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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Plotting vs Pantsing: A Daoist Writer Contemplates the End

"In the planning stage of a book, don't plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it." — Rose Tremain

I’m a Potterhead. Over the years, I’ve collected all sorts of Pottery (see what I did there?) from wands to Gryffindor scarves to fond memories of the first time I had a Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Bean*.

Tutti-fruitti. Mmmm. Delish.

However, my most cherished piece of HP memorabilia isn’t sitting on my desk or living in a photo album. It’s an idea. A piece of writer’s nerdistry. I remember reading an article wherein Rowling said that she’d written the last chapter as part of her earliest work on the series.

She knew how the story would end all along—and wrote her stories so that they would all work toward that ending.

The Yin
As I myself evolved from a reader into a writer, I often thought about that. Her technique made complete sense.

I was fascinated by the absolute loveliness of the series. Everything just seemed to fall in place like a wonderfully intricate mosaic. It made the reader in me very, very happy. Stories like that are fulfilling. I’m glad she knew the ending because it made for an amazing journey.

I added Rowling’s idea to my writer’s “toolbox”. Knowing the end helps ensure the story gets told in a fulfilling way. It enables a writer to include all those elements that come together to form the final picture.

I began writing on Team Pantser. Rowling’s “advice” served me very well. My first books were definitely not plotted out. I knew where I wanted each one to end up and happily pantsed my way through the book until I got there. And somehow, the stories worked. They had those delicious elements and clues and resonances interspersed along the way that culminated in fulfilling endings.

So why the Rose Tremain quote? you ask. It would seem to be the exact opposite of the philosophy I’d developed for my writing. But that’s the thing about writing: we grow with every story we write. Our craft develops. We learn. We change.

The Yang
As I continued to evolve as a writer, I had a feeling that I couldn’t write by the seat of my pants forever. I’d learned too much about story arcs and acts and structure to ignore the pros of plotting a book.

My first romance novel was also my first plotting project—and that’s because romance readers have very high expectations. If I didn’t plot the romance story line, it would have been in serious danger of flopping. A relationship story requires a pattern of ups and downs in order to invest the reader in the outcome.

And outcome is key. A romance novel has one major requirement: a happy ending. Knowing that the story would end up in a happy place allowed me to write that story to get there. I didn’t know it would end up with the ending it got. I just knew love would find its way.

And the times, they were a-changing. I was approaching a new place in my writing, someplace strange. A place where planning became essential to my writing process. I had begun to play for the other team. The Plotters.

I began studying Save the Cat. I scrutinized beat sheets. I even found these nifty references here and here that help me make sure I hit my beats on time by plotting out not only the beats but also the appropriate word counts associated with them. Never in my wildest pantser dreams could I have imagined the joy of the science of plotting, the mathematical precision of putting delicious story elements in their proper order.

The Conflict
But there is a word I associate with concepts such as mathematic and scientific. Clinical. Furthermore, there are other words I associate with clinical. Cold. Precise. Spiritless.

Last October, I got out my beat sheets and plotted a story, planning on banging it out the next month for NaNoWriMo. The beats were primo. The plot was *mwah* magnifique! The story was intricate and fulfilling and waiting to be written. All I had to do was connect the dots.

That’s when something terrible happened. I tried to connect the dots. Tried to write the story in between those defined points I’d so carefully plotted.

I didn’t feel like writing it.

I didn’t feel.

The plotting was perfect but in plotting, the process became clinical. Cold. Spiritless. I couldn’t figure it out at first. Thinking it was just a little bit of exhaustion from my day job, I back-burnered the project. I pantsed a different story and had a blast doing it. After some space, I went back and looked at that NaNo project and realized what went wrong.

I knew too much about what was going to happen. Knowing exactly the who’s, the how’s, and the when’s took all the joy of discovery out of the writing. It made writing the story (and I shudder to write this) work.

And I never want writing to feel like work. My day job feels like work. Work equals (shudder) work.

Writing is the part of my week that restores me, rejuvenates me, uses the muscles I don’t get to use at the day job. It is what balances me and keeps me sane.

The Daoist Writer
I have come to think of this in Daoist terms. Writing and day job are yin and yang. They are push and pull. They are two very different halves that make me whole.

Balance in technique also keeps me whole. And that’s where Rose Tremain restored my sanity.

Her quote originally made me wonder if my Rowlingesque mindset was the wrong thing for me as a writer. I needed to look at my craft, my books, and my techniques. Here's what I discovered.

• Knowing the ending and pantsing my way there worked for some of my books.
• Plotting and beat-sheeting a book before writing worked for some of my books.
• Pantsing instead of plotting would not have worked as well for my first romance.
• Plotting and beat-sheeting a story before writing any of it—before I got to know the characters and their world—made the passion of writing the story fizzle out, leaving a cold, clinical task.

And so the ultimate Daoism emerged:
• There was no single perfect way, no one true path to writing my stories.

The Balance
Rose Tremain’s advice wasn’t saying that Rowling’s way was wrong. It was simply another truth. That was the balance I needed. Tremain’s words became the yang to Rowling’s yin.

So, that it? you ask. Here I thought you’d clear it up, once and for all, what we should be—plotters or pantsers?

And the answer is: don’t ask me. Ask your story.

Your story may spring fully formed and armored from your forehead, like a Greek goddess. Your story may require a structure to serve the genre, such as mystery or romance. Your story may pop into your head, ending first, a final moment that is the essence you want to share. Or your story may be whispered to you by your muse, scene by random scene, in drops of inspiration.

If you are the type of writer who has a consistent writing process, your stories may be conceived in one particular fashion and your technique is the same from book to book.

I can’t write with a one-size-fits-all approach. My stories are too varied. Maybe if I were to stick to one style, one genre I could use one technique. But that’s not me. My day job is very strict in the sense that there is only one right way to do what I do, with piles of company policies to ensure it gets done that one right way and boatloads of state and federal regulations to ensure I don’t decide to start freewheeling it. My writing is definitely the yang to my day job’s yin.

I am a Daoist. I strive to keep my life in balance, and each part of my life in balance with itself.

Writing is no different. My state of enlightenment enables me to realize that I am not meant to be pure plotter or pure pantser. I strive for simplicity, naturalness, and spontaneity while giving a story the structure it requires for reading fulfilment. My stories are best served by a balance of the two approaches and, when I write using the best of each of those two techniques, I achieve my goals and create stories that I really, truly love.

And that’s good karma for me.

What team do you back—the Pantsers or the Plotters? Or are you a free agent like myself? 

*Not to be confused with the first time my husband had a BBEFB. He found the bag of jelly beans next to the computer one night and, bathed in only the light of the monitor glow, did not realize he was about to eat a vomit-flavored one. Much racket ensued. Geez, can that man hold a grudge.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.


Cadence said...

Thank you for your blog post! I enjoyed reading your journey of discovering what works for you. It makes perfect sense to a pantser who wants some structure, but not so much that the story feels forced and isn't fun to write. I've been looking for the perfect blend of plotting and free writing, but discovered for me it changes with each book idea. Happy writing!

docstar said...

YES - every writer and every story can have a different method. Personally, I don't know anything about any story except that I have either a character I want something to happen to, or a situation that just needs a character. After that, it's just making sure that whatever happens matches what's already happened. I love not knowing what's going to happen next, and each discovery I make is the same one the readers will make.

Gifford MacShane said...

A great post! I call myself a "plantser". I start out pantsing, but already knowing the beginning, the end and a few highlights in between. Then, along about the middle, I start an outline to ensure I don't lose any plot threads and all characters have a vital role to play. I make a few more notes about what needs to happen to make the story "whole", and then go back to pantsing. I've tried both plotting and complete pantsing, and this is what works for me. Just as you said, a combination of factors.

Yolanda Renée said...

I do both, write down an idea, get the basics and then outline specific details and timelines. My stories practically write themselves. Okay, that's a lie, after the beta readers and editor is done, only then do I feel safe in saying that. :)

Sarah Ahiers said...

I am definitely in team plotter.
But, that said, my outlines are mere shells, which allows me to pants within the scenes themselves.
As for the endings, about 50% of the time I know how my stories will end and 50% I don't. And both have worked well for me.

I have a que sera, sera attitude toward most of it

Rochelle said...

Love this post! I've yet to write a story the same way, even though my methods begin the same. I always choose an ending. I haven't used it for two of my finished books. I'm fairly certain I'll use the ending I planned for my WIP, though. However, you posted this right as my scene-by-scene outline wasn't working anymore, and I was reading through trying to discover what in the world went wrong. My characters are definitely different people than I thought they were when I started writing. So I'll have some revision to do, but I'm looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

Perfectly explained.
I'm more on the pantser side with some plantser leanings when it comes to fiction. But I agree - there is no "one way" or even "best way", there are many paths to reach the goal, and which one you take depends on the story, and on you, and so many intangible things. Do what works for you. Try it all.