I get hate mail. I really do. It’s from people who don’t accept – who don’t even want to hear about it – that there are standards and principles and rules when it comes to writing publishable fiction.
That there is such as a thing as story architecture, which is the sum of structure and artful effectiveness in the realms of concept, character and theme.
Even avid outliners are lost without an awareness and acceptance of story architecture. But the truth is, if someone is an avid story planner, chances are they’ve gone that route precisely because they have an awareness of the need for story architecture.
We all start out as pantsers. Only some of us, when we understand what elements and aesthetics a story needs to embrace before it will work, tend to adopt the habit of planning for it ahead of time.
Hear me clearly: you can write a great story without planning it out ahead of time. You really can.
If, and only if, you understand those pesky “rules” (and if the word rules offends you, call it something else, cause they ain’t goin’ away).
If you know about structure and the dynamics of dramatic tension, stakes and pacing, and then you can execute them without giving the destination of your story a single coherent thought.
At least until your second, third and sixth drafts, when your story is screaming at you for an ending and a few story points that make getting there interesting.
And if you don’t like the word rules, then think of them as principles. Like gravity and taxes and death, which are just as certain.
Welcome to pantsing… writing stories by the seat of your outline-hating pants.
There are pantsers who get all this.
And, on occasion, they publish. Because, when they finally stuff their manuscript into an envelope, they’ve come up with and delivered the exact same architectural elements as have story planners.
It’s just a very different way of achieving the same thing.
I’ve finally hit on an analogy that makes the differences clear. At least I hope it does.
When Your Ear becomes the Seat of your Pants
Writing a story without planning the story ahead of time is like playing music by ear. Which means you compose by ear, as well. If you do, you better know music theory inside and out, sheet music or no sheet music.
Or, you’d better be a prodigy who doesn’t need music theory or sheet music.
It can be done. Some of the most famous composers in history have done it, most of whom were indeed prodigies. Some of the best musicians of our time can’t read music at all, most of those playing in rock bands.
Either way, it’s all in their head.
They’re naturals. Or if they’re not, they’ve tinkered with it enough – the equivalent of writing multiple drafts – to make it seem as if they’re naturals. The structure, the melody, the pacing, it just flows after enough hours at the keyboard.
Others study music, they understand its inherent theory, and they tend to plan their compositions in context to the existing expectations of Nashville. They use the rules of musical theory to guide them, rather than backing into the rules randomly or relying on their ability to abide by them naturally.
Like prodigies do.
Successful pantsers are one of two things: they are experienced enough at the trial and error of writing by the seat of their pants that they intuitively know what works and what doesn’t – they’re good at playing by ear – or, they’re prodigies.
The key word there being successful.
So if you’re in defiance of story planning, and if you’re not getting anywhere with that position – as in, anywhere near an agent or a publisher – then consider the possibility that maybe you’re not a prodigy after all (few are).
And that you’re rejecting the very thing that can make your dream happen.
And if you’re not, then you must decide if you want to put in the years of work it will take to intuitively grasp the form and function of storytelling using only the seat of your pants, without knowing or caring about where story points go or giving a rip about the difference between a set-up and a denouement, or what sub-text is all about or how to retrofit foreshadowing back into a story once you’ve figured out how it’s all going to end.
Which might work, or it might not.
If you’re a pantser who ascribes to the principles of story architecture, one who knows what they’re doing and accepts the fate of multiple drafting as part of the process, please know I appreciate you and know you’re out there. I salute you, because chances are if you’ve actually published this way, you are, in fact, a bit of a prodigy.
It’s just that too many people who reject story planning don’t get it. And that’s why I’ll keep whipping up analogies until they do.
The Inevitability of Story Planning
Even a tiny bit of story planning goes a long way toward empowering the next draft. And, when you think about it, the preliminary drafts of a pantser are nothing more, in hindsight, than a story planning process in its own right.
Story architecture isn’t optional. And by that standard – see previous paragraph – neither is story planning.
All of us – planners or pantsers – get to choose when and how that happens.