How to Write: Lesson 2
Continuing our series on how to be a writer, we’re picking up after the first (and truly most important) lesson: Just write.
Today, I’d like to discuss a little more the manner in which we approach this daunting task. There’s really no winning formula for Just Writing (TM). It is partly the responsibility of the writer to figure out what works best for them. Through discussions and reading interviews of other writers, I have come to see there being really two paths one can take to completion. I call this the Pants vs Plans dichotomy. The distinction is easily delineated by how much organizing and outlining an author does before she begins putting pen to paper or fingers to keys.
The first approach, the Planners, is characterized by detailed and extravagant flow charts and chapter outlines. These are individuals that want to know exactly how the narrative will unfold well before they even open their word document. A Planner will have detailed notes on plot progression, character bios and pacing details. The Planner knows exactly how the third act twist will go down and where the final climax of the story takes place. Most of the work of the Planner is done through charts and graphs. The story is a crawling web of connected events and details. What happens when she writes is simply filling in the last few connections between these moments.
On the other hand, the Pantser is a person who knows nothing about his story as he sits down to write. He might have some idea of a character, a theme or even just a genre that he wants to explore. At best, he might have a few events he’d like to include in the story with no idea where, when or how those events will unfold or even connect. For the Pantser, writing is as much a creative process as it is an act of discovery. In many ways, it reflects the journey of the reader. You don’t know what is going to happen on this adventure and you may only have the briefest of backcover synopsis to guide you. The Panster will thus be surprised how his story turns out and it is not an accident but the creative method working at its best when the story concludes in a dramatically different style than what he expected when he sat down.
There is no clear ranking to these two methods. Great stories can come from either. There are, of course, advantageous and disadvantages to both approaches. There isn’t even surefire way to know which method will work best for you without trying them. However, it’s important to understand why these methods work before adopting them so that pitfalls can be avoided.
Take the Planner, for instance. The best part of her method is that she’ll never truly get stuck. She knows exactly what is going to come next and will never truly languish in the fabled “writer’s block.” In fact, the highly detailed notes give her great insulation from being overcome by “what happens next.” Thus, if she starts to find a section that is tedious or emotionally draining, it is effortless to step back, look for a section that grabs her attention and curiosity more and jump to that point and channel her creativity there. The Planner, though seemingly the most linear approach allows great non-linearity when it comes to crafting the story itself. And there is nothing more important than being engaged by your own work. If you find your own words are laborious and boring, chances are that readers will too. And maybe after covering some unrelated part will give the necessary clarity and fortitude to address whatever was initially draining the Planner when she diverged from the original section.
The caution, of course, is that the Planner is front-loading all her work. It’s possible that this method can fall victim to the dreaded “writer’s block” before even reaching the starting gate. Problems in the outline will stall progress to the actual work of writing. It can even lead to a point where there’s comfort in the planning and avoiding the writing altogether! The Planner could spend her whole time fretting over the details of the outline and spend all her time ironing out more and more kinks in the flow charts. It’s a fantastic way to fail the very first lesson while still convincing yourself that you’re accomplishing work. At some point you have to put the outline down and get to the meat of the project.
For the Pantser, he has no excuse for not writing. When the time to write comes, he has nothing else but to write. As such, he’s far more susceptible to blocks to his creative juices. Each day is tempting stagnation and creative emptiness. Completing a chapter leads to yet another blank page that can always gum up the process. Even worse, should some boring section or frustrating issue arise, the Pantser is stuck resolving it immediately. He can’t take breaks and work on other sections. In order to overcome these challenges, the Pantser has to learn to simply press on and forget issues. Resolve persistent problems inelegantly to get them out of the way. Pull some deus ex machina in order to save the soul of the work. Characters will vanish just as quickly as they materialize. Plot threads will be forgotten. Things wouldn’t add up by the conclusion.
The perk, however, is the true rush of creativity. The Pantser is truly free in his approach. While the Planner could revise her outline, that tempts her away from the work. Any issues not predict in the earlier organization stages can slow everything down. The Pantser, however, is infinitely flexible. And there is quite a rush to having a character suddenly breath new life and direction in a story. It’s literary improv and can be just as thrilling. There’s also a storytelling “purity” in a sense to this method. The art of storytelling stretches as far back as language has existed and certainly the most ancient masters of the craft wouldn’t have had exacting plots plotted before their characters started plodding. The Pantser also has more focus on fun since it is his enjoyment of the moment that will direct his path and he can maximize that which holds his interest instead of having to slave away for vital scenes necessary for the overall plot.
These are, of course, taking extreme looks at the method. Really, most writers will likely adopt different elements of the Pantser and Planner approach. It’s more an axis than hard categorization. In fact, I use both approaches when I begin work on a new idea. Generally speaking, I’ve have some outline of characters or the plot and I’ll leave large blanks to be filled in while I write. In fact, I’ve noticed my approach evolving over time to address different projects and their requirements. Certainly stories with heavier emphasis on narrative or theme require more planning than character driven pieces. And the more I structure narratives, the less I need to plan proper pacing and climaxes as they become second nature.
So find what works for you and keep trying new things. Writing is a creative process, after all, and without experimentation you will never discover the new twists waiting to spring from your pen tip.