Last week I was interviewed by fellow Writers of the Future winner C. Stuart Hardwick (read the interview here).  One of the questions Stuart asked was: Pantser or Plotter? I glossed over the answer in the interview, but would like to jump in the deep-end for my answer here.

For any who may not know, Pantsing and Plotting are two ends of a spectrum that writers use to classify the way stories come together for them.  A Plotter outlines the entire story before beginning to tell it. They know the end of the story when they write the first words of the first draft. They've figured out all of the main plot points.  Some writers talk about having a character take over the story on them--this would never happen to a pure-plotter because they write exactly to the outline.

Conversely, a Pantser writes by the "seat of their pants." A pure pantser may not even know what the next sentence in their story needs to be until they've completed the sentence before it. Characters frequently do the unexpected to a Pantsing writer.

There are arguments for and against both of these, and looking at Stuart's interviews with the other WotF winners for the past year, it seems most of us vary back and forth between the two methods depending on the story we're trying to tell.

Admittedly, there are times when a story has popped into my head, fully formed.  When that happens, I take notes and then try to stick with the outline I jotted down as much as possible.  My story, Containing Patient Zero (to be published this summer in Fiction River) is one of these. I wrote Patient Zero for submission to an urban fantasy anthology.  When you read it, you'll probably realize pretty quickly that this is *not* an urban fantasy (that editor rejected it, but the next editor to see it, Kris Rusch, bought it as a crime-fantasy).  In the instructions I received from the original editor, she mentioned that she considers werewolves, vampires, and witches to be optional elements of an urban fantasy. So I figured, if those mythical creatures are urban fantasy, why not creatures from other mythologies, like banshees, golems, and so on? I brainstormed as many different mythical creatures as I could, writing each of them down on a post-it note and sticking them to the wall. By the time I'd finished brainstorming, the story was "done" in my head--except for actually writing it down.

In that case, I had to stick with the outline exactly as it had come. I didn't have wiggle-room at all.  In fact, I started writing one scene that threatened to twist a bit while I was writing it.  I restarted that scene two or three different times and couldn't find the way through it in the way the story had to go. 

So I wrote the scene backwards. I started with the situation at the end of the scene and then wrote what must have happened immediately before that. And then wrote the paragraph that had to lead to that. And so on, until I got back to the beginning of the scene.  

I've never done that before, and I don't know that I'll ever do it again

Generally, though, I tend toward pantsing my way through a story.  I think this comes largely from my training in improv theatre. 

Many people see an improvised scene and think, "That's brilliant! I could never do that!"  When a scene works well, it looks to the audience like a well-oiled machine--like the performers must have rehearsed it before the performance.  But really, it's a lot simpler to do that most folks think. (Not that it's easy--it's not--but the principles are simple enough that most people could pick it up given enough practice).  The key is this: You're not building the scene by yourself. You only contribute a piece of it and let the other performers contribute their share, too.

One of the first "rules" of improvisation is called "Yes, And."  Meaning, you always take what's been given to you, accept it, and build on it.  The other night, in an improv workshop, I started a scene with a pantomime of trying to start a fire with a bow-and-drill.  Now, it seemed to me like that action was pretty clear on its own, but my scene partner came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and, when I put the (imaginary) bow and drill down to blow an ember to life, he said, "Billy, I really don't think you're going to revive the dead beaver like that."

Well, he had seen my action--putting my hand on top of something and rubbing it vigorously with my other hand, followed by bending down and feeding it puffs of air--and until he delivered the first line of the scene that's all he had to work with.  So he used his line to name things: I was 'Billy' and the thing I was working on was a dead beaver.  

Now that he'd named what I was doing, insisting that I was really trying to build a fire would have stopped the motion of the scene.  It didn't matter that I thought I was starting a fire. My scene partner gave things a name--and that's what gives the opening lines of a scene their power.

So I picked up the pieces he had given me and added to them.  I gave my character a sense of desperation and, looking up at him, I said, "But I have to do something, Andy. I'm the one who hit it with the car."

Now we know my scene partner is named Andy and that we're most likely friends and we have a car, so we're outside. Unless one of us quickly specifies otherwise, we can assume we're old enough to legally drive.  But more than that, we now have a character with a problem.  In his next line my scene partner gives me something specific about the setting and just like that we've got the basis for a dramatic scene.

And that's how I begin all of my stories.  I put a character in a setting and give him a simple problem. Sometimes I know a little bit more than that.  Sometimes that's all I've got.

After years of reading novels, short stories, and stage plays, after lots of analysis and feedback of my own writing and several workshops on different elements of craft, and after performing in several improvised scenes, I now have a pretty good intuitive sense of when a scene needs something to happen--when a "tilt" (in the vernacular of improv) or a "value-shift" (from Robert McKee's excellent treatise on screenplays, Story) is needed.  

By trusting my intuition on those things I can write my way into a story. Once I'm there, the subconscious gets in gear and starts handing me all sorts of cool things that I don't think I'd ever come up with if I tried to outline my way through a story before I actually started writing.

When that happens, often what the subconscious hands me is still a long way away in the timeline of the story. If I then write toward that, I'm now following a loose outline rather than purely improvising one line after the next, but I got that loose outline by following the principles of the Pantsing writer. So which is it? Am I purely Pantsing, or am I then a Plotting writer, too?

Either way, it doesn't matter.  Because when that starts happening, that's when writing gets really, really fun.



03/19/2014 2:04pm

Excellent post, Paul. I couldn't agree more, and don't see how either extreme is really viable. Pure "pantsing" fosters too much revision to ever be productive, but exhaustive plotting, I think, cannot help but stifle creativity and force a writer into dry, stereotyped paths.

08/29/2017 5:47pm

It was so lucky of you that you got the chance to be interviewed by Stuart Hardwick. He's literally one of the best best radio hosts in the town and you were lucky enough to express your views I n front of her. By the way, what are the things you have discussed with him? I am sure that all of those are beneficial not just for you, but for all people concerned. More powers to you!

09/29/2017 6:43pm

Back when I was still a college student, I was an active member of a theater guild and became a head of our actor's department. We grew old with the judgment from non-theater people saying that our job weren't that hard compare to the medical-related things they are up to. Here's one thing. Just producing a story alone is a difficult task. You cannot just go and write a script just because you want to. Couples of considerations should be done first. I just hope other people would acknowledge that too.

09/16/2015 5:33am

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09/16/2015 3:16pm

This is a post that is very nice and interesting. It's amazing.8

07/03/2016 10:40am

Writers has a bright future, if you have some writing skills then meet with C. Stuart Hardwick and also watch the video of their latest interview and start your online career now.

07/11/2016 3:41am

Ok, now I will read this interview. Thanks!


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