Writing Analogy, Part 2: How To Cook Up A Tasty Story That Satisfies and Nourishes

Or not.  Sometimes a little junk food is just the ticket. 

When I began this journey as a writing teacher and now a blogger, and finally as the author of what has been for the last three weeks the #1 bestselling fiction writing book on Amazon.com (if you’ll pardon the plug), I had more than a few things to learn. 

About the craft, and about myself.

I certainly knew that there were a variety of ways to approach the writing of a story.  And while I still think its nuts, I realize that some writers still cling to their old Olivetti or even a manual typewriter.

Whatever… that’s more about process than product, anyway.  Which is precisely what I finally came to realize. 

In my initial advocacy for pre-draft story planning, I met with immediate and vocal resistance. Enthusiastic vitriol.  Almost death-threat-like in nature.  Blind rage.  Abuse.  Dismissal.  Belittlement. 

Name-calling ensued.

It felt like I was back in high school, but that’s another backstory.

Another blogger recently told me that it appears I’ve softened my stance on the process known as pantsing, or seat-of-the-pants story development.

Maybe.  The truth is, I’ve evolved it, and the result has quieted the hostile masses while giving me a new focus… one that isn’t going to get me lynched by an angry mob of Olivetti-pounding pantsers at the next writing conference..

My experience as a target inspired a new view. 

I now advocate a kinder, gentler endorsement of story planning, with an empathetic hug of encouragement to those who claim they just can’t do it.

I no longer believe that pantsing can’t work.  It certainly can.  But there’s an asterisk next to both categories, the meaning of which is the empowering thing that every writer needs to understand.

It isn’t how you write.  It’s what you know about storytelling.

For those who claim that story planning just doesn’t work, that it robs the process of spontaneity and fun, to you I say… you couldn’t be more wrong.  At least as a bottom-line absolute that applies to all.  Any more than some jerk writing teacher claiming that pantsing just doesn’t work… that couldn’t be more wrong, either.

But here’s the deal.  The difference is less about the end product than it is about intention.

Planners plan because they know what a story must have in it (generically, as structural milestones and qualitative, mission-driven criteria)… where those things must appear… and how they must work qualitatively. 

It’s like taking a flight from your city to, say, Johannesburg.  Which, by the way, usually involves a flight plan to ensure you don’t end up refueling in, say, Afghanistan.  Sure you’re going to have to change planes along the way.  And sure you can wait until you get to London to decide which flight to take next. 

Crazy?  Not if you’re in it for the adventure.

But does that really make sense in a pursuit that is more about outcome than process, which is the case with a trip to Johannesburg (and, by the way, with writing for publication)?  Or… are you good enough to fly your own airplane and chart your course as you go?

Planning a story versus pantsing a story is no different. 

For the latter to work, you either need to be an ace pilot who owns a metaphoric literary jet (your talent), or have a lot of room on your credit card for fuel and about a month to get there.

A huge majority of pantsers write that way because they don’t know better.  Or enough.  They’ve either never tried story planning (because it’s freaking hard), or they don’t know what to plan.

And for those who believe they do know how a story works and they still prefer this process… well, you’re the reason I re-examined my position on this issue. 

But you are few and far between.  Writers like Stephen King, the Grand Pubah of proud pantsers, own a fleet of literary jets, and they’re all full of creative fuel.

Imparting that empowering knowledge to both planners and pantsers is at the heart of everything I believe and write about.

The more you know, the more likely you’ll be to plan at least some of your story. 

You’ve heard me say this before: both planning and pantsing are drastically different forms of the very same process: the search for story.  You cannot write an optimally effective story until you’ve discovered and explored your narrative options (I’m sticking to that one), but I’ve come to realize there are two extremes (and many in-between approaches) to getting there.

Planners conduct that search by breaking the requisite parts of a story into their component parts – which requires a command of that knowledge in the first place – and strive to discover and explore them in context to each other at a high architectural level. 

Like a pre-party planning meeting before a convention.  Like a sketch of the completed structure before breaking ground.  Like a business plan written before a penny has been invested.

Once it all flows and fits, only then do they write a draft.

Somewhere out there is a writer saying, yeah, but this isn’t a business, this is writing.  If you’re intending to publish, and if this is you, then you’re wrong about that.  Writing is art only to the extent that it compells a reader.  And it won’t ever reach a reader until is complies with the expectations of the publishing industry. 

And those expectations are, in fact, defined by those darn rules and principles that won’t go away.  Only when they are in place do things transition toward the qualitative.

Pantsers use a draft as a search tool, often without even having an awareness of how their story will resolve.  Along the way they plug in ideas and allow them to propel them forward into the story until – theory has it – an ending appears.  Or worse, just write what the muse tells them to write.  Trouble is, that muse may be under-informed.

If they know those pesky rules and principles (the rather inflexible yet tinkerable tenets of effective storytelling, or what I call The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing), this absolutely can work.  But it will take longer, and the great risk is always to settle for that impulsive creative choice rather than vet the creative options.

Many famous writers (who certainly do know those rules and principles like the back of their own book covers, and use multiple drafts to try out different creative options) do it this way. 

Famous or not, any writer who succeeds with this approach is fated to writing multiple drafts, because a mid-course or unseeded shift in a story’s through-line (a better idea surfaces) results in a draft that isn’t optimized.  That just doesn’t work as well as it should.

Just like getting to London and finding out there are no direct flights to Johannesburg after all. 

It has been through the use of analogies that I was able to wrap my head around the difference between my former approach (condemning pantsing as crazy, which I did) and my current belief that it is the underlying awareness, depth of knowledge and skill of application relative to the aforementioned rules and principles (especially story structure and its inherent component parts) that is – rather than process – the elusive and empowering variable that determines success.

To Each Her Own – We All Get to Choose

Just this week I heard from a Storyfix reader who passionately and eloquently related her frustrating story planning journey (bless her for trying) and a resultant default return to the comfort and ecstasy of her pantsing ways.

I have no idea if this woman even knows what the major story milestones are and where to put them.  Or why.  Or if she understands the differences in each of the three dimensions of characterization.

I hope she does.  And if not, I hope she understands that those rules and principles aren’t just for planners, they are for any writer seeking to write an effective story, and that she’ll school herself.

If she doesn’t, then the choice to pants is unfortunate.  Not crazy, just under-informed or just plain stubborn.  Like a golfer who seeks to turn pro but refuses to take lessons (“hey, if I want to tee off with a putter, who are you to tell me otherwise?).

Because until she learns these things, the chances of stumbling upon, or instinctually nailing, the requisite architecture for a successful story are slim.

Like, winning the lottery kind of slim.

My response to her was written from my current, more empathetic understanding of this issue.  You can read the blog, her comment and my response HERE if you’d like.

The One Single Thing That Licenses Rule-Free Writing

There is an exception to all the above.  One that this series of analogies seeks to hammer home.

If you are writing with the intention of publishing your work, either traditionally or through some form of the emerging self-publishing marketplace, then you are absolutely bound to the criteria specified in the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.  No way around it. 

You can’t make up your own art form.  You can’t bend the rules into oblivion.

Because, in effect, you are seeking to turn pro at your craft. 

And in any professional endeavor there are boundaries, parameters, expectations and processes that not only define the game or work itself, but exist precisely because they work.  When practiced and perfected, they result in professional-level performance.

But… if you are writing only for yourself and perhaps some friends, for the pure pleasure of it and nothing beyond… if you are intentionally seeking to write experimental stories that do not adhere to this set of rules and principles and expectations… well… have fun with that. 

That’s the only valid rationale for not writing in context to what makes a story work. 

Every successful story ever published is a case study in the truth of this reality.  Because every professional story demonstrates those rules and principles.

Stephen King pantses his stories.  Are you the next Stephen King?  Do you know what he knows about dramatic theory and story architecture?  Do you have his learning curve, his resume?

If you are an uninformed or defiant pantser who really doesn’t know what a first plot point or a character arc is, that’s the question you must ask yourself.

Because here’s another truth: the more you know about those things, the more likely you’ll be to put at least some pre-draft planning into your process.

Like, for instance, your ending. 

I promised you an analogy.  Here it is.

A story is like a meal.  A feast.  A buffet of the senses and emotions.

Or not.  Some stories are like a snack.  And we all like a good snack.

Either way, for the food to work – to be palatable, to be healthy or at least non-toxic, to be compelling – certain rules and principles apply.  At least if you intend to please your guests.

If you’re a food photographer or a sadist, then never mind.

This is especially true if you intend to turn professional, to become a chef who gets paid to put food in front of people.  (Remember, that’s the analogous case when you write for publication, there’s no way around it.)

And so the preparation of the food begins.

Is there a recipe?  Perhaps.  If there’s not, then there’s certainly an expectation in play.  A sandwich is a sandwich, no matter what you put on it.  Open face, dry or loaded, seasoned or plain, bakery quality or Wonderbread, vegan or deadly juicy, bologna or imported fine aged meat flown in by private jet from South Africa.

A sandwich is a sandwich.  Certain principles define that.

You have all the latitude in the world to make the sandwich something of your own creation, to add whatever you wish, to assemble it however you wish.  Wearing oven mitts or standing in the kitchen naked.  Grilled or microwaved.  Organic or scrounged from neighborhood garbage bins.

The options are unlimited.  But the rules and principles… are not.

It doesn’t have to be clean or healthy or pretty or something your mother would like.  It just needs to adhere to the principles of what a sandwich is and isn’t.

A shingle from your roof served between two discarded wing-tip heels… that may look like a sandwich, but it’s not.  There are rules and principles about these things, and your choices, however creative and unique to you (think mustard on peanut butter), need to conform.

You can pants the sandwich using leftovers from your fridge or from something you’ve just slaughtered out back.  Make it all up in the moment.

As long as you understand what a sandwich is and isn’t.

Or you can lift it from Martha Stewart’s latest sandwich bestseller written from her study while wearing a police-issue ankle collar.

It’s all your call.  As long as the bread doesn’t make the consumer want to use it as a hockey puck or the smell of the meat causes the neighbors to call 9-1-1.

This principle holds true for schooled chefs and your kindergartener. 

You need raw materials, and you need to know how to use them.  You can gather the materials before you begin, or you can make a trip to the store each time you decide on a new ingredient (the name of that store, by the way, is Next Draft Foods).

The more you’ve done this, the less you need to depend on a cookbook. 

Because you know the rules and the principles and the expectations.  And you’ve tempered what you know with your creativity and a seasoned awareness of what works and what doesn’t, even when both are technically inside those boundaries.

So… bon appetite.   May your guests gorge on your storytelling genius… and may you not get sued for imparting Ebola to the folks who sit at your table.

My new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” has just been published by Writers Digest Books.  The rules and fundamentals are there, waiting for you in six easy-to-understand buckets of illumination.

17 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

17 Responses to Writing Analogy, Part 2: How To Cook Up A Tasty Story That Satisfies and Nourishes

  1. Hi Larry,

    I just wanted to say a huge thank you for your book, Story Engineering. I found out about it by way of Randy Ingermanson’s blog last week, downloaded it from Kindle and read it in a week.

    For a long time I was a pantser, and I found that I had enormous difficulty with, as I called it, plot. I could write individual scenes reasonably well, but I could never ‘see’ my whole story clearly enough to get to the end without running into plot knots. I considered myself a character-focused writer and resigned myself to having to work damn hard on plot—without really knowing what I needed to work hard towards.

    I rediscovered Randy’s Snowflake Method last year, and decided it was time to give planning a try. I also read ‘Writing Fiction for Dummies’ by Randy, and ‘Plot and Structure’ by James Scott Bell, and although I found both useful when they spoke of three-act structure in a novel, I still didn’t quite get WHY they worked.

    After reading your book, I now get it.

    Suddenly the words ‘plot’ and ‘structure’ don’t scare the heck out of me. For the first time ever I feel empowered to write the stories I’ve had inside me for years but have felt too scared to really begin for fear of screwing them up. I won’t be saying to myself again that I don’t do plot—the sense of revelation I had while reading your book was enormous (so much so that I felt compelled to blog about it the next day). I know I’ll be reading it again soon.

    So again, thank you for all the effort out in to this book. It has certainly made a huge difference for me!

  2. Having been a pantser for some time, I now outline my stories. It is work, but seems to really be the easier route in the long run. It’s easier to find parts of the story I might want to change, and I, sort of, know where I’m going with the story.

    I have one contention. Don’t tell me I can’t bend the rules, fool (using Mr. T’s voice from the old A Team series). Bending the rules is what makes life fun. Challenging, but fun!

  3. I think it’s possible to be both a planner and a pantser at the very same time.

    No, I haven’t hit my head.

    A well planned book (by my standards) has all of the necessary structure in place, chapters defined by a sentence or two (or three if there are multiple scenes in the chapter) and approximate word count applied to each chapter.

    And when it comes time to write a chapter, I know the entrance to the “walled city”, the door I need to leave at the end of the chapter and maybe a couple of shop keepers I need to visit, but between those points I’m relatively free to explore the rest of the city, as it were.

    An example?

    Chapter 14 needed a pinch point (the first one) and I had written in my Scrivener ‘synopsis’: “Must contain pinch point. Sweeney expresses his desire to DO ANYTHING to get on top, including some unsavory things he’s done in the past.”

    And I wove a 2800 word chapter around a scene of ‘you show me your psychic scars and I’ll show you mine’. Essentially pantsed around a structure.

    It’s only been a year since I discovered this website – I can’t believe how much I’ve learned from you since then.

  4. @ Jules and Tony — planning will never compromise the fun and the rush of storytelling (unless you let it), and you can even still “pants” your scenes once you know what its specific mission is, it’s mircostructure and it’s placement within the story.

    It’s like a great dessert after a great meal (yeah, I’m on an analogy kick, I guess)… you known when and why the dessert appears, and you have planned something special… but once you get to preparing it, you can still improvise and play and love the process. It’s when folks don’t understand that they shouldn’t serve the thing after the salad that they get into trouble with pantsing.

    @Steve — didn’t mean to imply that you can’t mess with the rules, just that you can’t ignore them and survive the fall (like, a story with no conflict, an unempathetic hero’s quest, someone “saving” the hero at the end… etc.). I think I used the work “tinker” in the post, that’s what I meant, which means we’re in raging agreement. Tinker away, dude, you may uncover gold as do you.

  5. I completely agree with your stance. I have friends who are pantsers: some intuitively get the rules from years of voracious reading, but some don’t, and almost all of them hit stumbling blocks when it comes to creating escalating conflict and effective plot points. Even Stephen King (whose work I adore, incidentally) has some novels where I grit my teeth and say “there’s a story in here somewhere” but usually his meanderings are so entertaining I don’t care. Nora Roberts is the only pantser I know that seems to nail plot points like a blindfolded top marksman, but then again, she’s unimaginably prolific. It’s sort of like Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which theorizes that if you want to be considered an expert, you’ve got to put in the hours. (COme to think of it, both she and King are prolific… wonder if there’s a correlation?)

  6. Kate London

    Hi Larry,

    I agree w/ Tony that it’s possible to be both a plotter and a pantser at the same time. I’ve read all your books on Story Structure and think it’s a great way of explaining all the different elements that go into a story well told.

    So I plan.

    But then I realize that a lot of the scenes that I carefully planned are not the best they could possibly be. In fact to be honest, a lot of my first thoughts when I was planning are…well…cliches. Stuff I already saw in movies and books, but think are my own ideas. But for some reason that’s not obvious until I’ve written them out in a story.

    So then (within the story structure parameters) I try to come up with more original scenes, ones that make me go back to the well and test my creativity to the max. So basically I pants but within the structure. I mean you can still play in the park even if there’s a fence around the outside of it.

    So yes, even with story structure I end up doing about three drafts (one to find the story, one to be creative and then one to polish everything.) But three drafts is much better than endless ones with no planning.

  7. Hi Larry,
    I was in Manzinita for your presentation in June, which was great, but I knew there were some amazing points I was missing that day and now, YEAH! Thanks for Story Engineering.

    My journey to learn the craft of storytelling has be long, diverse and delightfully fulfilling. Publication has been close enough to touch with a few projects through the years. I even knew my issue was “theme”. I always felt I didn’t get it and no matter how often it was explained I’d go, “huh?”…

    And even though you only devoted a few pages specific to Theme – it was enough. Lightbulbs and fireworks ensue…

    Thank you, thank you.

    S.E. will help with my memoir too, which is currently being edited by Marian Pierce. Maybe that weekend at the coast will go down in the history of my career as the climax and final turning point. Now a new career story can begin as a professional and published author. 😀

  8. I call myself a plantser now, combining a little of both methods as mentioned above.

    When I took the time to fill out every empty space on my beat sheet, I spent more time fighting with myself over little details that didn’t matter than I killed all desire for a project. Now, I make sure I have the main plot points nailed down, with a few notes of scenes to fill the between spaces and then I’m off.

    After I combine it with a timeline. I’ve found it’s much easier for me to keep everything moving if I have the events marked on the story’s calendar. Whether it’s just a few days, months, or years, knowing when things happen is the best way to keep me on track. If I don’t sit down and work my beat sheet into a proper timeline, I’ll start to flounder. (having already tested said theory numerous times last year)

    And now, crazy-tent-lady-visually-oriented-monkey that I am — I’m even considering taking my beat sheet/timeline and storyboarding it out with angry little stick figures (or perhaps reusable character renders). Was this random crazy idea that came to me…not sure yet if I’ll do it, but yeah…we’ll see. Can see it being useful to keep track of action type scenes and the like.

  9. I agree with you, Larry. Planning doesn’t kill the fun, and there is still some room for pantsing. In fact, planning saves me from that sick-gut feeling of “I’m sitting down to write, but I don’t know where I’m going! I’m out of ideas! What do I do? Where am I headed??”

    I’ve felt that terror when following a pantsing process (actually, thanks to reading advice from Stephen King, who must be far better than me at it) and I don’t want to go back there. I love planning and I’m so glad there’s room for both it and pantsing in writing.

  10. Larry — I’ve attended your workshops at the Willamette Writers Conference and downloaded Story Structure and Story Engineering on my new Kindle. Thanks to your referral I visited Randy Ingermanson’s blog and picked up Writing Fiction for Dummies. I just applied the Snowflake Method in developing my latest YA fantasy underpinned by your story structure principles and I now have a complete scene list. There is still so much creative wiggle room in the scene list and long synopsis that I don’t feel the least bit “restricted” by my story plan. Rather than limiting creativity, it seems more freeing to me. The characters may take me in a different direction than planned, but I still have the “markers” to write toward.

  11. Monica Rodriguez

    Great post, Larry. I’ve actually seen this evolution in your position over the last year & a half, exactly like you’ve said.

    I’m proof that this shift in thinking is on target. Because, being a methodical person, I’ve always been a planner. When I first started writing, I worked with an outline. But I didn’t know what I was outlining for. I didn’t have any sense of proper organization of a story. I had no idea about milestones, plot points, or even character arc. And my outlining energies would often peter out before I reached the end, or I couldn’t decide on my ending, so I would start my draft w/o one. Naturally, my first draft was a mess.

    After reading Larry’s blog, I’ve been able to be far more productive in my outlining. It actually took a couple of tries – my first story using Story Structure wasn’t quite complete with all the elements it should have had. My current WIP was much better. I’m now going thru it for my first revision. I looked at the structure before attacking scenes, but there wasn’t that much that needed structural editing.

    Shows you what a little knowledge & education on the principles of story can do ya!

  12. I stumbled across a wonderful quote about this just last week, in a biography of the iconic noir writer Patricia Highsmith.

    As a young woman, Highsmith showed some of her stories to the brilliant writer Jane Bowles (wife of Paul Bowles), who told her, “Don’t plan. It’s always better to write first and then revise.” The thing is that Bowles, although a genuine literary genius, stopped writing after a stroke at the age of 40 when perfect first-draft sentences were no longer within her grasp. Losing her writing broke her heart, and she died virtually unknown and in terrible despair in her mid-50s.

    Sure, there are geniuses out there for whom mental plotting is akin to breathing. But are you personally more brilliant than Jane Bowles? Because if you’re not. . .well, you’d probably better learn how to plan.

  13. @Mary — congrats on “getting it,” Mary. Hang on, your career is about to go verticle. Enjoy the ride! L.

    @Monica — I’m so glad you’ve been along for the ride this whole time. Means a lot to me. I’ll be there for you when you need me as you move forward. L.

    @Victoria — you ask the perfect question. In essence… are you a genius? The question should stop all of us in our tracks. And then, send us right back ON track by understand what we need to know, and how to apply it. Thanks for this. L.

  14. I’ve been following your posts since I saw you listed as #1 in recommended blogs. 🙂 This post especially hit home because I’ve always more often identified as a “pantser,” but have slowly been moving towards planning.

    Several of the comments have noted that one can be both a pantser and a planner, and that is a very important point. Pigeon-holing someone as one or the other doesn’t work. Most of the writers I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with or attending panels/workshops with describe extremely different levels of outlining/planning – including saying they don’t outline/plan at all… but, when pressed, admit they have some outline or plan in their head.

    The food analogy you give works especially well and can be seen by anyone who just flips to either Food TV or Food Network. Some celebrity cooks are like Alton Brown, who plans so thoroughly that he writes and develops a recipe that he doesn’t need to even cook first to know it will be good. Others, like Rachel Ray or Sunny, have a loose idea of what they want to cook but can go to the market, see a fresh ingredient, and just run with it – but they know how a particular dish ought to get put together, more or less.

    Most writers – like most cooks, I believe, fall somewhere on the middle part of the spectrum of pantsing and planning.

    Thank you, again, for the post… it inspired my most recent post on my blog: novelfriend.blogspot.com

  15. @Trisha — went to your site, loved the post and the entire presentation. Your personality really pops through! Thanks for the comments above, thanks for the shout out on your website… and I’m hoping I earn your continued readership (vs. skimmership) going forward. “-” Let me know if you’d like to guest post here on Storyfix, would love to have you. L.

  16. Cricket

    What about thinking of planning as pantsing done fast? You can experiment with plots and points much faster when all you have to remember are the key bits, without writing entire chapters.

  17. Angela Craven

    Hmm… I’m a big-picture planner who gets lost once surrounded by the smaller trees. Always have been. I have an idea, I think hey… this is fun. I know the theme first, and how I want it to start and end. I scratch out a rough outline, I write out random scenes as they play in my mind. I struggle with developing WHO participates in my theme, middles, sub-plots and… well, the actual craft of writing. I have eight big-idea novel concepts in my head, but lack the technical skills to write them into existence.

    I started reading Story Fix about a month ago, a friend sent me a link. I’m hooked of course, and your book is on my birthday list. I am feeling much, much more confident about my weak areas, and I am FINALLY (after much procrastination) writing my first (planned and plotted) novel.

    Thanks for the truth about what it takes to get published, because I’m not interested in motivational BS either. 😉