Thursday, November 14, 2013

Are you a Pantser?

If your response to this question is, "What in the world is a Pantser?" you're probably not a writer. You're also probably normal. 

This month's Writers Ramble topic is Outlining vs. Freewriting. What works for you and why? 

When it comes to writing fiction there are essentially two ways to do it, plan everything out before you ever type the first word, or sit down and make it all up as you go along. The former is known as "outlining" the latter "freewriting" or "discovery writing" also known as writing by the seat of your pants. Hence the term, "Pantser". 

Are these two schools of thought all inclusive, you're either one or the other? Not at all. In fact, most authors I know are a combination of the two, with some planning before hand, maybe a few notes about what scenes will go where, then the rest freewritten as they go along. 

Think of it as more of a spectrum. At the one end, you have absolute outliners like Brandon Sanderson, (though even he'll say he discovery writes when under odd sorts of pressures). On the other end you have Stephen King who said, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters' theses.” 

What's the difference? Well, discovery writing is all about letting the story go wherever it wants. It seems silly, speaking about the story like it's a living entity, but to many writers their stories are just that. The story is a living, breathing creation that goes where it wants and does what it wants. Discovery writing is all about creating the setting, characters, or situation, then just exploring a train of thought along those lines, letting your imagination run wild with the possibilities. You have no idea where the story is going to end, but you can't wait to get there.

Outlining is a lot more structured. It's taking the idea, setting, characters, and writing down everything they are going to do so you know exactly what's going to happen in your story. This still is, in a sense, discovery writing, because you have to explore the ideas and see where they take you, but in this case the discoveries occur mostly in the author's mind, explored, rejected, accepted, until they know where they're going. Now, there can be different levels of outlining. Some authors, like Dan Wells, outline a basic plot structure, and have an ending in mind, then free write all the stuff in between keeping in mind where it all has to end up. Others will outline down to every scene of every chapter. Then the writing just becomes filling in the details. 

What do I do? A little of both, actually. I never write an outline down, but instead I mull an idea over in my head, thinking up more and more details, and even plan the ending until I have a pretty solid mental outline. Once it's basically complete in my head, I sit down and try to transfer all those thoughts into a coherent manuscript. That's where the discovery writing comes in, because I know what I want my characters to do, but most of the time I don't know how they're going to do that. 
Of course, once you start freewriting all of your plans and outlines are subject to change without notice. I recall a story I wrote once where at the end the hero, heroine, and heroine's father were facing of with the villain, who had a gun on them. I knew that by the end of the scene the villain would enact a terrible event and the hero wouldn't be able to stop him. But they couldn't just sit by and let it happen either, someone had to try to stop him. At first I started to write it that the hero would lunge at the villain, but the hero was injured. The heroine couldn't do it either because she was holding the hero in her lap. That left the father, who was most affected by the tragic event anyway, so of course he would react. But the villain had a gun, so of course he would shoot... and then the father would die. Until that moment there'd been no plan to kill the father character. But as it played out on the page it completely fit and was so emotionally charged due to the situation that even I got a little choked up as I was writing it. I was sad that this character was suddenly dead because that was not supposed to happen. And in the end I had several readers tell me that was the best part of the story. 

So there's merit to both outlining and discovery writing. Take the best of both practices, find your point along the spectrum, and make them work to your advantage. You never know where a story will take you.

1 comment:

  1. This is excellent. I've gone from one extreme to the other, and neither seems to support my creativity like combining them has. I think I've been outlining too much, as I'm not surprised or excited by anything. Dragon Games was written with painstaking outlining, and I'm struggling. While my new one, Catching Dragons, has practically no outlining save for some general ideas and it's going along splendidly. I hope to have a "shot father" moment within my books… they do seem to be the most profound.