One of the enduring debates amongst writers, and one of the most common questions I’m asked about the writing process is: Plotter or pantser (writing by the seat of ones pants). Do we / should we plan our work or make it up as we go along?
I’m a plotter (I prefer planner) and I wrote this short article for The Victorian Writer in Nov 2014 in the lead-up to a presentation with Paddy O’Reilly, who is a (successful) pantser. It’s reproduced here with the permission of Writers Victoria, and slightly revised. Of course. So…
WHY I’M A PLOTTER
“I start at the first sentence of the novel and finish at the end… There is only one draft and when it’s done it’s done.” You could not ask for a more concise—and extreme—characterisation of a ‘pantser’, though in the lecture from which this quote is taken, Zadie Smith uses the term micro manager. And she makes it clear that there is no preliminary planning stage for her—start means start.
I am not going to suggest that Ms Smith should change her ways, and if you’ve written four critically acclaimed novels and won the Orange Prize, you should probably also ignore my advice. If you regard plot as the enemy of literary writing, you should similarly look away. But if you are starting out; if you have written 30,000 words and lost your way; if you are struggling with a ‘saggy middle’; or if you think ‘good storyteller’ is a compliment rather than faint praise, read on.
I was always going to be a plotter—or, if I can choose my own word—a planner. My original career was in information systems. We were taught to work ‘top down’, to create an outline before we worked on the detail. We weren’t allowed to work on the detail before the structure had been reviewed. Before you blanch at my comparing computer programming with the art of the novel, reflect on the fact that most professions—and most designers—work in this way. Architects begin with a sketch plan; painters frequently begin with a drawing.
I studied design and creativity theory for my PhD and learned about behaviours that are observed across a variety of creative disciplines. Planning is ubiquitous, but so is working up and down—revising the plan as working on the details prompts changes to the framework.
Then I studied screenwriting. Screenwriters are also storytellers, but there is a focus on structure—some would say formula. Call it what you will, the screenwriter works with a hierarchy that divides a story into acts, then sequences, then scenes. The director will add a further layer of shots. Every screenwriter is familiar with ‘doing the cards’: writing scenes on index cards or in an equivalent computer product and shuffling them around to create the best sequence.
What hope did I have? I began my first novel with a scene structure from the screenplay that preceded it and have worked that way ever since. Here are three reasons why I’ve kept up the practice.
- I can experiment with the plot without throwing away reams of deathless prose. In particular I can play with the sequence. One of the most common problems with plots is that saggy middle or what screenwriters call the hole in the second act. A common reason is lack of escalation of stakes and action, and often a simple shuffling of the cards can allow Hercules to tackle the most difficult labour last rather than first.
- The first draft goes easily. I’ll say it again. The first draft goes easily. I know where the story’s going, I know what the scene I’m writing is supposed to achieve, I know my characters, and I know the context. I can concentrate on writing well. If great writing is about great sentences, then I’ve made it as easy as possible for myself to produce them. There’s no writers’ block at this time. Worst case: I can lower my standards, just getting it done, and come back later. (It’s okay for me to come back later!) Or, I can skip ahead to an easier scene. Any real block has happened earlier, in the planning stage and…
- … I can get help in the planning / plotting stage. Screenwriters do this all the time: ‘writer’s room’ means something more to them than ‘special place to write.’ The acclaimed plot for Breaking Bad—and just about any other TV serial drama you care to name—was the result of collaboration; of creative people working together. I don’t think the actual writing of the draft should be collaborative, but the planner has the option of separating that from the plotting.
Let’s return to Zadie Smith. In her lecture, she also says that, “Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters.” Did she say ‘plot’? She calls this stage obsessive perspective disorder; Maria Popova, commenting on the lecture in her Brainpickings blog calls it “the psychic malady… the very state that Kierkegaard believed powers creative work.” I call it planning.
Zadie Smith’s lecture is included in Changing my Mind – Occasional Essays (Public Library). If you’d like to read more about plotting, I’d suggest a screenwriting book: for example, Syd Field’s classic Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.