Vision: A Resource for Writers

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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 write fast. 

With fifteen unpublished books in my laptop, I'm beginning to wonder if a compromise isn't in order.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.

Plotters have 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 contrived.

Well, what's 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.