Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Plotting by the Seat of Your Pants

Sharon Wildwind

Indian or Chinese tea? Friends of the bride or groom? Vacation in the mountains or by the sea? Plotter or Panster?

Writers often ask one another, “Are you a plotter or a panster?” as if being one precluded being the other. Admittedly, they are different head spaces. The plotter’s answer to the blank page is to arrange material carefully before writing. Make an outline. Draw up extensive character sketches, flow charts, graphs, etc. A panster’s answer is to start laying words down in any order, about anything, figuring that if all roads lead to Rome, all words will eventually lead to a story.

Each head space is a different kind of tool, and that we need a variety of tools in our writing toolbox. It is possible to use a pair of pliers as a hammer, thought it’s not very good for the pliers. A hammer is less useful when what’s needed is a pair of pliers.

The plotter’s soothing siren’s song runs like this: if I nail down every detail, know what Jennifer eats for breakfast, plot out a minute-by-minute timeline for what Jeffery did on the day of the murder, know the history of conflicts seething underneath their little town back to the day the founding father arrived, then I’ve half-way written the book. I can copy-and-paste a lot of that material into the text. It ain’t necessarily so.

Neither does flinging words helter-skelter at a blank page, rather like standing six feet back from a large canvas and flinging paint at it. You’ll get something: maybe art and maybe not. But whether or not you achieve art, there is a lot of cleanup coming.

So how do you decide which tool to use?

Sometimes it boils down to waking up and saying today I feel like being a plotter/panster. Fine, go for it.

Since most people favor one style over the other, the harder question is when to use the method that feels a little—or a lot—uncomfortable. Run a diagnostic check.
1. Have I spent far too much time rewriting a scene, chapter, or character, etc. that is dull and flat?
2. Am I repeating myself? Didn’t I use this unknown-relative-turns-up plot in the last book, and also two books before that?
3. Am I ready to spread my wings and learn something different?

A “yes” to any of those question is reason enough to try the road less travelled.

Contrary to popular belief, plotting is more than making outlines, and panstering is more than filling a blank page with words. There’s nothing wrong with either of those things, and they are simple to do.

If you are a plotter, write words at random on the blank page.

If you are a panster, make an outline. I.—A.—1.—a. and so on. If you’ve forgotten the form for a formal outline, there are lots of on-line sites where you can get a refresher course.

If you’d like to explore some even less travelled territory, here are three exercises each for plotting and panstering. Have fun. Write if you get the chance.

3 Plotting Exercises

Draw a map of where your story happens. If it’s a real place, like Chicago, go on-line and see what real references you can find. Photos? Picture books in the library? A street-side view on Google Earth? A YouTube clip?

If it’s an imaginary place, draw what you already know to be there, but leave some blank, unexplained spaces.

What you’re looking for in both situations is the equivalent of the “here be dragons” as found on old maps. Is there geography that you didn’t know existed, which can be used to develop the plot or characters?

Draw family trees or friend clusters for your characters. Go two generations backward and two generations forward. Even if your characters have no intentions of having kids, their friends and relatives are still reproducing. What you’re looking for is the relative who has a secret or a story tell, and for those relationships that reveals something new about your character.

Write a list of at least 10 major turning points, in the order they are currently happening. (If you’re writing a short-story, you might have fewer.) Cut the list apart and rearrange the order several times, even if the order makes no sense. In this exercise, it’s okay for Jennifer to be furious with Jeffrey before she meets him. Maybe Jennifer sees a stranger doing something she doesn’t like and later meets Jeffrey and realizes he’s the stranger she saw.

You’re looking for gaps and what would fill them. You’re also looking for repeats of the same material. Which version is the strongest? What would happen if you limited yourself to using only that one version?

3 Panster Exercises

Imagine that a character is looking for something, perhaps a witness or a clue. Go do what they would do, visit the places they would visit, etc. In essence walk the walk, and collect sensory details along the way, not just the sights, but the sounds, smells, textures, and maybe tastes as well. I don’t have to remind you to use your common sense here, do I? Some places and activities are a no-no, even for research.

Pick a soundtrack for your story. Sit or lie down, close your eyes, and listen to your story unfold through music for 15 or 20 minutes.

Shape your story with your hands. You’ll need some sculpting material: clay, bread dough, paper maché, etc. We talk about peaks and valleys in our stories and story arcs, so okay, let’s see what yours looks like. Bread dough is particularly fun for this because you can mold your story, leave it for an hour in a warm place, and come back to find it has taken on a completely different shape. The bonus is you can bake it and eat it.

So yes, you can be both a plotter and a panster. You can spend one week in the mountains and one week at the beach. You can be friends with both the bride and groom, though that does complicate the seating arrangements. And mixing Indian (black tea) and Chinese (green tea) tastes wonderful. My favorite mix is #10 blend by Murchies.

Quote for the week
Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be a certain way. Be unique. Be what you feel.
~Melissa Etheridge, singer & songwriter


Laura DiSilverio said...

Really useful post. Thanks! One of the underlying messages here is that regardless of our writing methodology, we have to keep our creativity alive--use bread, draw maps. some days I find that just moving my writing location--from my desk to the kitchen table or to Panera's--can give my writing a new spark.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great tips! I've tweeted this one.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Anonymous said...

You've got it in a nutshell, Laura. Keep moving, keep creativity going, keep writing.

Elizabeth, thanks for the tweet.

Kwana said...

Thanks for this post. I've gone and retweeted it. LOL.

Terry Odell said...

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser.

That would be me. But only one scene at a time.

I've got a description of my non-plotting technique at my website.

Jonz Theroux said...

As a college student with a focus on writing, especially mystery novels, these tips are very lucrative for me and very, very well appreciative from all of us writers. Thanks again and much appreciation for sharing this vast knowledge.