Beware the Seductive Side Trip

All this talk about pantsing versus planning…or, in reference to Tim Baker’s recent guest post, the hybrid method now known as plantsing… it’s easy to get confused.

Confused about what the difference is, or what it even means.

Confused about the risks and potential rewards of each.

And confused about what I’m really saying about this polarizing story development preference.

It doesn’t matter.  Either way can work.

I’m done trying to convince die-hard pantsers that their story development method of choice will or won’t work – that’s never been my point. 

Because it certainly can work, but only if the pantser understands story structure to an extent that what pours out of their head aligns with those principles.  Or, that they can get there by evolving their pantsed smorgasbord of a story into a clean, structurally-sound narrative.

Which is, frankly, a rare and difficult thing. 

When Jeffrey Deaver tells you he writes 22 drafts, he’s not advocating pantsing.  He’s admitting that he’s a perfectionist who tries and polishes everything before he’s satisfied.

At the other end of the scale, pantsing is the overwhelming tool of choice for new writers who don’t know a plot point from a ballpoint pen, and think they can bang out a story because they’ve just finished reading one that, because it didn’t seem so darn complicated, makes them believe they can do just as well.

Pantser or planner, though, you don’t get to invent your own theory of dramatic structure.  Any more than an athlete gets to reinvent the rules of their game to suit their mood that day. 

Pansting isn’t the issue.  Understanding the principles of narrative structure is.

Pansters who publish (like Tim Baker) are the ones who get this.  Again, a rare and difficult thing.  Because the more you know about story structure, the less likely you are to pants a story.  (Which is why, I surmise, Baker and writers like him incorporate some level of story planning — the major milestones, especially the ending — into their process.)

The pansters we read about – King, Deaver, and many others – are among those writers who think in terms of story structure from the moment they open their laptop.  And trust me, they’re also thinking about their ending long before they’ll admit to it.

Because you can’t write a draft that works without knowing where it’s headed from page 1.  Anything else — or better put, prior to that moment — is just an exercise in story planning, and if you settle for a draft that doesn’t go back to square one once you do know the ending, the story just isn’t going to work as well as it should.

 Which is one of the reasons Deaver writes those 22 drafts.

You can’t repair a sinking ship once it’s underwater.

Bottom line – everybody, pantser and planner alike, engages in a search for their story, and everybody who finishes a viable story has found a way to land on it.

Pansting your way to that point, draft after draft, is one way to get there.

So is planning it all down to the nth detail before you begin a draft.

Any assertion from one end of this continuum aimed at the other end is as wrong and short-sighted as it is naïve.

The truth is… everybody plans and everybody pants at some point in the development of a story.  Everybody plants.   It’s unavoidable, which means it’s a good thing.

I used to be that polarizing guy. 

Now, I see both points of view.  I’m that story structure guy who doesn’t care how you get there, only that you do.

I happen to feel sorry for one of those points of view – you really can plan your story out without the slightest compromise to creativity or the storytelling journey – but that’s just me.  I respect anyone who can pound together a story that works across all six core competencies, planned or pantsed.

That said, I have a stern warning for pantsers who say the following, which I’ve read over and over again, here and elsewhere:

I like to take little side trips in my story, to get a new idea and see where it leads, to explore new directions and notions.

This is a fact: your final draft, the one that will sell, won’t go there. 

That side trip will end up either re-inventing your story – which is fine, a better idea is a better idea – or it will ruin it.

This conversation divides writers into two camps…

… those who write to publish, and those who write for themselves, who are into the experience of creating a story over and above creating one that others will pay money to read.

A side trip that rewards the writer with an existential experience or orgasmic relief as the primary motivation serves only the latter. 

Because a publishable story – unless the point of the story is, in fact, experiential rather than expositional, which outside of what you read back in Lit 101 is pretty rare – requires pace.  It needs to travel along a narrow path, a defined spine, and anything and everything on those pages needs to serve an expositional mission.

A beckoning side trip is like meeting a seductive stranger in a bar. 

It’s fun.  It’s dangerous.  It’s exciting and potentially meaningful if the person is still next to you — and alive — when you wake up.

If you crave the experience of a one-night stand, know that it can also ruin your health and maybe your life.

If you end up marrying the stranger, then that one-night stand was the beginning of something beautiful.  Even if you broke all the rules when it happened. 

In that case, know this: if you commit to it going forward, there can be no more one night stands for you.

Commitment, in relationships and in storytelling, means no side trips.

And in a good story, the writer always commits. 

To what?  To a direction, a narrative spine… to an outcome.

Readers don’t want or don’t have time for a side trip that doesn’t serve those masters.  Don’t kid yourself, you are alone in your attraction to the side trip that beckons you.

At the end of the storytelling day, the reader of a published novel cannot and should not be able to tell the difference between a writer who planned and a writer who pantsed.

This principle becomes a self-fulfilling truth

Because if the pantsing results in an unrequited, expositionally (my word, please don’t look it up) unnecessary side trip, the story won’t see the inside of a bookstore.

Which means, there aren’t really many examples out there that disprove this after all.  Unless the name on the cover is a household word… in which case, they can do anything they want.  Stephen King and Nelson Demille are held to different and frankly lower standards than the rest of us are in this regard.

Side trips, when you do see them, are usually there for a reason.  And it has nothing to do with the writer enjoying the experience of going there.

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Speaking of a story with no sidetrips: if you’re at all interested in my novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, here’s a 15% discount code to use when ordering on Amazon.com: 6GX63XTL.

12 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to Beware the Seductive Side Trip

  1. Rob

    I actually posted a similar comment on a (much) earlier thread. So sorry for repeating myself. But Jeff Deaver is most definitely NOT a “panster.” While he does do 20-30 drafts of his novel, he spends 8 months researching and outlining his novels. His average outline is between 150-200 pages long!!!!

    Now, why, after all that planning, he still needs to do so many drafts is beyond me. But, hey…I’m not making gazillions on my work like he does.

    Check out this interview with him:
    http://www.thrillerwriters.org/2009/09/between-the-lines-with-jeffery-deaver.html

    One this is for sure…I’m not pantsing anything longer than a to-do list now. As an experiment (before I stumbled onto this site) I started a novel without an outline. Just a few ideas about what I wanted to have happen in the book. I wrote 67,000 words before I ground to a halt and realized I could not satisfactorily wrap up my novel with any sort of excitement or believability. Then I looked back at what I wrote. About 40% of the material didn’t even move the plot forward. Yikes!

    So there’s about five months of my writing life out the window. Now I’m thinking a 150-page outline doesn’t look like such a bad idea. 🙂

  2. Larry,

    Another excellent post.

    I hope I’m not the only one who understands your position on the pantsing/planning/plantsing issue. I don’t see you as a preacher admonishing us (your congregation) on the evils of pantsing – I’ve always interpreted your message as, simply put, “Do it the way that works best for you – as long as you understand that you must still follow the rules.”

    To use the Architecture analogy again…there are Architects out there who try to anticipate every possible problem that could arise during the construction of a building and take measures to avoid them by including pages and pages of details in their drawings.

    Then there are those who include only the barest essentials when it comes to details using the attitude “It’ll be worked out in the field.”

    There are others who split the difference.

    Each of these methods work – buildings are built everyday using one or the other. When John Q. Public enters a newly constructed shopping mall he doesn’t know if the project ran as smooth as glass or if it was delayed for two weeks while the Architect, contractor and owner tried to resolve an issue that caught them by surprise because nobody had thought it out beforehand.

    Believe me – it happens.

    The point being – all three buildings get built, the end result is virtually the same and nobody knows the difference.

    Building A (the one detailed to the nth degree) was built efficiently with a minimum amount of problems (there are always problems – this is unavoidable) and fewer issues to be resolved on the fly.

    Building B (the one that was “pantsed”) was built less efficiently, probably cost more due to unanticipated changes and gave the team a few more headaches.

    Building C (the plantsed one) will have some hiccups, and maybe a few cost increases, but will not cause tomany sleepless nights for those involved.

    But regardless of the method – each building is built in accordance with all applicable codes and regulations (hopefully).

    The same can be said about novels, I think.

    Whether planned, pantsed or plantsed…the book buying public will never know the difference as long as you follow the rules.

  3. Frank Morin

    Larry,

    I appreciate the effort you put into helping people understand the cost associated with the storytelling path they choose. I started as a total pantser for all the reasons you talk about (didn’t understand the right structure, thought I could do it because some writers make it look easy, etc). I spent 4 years on my first novel, re-writing and developing my talents and understanding of this industry. Many drafts resulted. I committed to becoming a writer, and to the learning cycle of the road I’d chosen. Over time, I’ve learned the right structure, and had to throw away almost half a million words and totally re-start. The new novel is significantly better. The cost was high, but it was worth it. I’m polishing it now, and hope to submit it to agents/editors in a couple of months.

    Over time, I have moved up the spectrum from pantser to planner. For my second novel, I’ll probably be 80% planner, 20% pantser. I can’t afford to take 4 years again.

    I do pants as a write, and sometimes I take those side-trips. At times, they have become wonderful creative processes that have revealed previously unexplored aspects of the worlds I build. When that happens, I have to go back and re-design the story to incorporate the revelation. Again, there’s a cost. But it’s worth it sometimes. When it’s not, I delete the side-trip and continue on the original path. You’re right – there’s no other way to deal with it: either embrace it and make the necessary adjustments, or set it aside and move on.

  4. Side trips can be fun, no doubt about it. I spent several hours on a side trip, then went back and spent a half hour junking all the references to it.

    Even back then as a pantser, I realized none of it contributed to the story. I “got it out of my system” and proved to myself I could do it.

    Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I’m now on the path of “if it doesn’t contribute, it’s freeloading” and it’s outta there.

  5. Patrick Sullivan

    Something I’m starting to do as writing prep, and will probably do for these Side Trips as well, is simply put them into a short story instead. Good way to explore the characters and if non-standard fiction the world as well. It’s turning into my form of “note making”

  6. @Patrick – I like that idea…I think I’ll have to give that a try.

  7. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. (And Tim, too). Kelly here.

    First, I read (inhaled, actually) “Whisper of the Seventh Thunder.” Really liked it, think Dan Brown better watch out…
    About pants/plants/planned– it’s starting to sound like gardening! Gotta have structure, ‘nuf said.
    About side trips– when writing a book and tempted to write a sidetrip, do it if you must (and if you have the time), and put it in a separate file for your own entertainment, not in the book. Keeps plot moving, and no separation anxiety over “losing” part of your manuscript.
    22 drafts? That’s at least 16 more that I’d have lived through before novel went in file cabinet, not to be seen for many years…
    Regards (glad you’re back!) Kelly

  8. Patrick Sullivan

    @Tim – One of the best part’s about it is you can use them as promotional material to give away (or even sell) to help promote a new book coming out if you sell (or self publish) and double dip on the time spent! Hard to get much more win-win.

  9. Howdy Larry,

    Just found your site through problogger, I’m enjoying myself already.

    “work only if the pantser understands story structure to an extent that what pours out of their head aligns with those principles”

    This I think is the crucial tip for getting out of the pantsing void alive and sane. I think ideas that come bubble up out of the random chaos of pantsing should ALWAYS be checked against those principles because they are a great filter for the side trip bait/spam that can come out of pantsing.

    I laughed when I saw your “polarizing guy” comment. That is still very much my MO (I have post called I Hate Babies) and it is a mixed (but very interesting) bag.

    Thanks for the great post

  10. Ah, you did it again.

    This cinched it for me: “…those who write to publish, and those who write for themselves…”

    I’ve written enough for myself. I’m writing to publish now.

    I’ve discovered an interesting side-effect of the planning process. It’s one you don’t explicitly mention, but all writers should love it. And it’s inherent in planning your story.

    I’ve started a new mystery. I’m using Scrivener, which makes the planning process very easy. (If you’re not familiar with it, this screen shot is a pretty good representation: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/screens4.html) I set up 4 sections (called, naturally, Setup, Response, Attack and Resolution) and plopped 10 ‘chapters’ in each section, 3000 words (targeted) each. I’m aiming for a finished product with 100k words. After edits. And clean ups.

    In the cork board layout seen in that link, I put three or four sentences describing what had to happen in each ‘chapter’.

    For the first three sections.

    While I know the general resolution of the story, I honestly can’t tell how it will unfold yet. When the first draft of the first three sections is complete, I’ll be able to map the resolution.

    Now here’s the beautiful, inherent side-effect.

    There is NO writer’s block.

    If the scene on the beach with the knife fight isn’t working, if I can’t get the flow, if I’m not sure how to weave in the anxiety felt by the hero’s girlfriend during the fight, convincingly, I can drop it for the moment and move to the next 3000 word block, the courtroom scene, where the public defender makes a mess of things and the hero’s girlfriend just barely makes it out on bail. I CAN write 3000 words about that.

    And when the mood strikes and will go back to that knife fight. Maybe after watching a Jet Li movie for inspiration.

    Because everything is mapped (or planned) at a marco level I have been burning through the first draft.

    Bearing in mind that I have a full time job and many weekend parental responsibilities (I can’t skip all of them) I put down almost 9000 works from Friday night to Sunday night.

    And some of them were good words.

    No more pantsing for me. The last one I pantsed I’ve abandoned. I estimated it would take longer to fix it than it would take to write a new one. (The plots are different and the main characters are different, but some of the secondary characters are showing up.)

    Thanks again, Larry. Not a life-saver, but definitely a time (and sanity) saver.

  11. Ah, in that previous post it was 9000 words, not works.

    I can barely manage 1 work.

  12. Melissa

    I’m going to have to respectfully disagree about sidetrips. I find them helpful, even if they don’t end up being part of the finished novel. Side trips teach me about character, and character is plot.

    I agree that even as a “pantser” I plan to some extent. I study story structure, character archtypes, all aspects of craft. No writer should ever ignore the elements that build successful stories. I try to absorb those lessons so that they’re bone marrow of how I write. I don’t always know where I’m going as I’m working on a story. Sometimes those side trips reveal something I didn’t know, and that element, usually something character based, might just tell me how to shape the main narrative. Yes, that means I write a lot of drafts, and what some might call “wasted effort” but for me, that discovery process is essential. By the final draft they may be gone, but I couldn’t write the story I’m trying to tell without them.