Plot It: Plotter vs. Pantster
Should I or shouldn’t I? Plot, I mean. Here’s the question every writer struggles with.
Should I plot this sucker? Or should I follow where the idea leads me?
Should I just launch into writing and see where it takes me?
Or should I plot out every scene and sequel, checking all the boxes?
Maybe I should I let the ideas flow onto the keyboard, with no idea what I’m thinking or where the story’s heading. Turn off old logical and embrace creative inspiration. That’s an idea.
Or maybe I should decide which story genre is making the most money then look at the characters that readers chatter about. From that, I can craft a story, step by step, hitting all the tropes and placing my pinchy points at the appropriate percentage markers in the novel.
Ick. Just ick. For both of them.
Why for Which?
No discussion of plot is complete unless we also talk about these two diametrically opposed methods of approaching story.
Pantsters fly by the seat of their pants. Plotters work everything out beforehand.
There, that’s enough, isn’t it?
For pantsters, the mess comes at the end of writing, when they have to make sense of the jumble that poured onto the page.
For plotters, the mess comes at the beginning, when they have to make sense of the entire story before they work everything onto the page.
Pantsters do a lot of freewriting and call it chapter development. It’s not.
Plotters fill out a lot of templates and call it chapter development. It’s not.
I spent a few years as a pantster. Embarking on a story with little more than a character and an idea is very seductive. We can meander on our journey, taking as long as we like.
I spent a few years as a plotter. Structuring a story around the plot points sped up the drafting process, and the flailing around for inspirational creativity vanished. I knew my destination, and I certainly got there.
Writers can make money constructing stories, one after another, based on a lock-step pattern. They’re easy, quick, safe. Measure in two characters, so very like previous characters, add these tropes with a dash of different spices, bake at 350 for 45 minutes, and you have a lovely cake—oops, I mean, story.
Very little changes. When we boil story down to its essentials, all stories are the same.
It’s the details that get shuffled around.
Such tightly-controlled stories that follow obvious patterns can be very comforting to readers who need to escape the stress of work or hectic family lives.
I’ve read a lot of these lock-step stories, whether in the form of category romances or cozy mysteries or Shakespearean tragedies or modern meaninglessness (the latter two as have-tos during my career). It’s actually easier to read modern meaninglessness than an Agatha Christie. She hides her clues better than they do. (Yes, I’m being snarky.)
The best plot structures re-create a river’s flow.
Nothing is a steady current, not even a river in flood. The main stream rushes along until it encounters a boulder or a bend. These obstructions create swirls, eddies, along the banks. The current shifts, dredging deep or gushing freely. The river spews out at its end, like the great overflowing Mississippi whose flood-brown waters pour into the Gulf of Mexico, identifiable miles after the river itself has ended.
This is the reason I despise Freytag’s pyramid and design my plots with the Archetypal Story Pattern (or James Scott Bell’s Super Structure.)
Plots are Designs.
Every design has a foundation. Look upon the plot as the foundation of your story.
Are you going all glass modern or turreted Victorian? Gingerbread cottage or Federal style? Big city brownstone or white-painted farmhouse? Urban loft or Southwest Adobe?
No matter which style, the building has a foundation, subfloor, walls, ceilings, stairways, windows, doors, cabinetry, flooring—carpet and wood, vinyl and tile, brick and slate. Design the main events of your story based on a worthy plot structure, and the details fall into place.
And it’s the details where creativity lies.
Next time, we’ll look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Pantstering and Plotting. Sounds like a movie, doesn’t it?
Both methods of launching into a novel have elements that work AND elements that don’t work.
Join us on July 10.