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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Writing Styles: Confessions of a Plotter Who Used to Be a Pantser

What in the world are "pantsers" and "plotters"?

There seems to be lots of discussion on the web about the two different writing styles, "pantsers" and "plotters."

There are "pantsers" who write off the seat of their pants--they have the important aspects of the plot in their minds, and they write to see how the story unfolds. They are also known as “fly into the mist” writers.

Then there are "plotters" (sometimes affectionately termed “plodders”) who outline everything beforehand so they know what they need to accomplish in their chapters as they write.

Some people are a little bit of both. Ultimately, whichever writing style you choose is based on your personality and preference.

When I first started writing, I was a "pantser". But as I wrote more, I experimented with "plotting" and discovered that style enabled me to write my personal best. Plotting became a painful but necessary process for me.

Having experience in both styles, I can identify with the pros and cons of each.

"Pantsers":

Most fiction writers are "pantsers". For many people, this allows them to achieve maximum creative expression. If the writer doesn't know where the plot is going, then the reader won't know either--resulting in a surprising, exciting work of fiction. This style can also be much more interesting for the writer as he/she writes, enabling an easier trudge through the dreaded "middle" of the book.

The downside of "pantsing" is the revisions. Sometimes, logic flaws and inconsistencies are noticed after the writer has already written a majority of the novel. Going back to correct can sometimes be a complex, tedious, problematic process, because one change often snowballs into numerous other details that must be revised. "Pantsing" also sometimes results in uneven, jerky pacing and rising action. These can be difficult to correct if the slower scenes that hamper the pace are integral to the plot, or if action scenes placed too close together can't be interjected with slower scenes to build suspense.

Many “pantsers” are wizards at revisions. They keep plotlines in order with ease inside their heads, and switches or rewrites are done effortlessly.

"Plotters":

Because "plotters" write outlines before fleshing out their scenes, they often can catch and correct inconsistencies and logic flaws before they start writing. It is less labor-intensive to make changes to an outline rather than an entire manuscript. Some "plotters" also use the outline to plan and control pacing, rising action, and suspense--scenes can be switched or added to mold the intensity of the action and the suspense of the sequel. Also, an early outlining step is writing the story synopsis, which is one less headache when submitting for publication.

However, for many people plotting the outline before writing the scenes can drastically hamper creative expression and enjoyment in writing. The dreaded "middle" of the novel becomes a nightmare of dwindling motivation and a shortened attention span. Also, some people's personalities and organizational styles find it difficult to plan so many words in advance. It can be daunting on a psychological level, or confining to be chained to a set sequence of planned events.

What's best for you?

Ultimately, writers should experiment with both styles before deciding if the pros outweigh the cons for each method. One exercise to try would be to take two short story ideas, then "plot" one story and "pants" the other. You'll be able to determine fairly quickly which suits you, but the key is to try each style at least once.

I did not think I would be a very good "plotter". But I discovered that for me personally, outlining did not cramp my creativity. Although I have a skeleton outline of the chapters, the actual writing always brought out new nuances and fresh ideas, requiring lots of creative juice. I also spent less time revising, which I dislike. Some authors are extremely gifted in revising, so "pantsing" enables their talent to shine.

How do I find out more about "pantsing" and "plotting"?

The best "plotting" advice I know came from Randy Ingermanson and his "Snowflake" method:
http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

For "pantsing", I have some advice from a "pantser-turned-plotter". You should have a few foundational elements done before you begin:

1) Characters--Hero, heroine, villain, minor characters. However, "pantsers" don't need to know everything about them before they start writing.

Related to Characters is Motivation--why they do what they do, the force that drives them against each other or against the villain. It should be real, believable, absolute, and seemingly unconquerable.

Related to Motivation is Goal: some concrete thing the characters want because of their underlying motivation.

2) Theme--Come up with a general theme of your book that will enable you to keep on track with your story. I've heard some romance writers talk about who they will often connect the theme of their book with a character's greatest fear or inner struggle. It's the central point around which your story will revolve.

3) Situation--a general idea of setting, and the situation the characters are in.

4) Conflict--what problems will your characters face, to prevent them from reaching their goals?

For more basic information on writing technique, characterization and plot, I would suggest:
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon

What next?

Determining your writing style can help you to write more efficiently and effectively. New writers want to write well but are unsure what to follow--some articles stress the pre-novel legwork like outlining and character charts, while others urge the writer to simply write and see where they end up. Once you know what suits your personality, you won't waste time in a style that doesn't allow you to write your best.

Then just START. Non-activity is the writer's worst enemy. Jot down outline notes, or start writing Chapter One.

Because no matter what style you prefer, ultimately you are a writer. Get your words out there for someone else to read.

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