Wednesday, May 03, 2017

To Plot or Not

One of the big debates that arises between writers is the issue of whether or not to plot — sometimes characterized as “plotting” vs. “pantsing” (writing by the seat of the pants). George R. R. Martin has referred to it as “architect” — creating detailed blueprints before starting work — vs. “gardener” — plant some seeds and see what grows — writing. Either way, it mostly comes down to whether a writer plans ahead, creating an outline before doing the actual writing, or just writes the story as it comes. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

There can be a lot of spontaneity with “pantsing,” since the discovery process happens during the writing. Following threads of a story as they arise can help a writer avoid a formulaic plot. A lot of pantsers feel like they would waste the sense of fun and discovery of the writing process if they used it on the outline instead of on the book itself.

On the other hand, this writing process may require a lot of revision and rewriting. Discoveries made later in the book require changes earlier in the book to set them up properly, and plot threads that ended up going nowhere need to be trimmed. Writers who write this way need to pay a lot of attention to continuity to make sure all those drafts still fit together and that everything is consistent. Because of this, it may take longer to write books this way.

On the plotting side, there can be an advantage in figuring out how the plot works before the draft is written. Some writers who do extensive plotting may only write one draft and then proofread it. They’ve done all the discovery process in their outline, so the draft only requires the outline to be fleshed out, and that can mean faster production. Being a plotter also helps when you reach the level in your career when you can sell on proposal. You can write a synopsis of a book and sell the book before you write it. Pantsers can really struggle with this.

On the con side of things, plotting can lead to reduced enthusiasm for a project if the fun part is figuring out what happens. Sometimes, the plot doesn’t work once you start writing, and trying to stick to a planned outline only gets you sidetracked. The outline is what you come up with before you’re really immersed, and if you’re coming up with an outline based on story structure, there’s a chance that your story will come across as more “rote” and won’t really let your characters breathe.

Which is best? The one that allows you to complete a book and make it good. Different people work in different ways. It’s worth trying both approaches and seeing what works for you, and that may change over the course of your career. You may need to plot in your early books as you figure out how a story works, and then you may be able to start pantsing because you’ve internalized that and have done your plotting in your head. Or you may start as a pantser until you figure out your patterns, and from there you may be able to plot first. There’s also a lot of middle ground. The plotting may be just the general turning points, and you improvise from there. You may just know the beginning and the ending when you start. You may outline a few scenes ahead of where you are but without outlining the whole book to begin with. Some books may require more careful plotting than others. If you’re stuck on a project, you might want to try switching approaches. If you’re a plotter and are struggling to write the book you outlined, try throwing out your outline and seeing where the story takes you. If you’re a pantser and don’t know where to go next, try outlining.

If someone tries to tell you that the way they write makes them a “real” writer or a better writer, smile and nod and go about doing it the way that works for you.

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