Sunday, April 3, 2011

You've been pantsed

     Not really, not even virtually. I just want to talk a little about pantsers and plotters. Sounds silly and sinister when I put it like that.

     First, I am a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants and have very little inkling as to what's going to happen next. I have been asked that very question and variations thereof, "What's going to happen...?" In order to avoid the raised eyebrows and incredulous looks from my plotting critique partners, I sometimes make up a cock and bull story but that produces its own set of problems. They then want to brainstorm the spur-of-the-moment story I just gave them because that's what plotters do, they brainstorm. Brainstorming is when two or more plotters get together and plot.

     Brainstorming is aptly named because the progression from a spot of low pressure to a hurricane is analogous to a typical brainstorming session. The force of the hurricane is entirely dependent on the number of plotters and how warmed up they are. The plotters are the ocean over which the storm will form.

     Now comes the area of low pressure that will form the eye; the problem to be solved, the idea to be incorporated, the turning point to be tweaked, the... Well, you get the gist. This is put forth with, at times, detailed explanation, and others, almost as an aside. I've seen an experienced plotter start a brainstorm with three words, "What about Izzie?"

     Once the low is formed the ocean of plotters feed it with warm moist what-ifs' and how-abouts' forming clouds of possibilities. The bank thickens amid the postulations until a what-if brushes up against a how-about and they circle one another as if sizing each other up. The ocean of plotters falls silent for the briefest instant as the clouds begin to rotate. A beat. Then a breath as consequences and permutations percolate in the plotter's brains. And-thens join he-coulds, rising up to meet she-mights and why-woulds. They spiral in toward the center. The rotation has begun in earnest. We have a plotical depression.

      Timelines, motivations and reactions circle the eye at ever increasing speeds. The wind twists and intertwines them until, at last, someone spots a pattern, a pleasing progression of events among the chaos. A satellite image is recorded and the storm blows itself out. Sometimes the storm makes landfall where the rain and storm surge wash away old prose in favor of the new. Not a bad thing really, plotters love a good storm but it involves a lot of clean-up.

     Pantsers on the other hand, not so much. Stephen King, in his book, 'On Writing' (I'm paraphrasing here) compared a story to a buried artifact to be uncovered by the archeologist writer. I think that's a fair analogy. I, myself, think of stories as floating in the ether. I cannot go into the ether to retrieve the story but my characters can. I need my characters to go into the ether and find the story. Characters, like all sentient beings, have their own take so, probably, they change things on me a little. But, what the hell, I need them to tell me the story.

     Now, I'm not advocating pantsing over plotting. If anything, my plotting friends are more prolific and have less to revise later on. I'm just musing here while I wait for my characters to come back from vacation.



  1. A plotical depression? I love it! What a great comparison. It totally describes the storm of thinking that goes on around our critique table some nights, too. Good post, Mike.

  2. I too am a "pantser" and I've always wondered how the plotters did it, what with all the debris and cleanup. I usually start with a rough idea of where I want my book to go and what characters I want along for the ride.
    I have learned though that even being to rigid to that can kill a story that the characters are happily living.
    I think it's a matter of control really. My characters definitely control my stories. With plotters I think ultimately they actually create and control their own stories.
    Great post. Way to get my head spinning on this bright morning.

  3. They try to control their stories. But, as us pantsers know, control is an illusion.

  4. I always feel like my posts grab me by the shirt collar and then, when I sit down to the computer and try to actually write them, they slither over into my peripheral vision. As long as I don't try to look directly AT them, I can write them. After they're pinned down on the page, I can edit and expand at will, but that first effort of getting all those words corralled and under control is more than half the battle.

    And then after each one, I am convinced that is the last essay I will ever write. The well has run dry. I can't even imagine writing another one, because my ideas have gone the way of the dodo bird. (So far, I have been wrong about this.)

  5. I'm a panster trying to become a plotter.
    BTW Your pet menagerie sounds wonderful :O)

  6. Good luck with that. I think it's kind of like sexual orientation, you're one or the other...or both.

    The animals are a lot of fun. They are also a wonderful source of character traits; mostly flaws. More than a few of my characters started out as one of the menagerie.