Plan Versus Pants
By Adrian Krag
Copyright © 2009 by Adrian Krag, All Rights Reserved
I start with an opening line
and a single character and I type until my fingers bleed and the
keyboard shorts out. My critique partner begins with a blank wall and
three boxes of colored sticky notes.
For me, writing is like
reading a story. I begin with only the slightest inkling of where it's
going and the ending is always a surprise. I wrote nine books before
anyone told me there was another way.
My friend plans a novel like
a military campaign: Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3 and each assigned a number
of objectives and page count. Below the acts are the chapters, each
with its assigned conflict and tensions building events.
Yes, you guessed it: I'm a
pantser, she's a plotter. Yes, we have communication issues. Probably
our biggest difficulty is with schedule. I can write a hundred thousand
words in two weeks then have no idea how to fix it. It takes her six
months to fill up the wall and she seldom gets around to writing all the
infinitely well-defined blocks.
She writes perfectly, I
With fifteen unpublished
books in my laptop, I'm beginning to wonder if a compromise isn't in
order. With seven walls of her house covered in hand scrawled notes
she's willing to listen to my suggestions.
Our goal is to tell a story
and that requires an audience and finished work. A story, like so many
things is much more than the sum of its parts. As Dr. Frankenstein
learned, sewing the parts together is not enough to make it live.
My problem is just the
opposite. My stories all live without form, like a many headed hydra
with an amoeboid body. I can't just go in and rewrite a bad section.
There are not sections. It's all just one big story.
I don't suggest that I know
that answer for everyone. I think creativity and formulas are
incompatible, but I think some hybrid of the two styles is necessary.
Most successful stories have a beginning, middle and an end. The human
mind, (most potential readers have one), becomes engrossed in a story
through scenes and the scenes are tied together with transitions.
As I consider the things I
have written I was surprised to find that they all fit into a three act
model if you push them hard enough. Careful inspection reveals scenes
and if I look for it, even structure. This is not surprising, since I
learned tell stories from those that I have heard, read and the movies I
have watched. I wasn't raised by wolves.
My critique partner isn't an
automaton without creative passion. She joined the profession because
she had a talent for storytelling. The capability of weaving an
engrossing tale is in every fiber her being. However, the constraints
of writing a perfect scene can stifle creativity.
Most of all, the story is
the thing. If you can tell a story, you can write.
With comedy, the difference between an
audience falling asleep and falling off their chairs with laughter is
more timing and delivery than material. With horror movies, it's the
music and the lighting and the fear in the eyes of the characters. With
romance it's the yearning and the desire that the heroine feels, and
that we feel with her.
Ever listen to
an anecdote that wanders all over? The timing is a mess. The theme, if
it exists, is poorly defined and what happens? The punch line falls
flat. A problem pantsers have is maintaining focus.
a different set of difficulties. Mapping all the scenes on the wall has
the advantage of knowing in advance what foreshadowing is required, but
if it is not done well this sometimes leads to a novel that seems
the answer? Maybe there isn't one answer. I'm sure that my solution
isn't going to work for everyone. Maybe the only real truth is that
plotters need to avoid the anal retentive traps that excessive planning
puts in front of them. Pantsers need to understand how our work fits
the successful story model and trim the extraneous branches.
If there were
a single correct process, writing would be engineering, not art.