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.
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.