Pantsers vs plotters

I recently got a review that said the book was pretty good but there was a part that “was played to evoke emotions and then, improbably resolved.”

That’s fine. I can perfectly understand that opinion. However, it highlights an assumption many readers have, which I’d like to dispel: that writers do everything on purpose.

Let me make this abundantly clear: I have no plan. This applies to my life, and my writing.

My main writing coach, Prof. Al Wachtel, said, “If I knew what I was going to say I’d write an essay.” Creative writing, for people like me, is a process of discovery. I get inspired, start writing, and see what happens.

Of course, if it’s any good, it ends up with a plot and character development and all the items on the good literature checklist. But I can’t create something that way, on purpose. I can’t assemble parts and breathe a soul into it.

I’m not saying other writers can’t. Many can. James Patterson sells a bajillion books, and they are not exercises in personal mystery. (In fact, he doesn’t even write them anymore. He comes up with plot outlines and pays ghost writers to fill in the details.)

I am not criticizing this. He has a lot of happy readers, and happy readers is the point.

Patterson is, in writing lingo, a plotter.

On the other side of the coin are what we call “pantsers.” These are writers who go by the seat of their pants. The popularity equivalent to James Patterson, on the pantser side, is Stephen King. He does not do plot outlines. He gets inspired by an idea, has some idea of how stories are going to end, but sometimes it goes in ways he doesn’t expect. That’s part of the fun for him. We’re alike in that regard.

I sincerely do not think one way of writing is better than another, per se. I think one way of writing is better than another, for each author — and I believe it has to do with the toolkit they’re born with.

Some of us are so good at improvising that we far prefer it to planning. It’s exciting, it uses our strengths, and by nature we get better at it because we keep relying on it. Most of us improvisers have a mystical side — not exactly religious, but a bit superstitious, in which we have great faith in our intuition. (In fact, most religious discussions lose us because we’re not interested in analysing scripture the way plotters tend to do such things — we’re interested in how we respond to scripture, or to put it more simply, ancient ideas, vis-a-vis what’s going on in our lives right now.)

Likewise, I believe there are readers who are, in their hearts, planners, and readers who are improvisors. They tend to prefer one author over another because they’re speaking the same language — classical or jazz, structure or abstraction, outline or freeform.

There is a point where the two major styles overlap. What I believe happens, over many years of writing, is that the plotter gets his mind invaded by the character, who eventually will do or say something they didn’t outline — that, or the outline just won’t seem to fit anymore — and the work sparks to life. The plotter may need the map to get started, but probably won’t need it to finish. Likewise the panster, through intuition and much reading, comes to a natural sense of plot and structure without needing any map. He knows what feels right and what doesn’t, and adapts as he writes.

As I understand it, there is much the same divide in film making. Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick were plotters. They had every shot sketched out before they started filming. Other directors are still writing the script as they make the movie — or don’t even have one, as in the documentaries of Werner Herzog. Woody Allen lets his actors improvise dialogue as long as they don’t say “huh” or “umm.” Each artist finds what works for them, and each attracts the audience who’s drawn to that kind of storytelling.

So, to my reviewer: Yes, I write to evoke emotions. No question there. And, perhaps the conflict we’re both thinking of was improbably resolved. But… seriously… I didn’t do that on purpose. I wrote what I saw. I went where the story led me. I’m not insane — I know the stuff came out of my imagination — but I have about as much control over that as I do over the weather. I could choose to force something sensible on it… and it might work, but it probably wouldn’t. It would feel forced and artificial and break the spell.

When you deny the imagination gods, they withhold their favors. I really don’t want to mess with them, as if I and my plot outline knew better.

Call it a superstition, but to me, plotters are Dr Frankensteins, and pantsers are trying to get lucky in the back seat. We both end up making babies, but my way is a lot more fun — at least for writers and readers like me.

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