head, and would have to write about it. Hundreds of pages developed from there; wonderful characters, intriguing worlds, twisted plots – that usually ended up petering out and disappearing in the Quicksand of No Solutions.

Even with the first (and so far only) book I’ve finished, I started with nothing but an idea for the world and a possible character in it. The plot developed quickly, spreading off in several different story arcs, with characters introducing themselves left and right. By somewhere around 100.000 words, I had about five plot threads, twenty ‘important’ characters, and – once again – no solution to the problems.

My love for the main characters and the world I’d created, and the effort already invested in this project, stopped me from abandoning it. I vowed that I would finish this story, even if it was the last one I ever wrote. And believe me, there were times when I was ready to take another vow to never to start writing again once this was done.

Because I knew I couldn’t keep going the way I had been – no clue, meant no solution, which meant to ‘The End’ – I sat down and thought about what I had so far, what I wanted to happen on a grand scale (world), and how I wanted my characters to develop. I wrote these things down, then brainstormed possible plots to get where I wanted to go. And, surprisingly, wonderfully, several story threads suddenly fell into place, as if that was how they were meant to be all along.

I wrote down the key points, twists and turns that would take me to ‘The End’, then continued writing. When I was done, I had >140.000 words, meaning it took me only 40k to finish once I’d ‘plotted’; most of which was at least usable in its basic form, whereas a lot of the first 100k I had to erase completely – I mean, several whole story threads weren’t relevant anymore.

This made me realize something. Pantsing is great to get things started. But it’ll only get me so far. And it means a lot of work for me once the first draft is complete, because a lot of things that seemed important to me in the beginning, simply isn’t necessary.

Which is why, with the new novel I’ve started and intend to finish (again because I love the world and adore my characters), I wrote out the baddy’s intentions, the heros’ hopes and dreams, relationships and trials, as well as the world’s premises. Within these boundaries, the plot almost played out by itself, and I wrote it down, too. So I knew a lot about my characters, world and plot before I actually started writing – and I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to write along the plot already mapped out in front of me.

I did make sure of one thing while jotting down the plot: I didn’t make it too detailed, but kept to the basics, the bones if you will, of the story. This way it doesn’t get boring – and things aren’t set in stone, which is important for me, too. I enjoy it when my characters surprise me, or events happen that I hadn’t foreseen, things I have to deal with in a way that will keep me going in the general direction I’m heading in.

I once compared writing a novel to making a new friend; now I’m comparing it to life itself: it’s nice to know what you’re headed towards (i.e. your goals and dreams in life), but exciting not to know the path you’re going to take to get there.

So, basically, a healthy mix between pantsing and plotting is best for me.

What about you? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

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