Friday, November 14, 2014

Plot and Approach

The blog today is written in answer to this question from one of my readers: "Not sure if you're been asked this before, but are you a pantser or outliner?"

For those of you who may not be familiar with the jargon, "pantser" is shorthand for "seat of the pants," and refers to a writer who comes up with the plot, characters, and progression of events in her story as she goes along. A pantser may have a handful of notes and ideas, but for the most part will sit down to a rough draft completely fresh and simply discover where the story and characters will take her.

I am definitely NOT a pantser.

I used to try to be. And I have, upon occasion, attempted it again here and there. But I found this approach to story and structure never fails to lead me on wordy rabbit trails that go nowhere very quickly.

Thus I have become a consummate outliner.

I didn't start outlining until I wrote the rough-draft of Heartless. Then my outline was extremely simple--seriously little more than a sentence or two giving a summary of what I thought might happen in each chapter. The purpose of the outline was simply to provide a road map--I needed to know that the plot was specifically going somewhere and that events from the previous chapter would always lead to the events of the next chapter. No rabbit trails!

This system worked quite well for me. I learned that I loved a good outline--and I also learned that a good outline is a flexible outline. There is always room to expand or contract, to shift gears slightly, to add in new threads.

As the Goldstone Wood series progressed and the stories became increasingly more complicated and intertwined, my outlines became more complex as well. Using the outline, I can juggle multiple story lines at once, able to see in a "bird's eye view" how various character arcs were intersecting and augmenting each other. I can also see the general shape of the action leading up to the final climax. I am able to predict much of what will need to be foreshadowed and thus insert proper foreshadowing during the rough-drafting phase, laying all the groundwork for thematic threads and building on them as I go.

If I were to "pants" it, I would spend so much of the rough draft simply figuring where the plot was going, I couldn't begin to concern myself with foreshadowing, thematic threads, and I would find it extremely difficult to balance the multiple story lines, not to mention the series' story lines. I probably would not write in the omniscient narrative either. It would be too difficult to handle well if I didn't know where each scene was heading in the long run.

Now the thing about outlines that often scares away writers is the notion that they kill spur of the moment inspiration. And that may very well be true for some writers (not all of us are meant to be outliners). How can you be truly spontaneous and creative if you're simply writing along, filling in the blanks, so to speak? Some writers feel that if they've outlined the story then they've already told it and, therefore, they are too bored to go on and actually write it.

While I understand this perspective, it's never been my experience. For you see, there is such an enormous difference between plot and approach. Plot is something you can outline. You can lay out for yourself the flow of events, the rising and falling action, the character threads. That's all very basic, really.

But you cannot outline approach. The manner in which you handle each scene. The style, the mood, the shape. The point-of-view. All of these things are spontaneous creative decisions.

This is where I find plenty of room for the "see where the story takes me" side of writing. I know where the plot is going. I know the events that will take it there. But I don't know the how. I don't know the approach, not ahead of time. And in my opinion the telling of the story is equally important to the story itself.

This is why it often takes multiple drafts for me to finish a complete manuscript. If I get the approach wrong in even just a handful of scenes, it can throw off the entire book. But it's not something I can map in advance.

Honestly, I can't imagine trying to figure out both plot and approach at the same time. Seat-of-the-pants is an intimidating technique to me. I remember I tried to write Dragonwitch that way, and what a dismal failure that was! (Many of you have heard of the five different Dragonwitch beginnings, 40,000 words each, all of which had to be dumped before I finally found something that worked.) I felt as lost as Alistair wandering in the Netherworld. I doubt very much that I will ever try that technique again.

How about you? Are you a pantser or an outliner? Or have you done both? If you're a pantser, why does this approach work better for you (so we can hear the flip-side to my own perspective)?


Unknown said...

I tried reeeaaally hard to be a pantser because I was taught that it was a "better," "more interesting" form of writing. But... it led to me having a plot that I disliked, and I spent the next year or two in rewrites, shuffling the story sloooowly back to where it would've been if I had held on to it longer and dreamt about the plot. I like to know my characters going in, and I like to know what will happen. I don't find it boring at all! You never know the things you'll find...

Anonymous said...

I'm a "pantser" (though I'd not heard that term before), but I really (really really) want to be an outliner. My issue is that every time I sit down to write one, I end up not doing anything. As a pantser, I can never finish anything, however, which makes it difficult to get my work to an editor to check it so I can maybe (hopefully?) publish it. (That's what I want to do for a living, after all.) Help,please?

Unknown said...

I am totally a planner--sometime too much so. Sometimes I spend way too much time on the outline and never get to the actual story!

Therru Ghibli said...

I am undoubtedly a pantser! I usually have a basic plot, an idea of characters and sometimes even a climax! But I leave the middle, the journey, blank and make it up as I go along. The reason this works best for me is because I'm so scatterbrained I can't follow an outline! As soon as I get a new idea, I want to add it into whatever I'm writing at the moment! Once I even changed my entire plot after getting several chapters in! It's easiest for me to have a blank page with no plan and just dive right in! Often enough I don't even figure out my climax or ending until I'm well into the tale. I wait to see what kind of an ending would work best!
Secondly, I like to watch my characters grow and diverge from my original ideas! Scenes come up and the necessary reactions suddenly show me sides of them I couldn't imagine before! Anyways, that's my point of view!

Sarah Bailey said...

Through most of my writing years I have been a "pantser." Of course, most of that time were the days when I had a lot more creative steam than I do now, and my mind could dwell more on how the characters and plot were going to turn out. Most of my time and energy is now devoted to my husband and baby boy, as it should be. I have to really prioritize what I'm doing and when I'm doing it.

So I've taken more to outlining this year. I outlined a trilogy I started writing, and I'm sure glad I did. It's reassuring to have a good idea of where my story is going at the moment, and with the main plot points outline, it has actually become more flexible for me to explore the characters and world.

The only thing anyone has to be careful with about outlining is that they don't let the plot drive the characters. I'm a strong believer in the characters driving the plot, that their decisions cause the plot to appear. So far I haven't had much of this problem :)

ghost ryter said...

I'm caught in an awkward place between. I have a tendency to outline the life out of a story, so I've begun writing as a pantser. Buuut, now many stories are turning into a jumbled mess. :/

Anna said...

I'm somewhere in the middle! :) I have this funny way of drafting a novel.

First, I get an idea, a theme, some scenes in my head--and then I just write it ASAP. :P But I try to condense it under 20,000 words, or somewhere close to that. Then I put it aside and I let all the things I could have added (had it not been so short) float around in my head for a few months. Then I sit down, break up my novel into giant parts, and then outline Part 1. Then I write Part 1. Then I outline Part 2. Then I write Part 2. And so forth.

It's kind of a long and drawn out process, but it works for me! :P

Meredith said...

Outstanding insightful post as always, Mrs. Anne Elisabeth. Thank you. I'm actually not entirely sure what I am. I used to be strictly a "pantser" writer. I loved the spontaneity of just letting a story flow. But, over this year, I've come to understand the value of knowing where you're going, (at any rate, I have for myself). Having other people review my work has made me understand that an idea might make perfect sense to me but might not to an average reader. So, if I don't have clear, logical progression towards which I'm aiming, the story might not work. I don't do a strict outline on paper, but I do write out character sketches and motivations. Then I ask questions about the plot itself: (I.E., What if Jane did so and so? Considering Jane and Charlie's feelings towards each other, how would Jane's action influence Charlie?) These exercises really help me with the plots of stories.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 'pantser' ish... I write the beginning, write a short outline in my head, jot down key points and ideas, write thousands of facts about my characters, and then see where it takes me. So far it's worked...we shall see. :D
-Sarah Grace

Savannah Jezowski said...

I am both. My most exciting work is spur of the moment. I tend to write like a mad woman for hours, often days, until the steam runs out...and then I have to sit down and outline because I am a mess and have no idea where I am going. But my beginning was awesome. Until it wasn't. But that can all be fixed in the second draft when you know exactly where your foreshadowing needs to be strengthened and tweaked.

Jenelle Leanne said...

I'm both. My first book was written like Han Solo flying through an asteroid field. And, while this was a super fun way to write, it also meant that I had to do some MAJOR re-writing later. Seriously, my rough draft and the book that is available on amazon are completely different. Scenes happen in a totally different order, and a lot of things got cut/rearranged/changed.

I feel like I've outlined more and more with each subsequent novel. Sometimes the book follows the outline, sometimes it doesn't... but I definitely try to at least have the WORLD firmly in place before I start writing. A map, currencies, cultural stuff, and a basic understanding of what the story is about and where it is headed.

I do not love the outlining process. But I do find it necessary. Thankfully, my husband is a consummate outliner/planner, and he is extremely helpful to have around to bounce ideas off of and come up with a lot of those little nit-picky details that I detest having to think through. I just want to tell the ADVENTURE!

However, I do realize that the adventure won't make as good of a story without all the details... so... I compromise. I outline a ton, and then I start writing... and if as I'm writing, I have a better idea than what's in my outline, I go for it! (Because, as we authors all know, sometimes our characters don't want to follow the outline... and sometimes they have better ideas than we authors do!)

Kendra E. Ardnek said...

I'm more of a planster. I very rarely sit down to write a story with no idea where it's going, because I know I'd get lost. However, I also very rarely sit down and write everything down. I plot, sometimes extensively, but it's all in my head while washing dishes or knitting or something like that. That way, I know where I'm going (ending scenes are key for me, but I can still have a loose hand on my plot and it can surprise me.

Tracey Dyck said...

I fall somewhere in the middle. With a big fantasy series I'm working on, I have to outline to keep from wandering or getting stuck. But like many others here have already said, the outline isn't set in stone. I've found that during the actual writing process, I sometimes need to remind myself of that so my characters don't become wooden. :) Sometimes they end up redirecting big portions of the book!
With shorter stories/novellas (my ENCHANTED ROSES entry, for instance), I ease up a little on the outlining. I still decide on the basic shape of the story, and I tend to mentally outline the next scene or two, but I'm able to "pants it" a lot more. :)
Thanks for sharing your writing tendencies, Mrs. Stengl!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for telling us that.

I think that I am both, I make up the story in my head and go were the story goes with a vague idea of what it's supposed to end up as, but then I start typing it up-so you could say I have an outline. I'm not sure it really works very well though, since I have pretty much never finished a story.

ps. I am kind of in two minds about being a Goldstone Wood imp now that I have read Golden Daughter.

Unknown said...

I have been, to some extent, a pantser. But I usually have some idea of where I'm going because I have a tendency to think and think and think and think and think some more about the storyline. (Or somebody else's storyline, but that's another matter altogether. :-P ) For example, my Fan Fiction entries I thought about almost 24/7, so much so that I had to purposefully stop thinking about them. But on the other hand, I haven't successfully written out an entire polished book that I think is original -- and by original, I mean not a poor imitation of Heartless or Heartless/Starflower mix -- and has strong, realistic characters. I'm really still trying to get a feel for my own style.

And regarding the outlines, Anne Elisabeth, could you show us some examples of outlines that you've done for some of your books if you still have them? It might be rather helpful to us imps. :-)

I also have another question that I'm hoping that you could add to your list of Short Question, Short Answer posts. How did you start creating the Tales of Goldstone Wood? When did you start with your initial ideas that have made it into the Tales (or maybe have yet to make it into the Tales)?

@Jemma -- What do you mean by being of two minds about being a Goldstone Wood imp? (I know, I know, spoilers! :-P)

Bookishqueen said...

I am in the group of if I outlined it, I already told it and will not write it. It boggles my mind that you can use an outline.

Hannah said...

Ah, I was conflicted too at first, Jemma. But remember, they were only imps. WE are the Goldstone Wood Imps. (The capital "I" makes all the difference.)

Anonymous said...

Good, I am so relieved, thank you Hannah and Natasha.

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

I am sure there are MANY different sorts of imps living in Goldstone Wood! That was only one variety, and nothing at all like my beloved Imps. :)

Meredith said...

Uh-Oh! Sounds like "imps" might not be very nice? Very interesting. And, Gemma, please don't stop being a Goldstone Wood imp. I think we're all nice, just perhaps a little mischievous. We'd miss you.

Unknown said...

@Jemma -- Oh, yes! Please remain an Imp!

@Meredith -- A little mischievous? ;-)

Unknown said...

I am a total pantser. Outlining to me is intimidting and I usually write by inspiration but tat does mean many threads lect dangling or tangled in other scenes that need to pulled and tied elsewhere or cut out altogether. Do you have any points on how to outline? I would love to more organized. @AnneElizabethStengl