When it comes to writing a story there are the two widely known approaches. You can plan thing in advance and then follow the instructions like a map. Or you can wing it and see what happens as the story develops organically.
People have their preferences, but which is better? Which is easier, and which requires more effort? Does one lead to a dry, mechanical tale, and the other to a meandering, unfocused mess? How can you tell which suits you and your story best?
Harold Pinter, when asked about his process, said he just put two people in a room and waited to see what happened (if I did this I’d have two very quiet people, possibly with one doing a bit of whistling). Stephen King says he has no idea where the story is going until the characters tell him. The problem with following in the path of hugely talented writers of great experience, is that most of us aren’t as talented or as experienced.
Undoubtedly, sitting at a desk and just writing with no definite idea of where you are going has a romantic quality to it. The characters come to life, the spark of inspiration picks them up and hurls through fascinating events, and all the disparate threads combine in the climactic scene to produce a satisfying and illuminating solution. Wouldn’t that be great?
Unfortunately the reality is a little less poetic.
The brain has a tendency to go for the obvious answer and produce familiar concepts. Often the first idea you have isn’t going to be a very good one. And things can get complicated as more characters enter, new storylines develop, and you have to work in problems that seem insurmountable ... and then surmount them. It’s a lot to keep straight in your head as you fly by the seat of your pants.
So, it would be better to have it all plotted out like a blueprint, right?
Many of the same issues apply. When you work out a point-by-point breakdown of the plot — inciting incidents, turning points, revelations, scene and sequel — the sense of having everything you need right in front of you can be great. But it’s the same brain at work, and the tendency will still be to go for the obvious and the predictable.
In the exploratory method, you don’t know if it will be interesting until you get there. This can take a lot of time and discovering the story isn’t going anywhere when you’re 30,000 words in is tough to deal with.
In the pre-planned method, you can fool yourself into thinking everything fits together, complete with clever plot twist or suspense filled sequence, until you write it out and realise it doesn’t quite work. It’s easy to say ‘Chapter 12: Dave escapes from prison’ in your outline. But when you come to writing Chapter 12, you still have to come up with an interesting escape plan and execute it.
And there’s nothing as irritating as having everything mapped out down to the tiniest detail, and halfway into a story realising you’re boring yourself, never mind the reader.
Knowing every twist and turn of a story before you’ve even started takes just as much genius as making it up as you go along.
What both ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’ need when approaching a story is an idea of what the story is about. You have to start with something solid, an idea, a situation, a problem. Something for the characters to deal with. And that idea has to be interesting.
Then, before you write each scene, you have to have an idea of what the scene is about. And again, it has to be interesting. It’s this context that makes the action engaging, not what people say or do.
Many people who consider themselves pantsers don’t think they do this, that they just think: Right, at this point she goes back to school, let’s see what happens... and they start writing, but it’s only when (or if) they find the focus that the scene comes alive. If she goes back to school and gets into a fight with her arch rival Debbie McGee, then everything up to that point is just you finding out what the scene was about, most of which will be edited out (or should be). That’s one of the main problems with the exploratory approach, all the work that gets cut (often very reluctantly).
Let’s say my story starts with this idea: What if a man leaves his wife and then she wins the lottery? Not that original I know, but as an example I think it’s clear what the dynamic is here and should be easy to follow. Let’s say at this point we have no other details about the characters or the setting.
So, for the first scene I need a starting off point. Let’s say: What if a man comes home from work and finds his wife in bed with the neighbour?
Now, I can go two ways here. I can write out this scene and develop the characters as I go, and when I reach the end of the scene, make a decision about what to write next.
Or, I can put a pin in it as it is, just a rough idea of what happens, and move onto the next scene and come up with a rough outline, maybe of a few scenes, maybe of the whole story. The guy storms out of the house and goes to the nearest bar. Believable, but not all that interesting. What if he’s so mad he starts a fight with another guy in the bar? What if that guy is an off-duty policeman? The cop beats him and takes him to jail. What if while he’s in jail his wife is murdered? What if he gave a fake name when in jail and nobody believes his alibi? What if the cop and all the records disappear?
What I’m doing here is pantsing an outline. I can do various background stuff, world building and writing character bios, but when it comes down to it both methods require me to make shit up. And whatever method I use I can end up in a blind alley with nowhere to go but backwards — there are no guarantees.
But the main difference between plotting and pantsing is that the writer who plots out the story needs to jump to the conclusion of each scene. In order to be able to say what happens next you have to not only say what the scenes about, but how it ends. For a pantser, you only find out how a scene ends when you’ve actually written the scene.
That’s really the only difference. If you’re good at deciding how you want the scene to end without having written it, then I would advise you to plan ahead. You’ll know much quicker if the story isn’t going anywhere. Actually writing the scene requires just as much imagination and skill in both cases, and there’s just as much chance the characters will decide what you had planned for them isn’t what they want to do, but that’s always a risk (and often a good thing).
I would point out that in most cases the reason a story like the one I describe above wouldn’t be very good is because the idea isn’t interesting enough. If a pantser wrote about a man arriving home, hearing noises, going upstairs, discovering wife and neighbour at it, and then ran out of the room, all in great detail and flowing prose, chances are it would be very boring. And if a plotter wrote: Jack arrives home to find Marilyn in bed with Fred from next door. He screams obscenities at them both and storms out. Then when I came to write that scene later I doubt I’d be very enthused.
What’s important is this: man finds wife in bed with neighbour, pretty standard story device, how can I make that unexpected? What if the neighbour is old Mrs Dinkins who lives with all the feral cats?
That tends to be the step both plotters and pantsers tend to miss. Not just what happens, but why is it interesting to someone who isn’t the writer of the piece. As a plotter, I want the scene to end with my MC storming out, how can I get him to do that in an unexpected manner? As a pantser I’ve written the whole scene, and it ends with him storming out. Is it an attention grabbing exit?
Whichever type of writer you are, don’t move on to writing/planning the next scene until you have an indication that the current scene has something going on. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering, but it shouldn’t be perfunctory, just getting from A to B.
Once you’ve got that first fairly decent draft written (for pantsers the first fairly decent draft probably won’t be the actual first draft, which will be all over the place), both approaches then converge in the rewriting process. Doesn’t matter how much you enjoy winging it, or how much you are comforted by writing to a fixed outline, rewriting is taking what you’ve already got and making it better. Slowly. There’s no avoiding that part of the process.