Plotters vs Pantsers

Are you a plotter or a pantser? That’s a popular question at writing workshops these days. The truth is we all do some of both. Plotters often find themselves furiously rewriting when they realize that their characters would react completely differently than they thought they would. In writing as in life, nothing tempts fate more than a good plan. And what pantsers haven’t been slowed to a crawl because their characters get stuck and nothing seems to be happening? That’s when even diehard pantsers need to put in some serious brainstorming time away from the page. In either case, you can use questions to move back and forth: Why is this character reacting this way? What if this happened instead?

For me, it usually works best to dive in for a bit – to try to capture in words the voice and personality as it most vividly strikes me. A character can be a kind of sounding. You intuit that there’s a story there, but at first you may not know what it is. You may need time to discover it. If the character occurs to me in a situation from the start, then that’s easier, but if not, then I try to think about what’s lacking in that character’s life and what’s especially difficult for him or her. I mentally throw things at the character and see what reverberates. I spend time in my head and on the page.

However, I did make an adjustment earlier in my writing, specifically for novels – after I wrote my first book on instinct and it ended up in a nice box on my shelf. That’s when I decided I needed more education on plot. For my second book, I did better by putting more work into plot near the beginning. I stayed open, but went in with more ideas.

Because of that experience, I like to suggest that you try to structure your approach to new work with a view to pushing yourself in your areas of weakness. If you’re great with character but weak on plot, then push yourself to consider the what ifs of plot – to get some ideas on the table. If you’re great with plot, then try to invest some early work on your characters and whys. See Leading Against Your Strengths.

But I think the most interesting distinction here has to do with where you find yourself when you ask the questions that lead to story. Do you feel like you’re more outside the character, thinking “what if I – the writer – toss this at you”? Or are you deep inside the character, with your hands in their knots, thinking “why do you feel this way” and “why did you do that” and looking for what could happen to put that to the test? Yes, we all do some of both, but where do you spend more time? Outside or in? On what ifs or on whys? Both are necessary to all kinds of novel writing – it’s part of the dynamic, the inside and out of crafting story – but we’re going to vary on where we fall in that continuum. Where we fall may have a lot to do with whether our work is more in the literary or the commercial camp.

The essential thing is to connect the two – to use your instincts about your character to pose the most challenging what ifs; to answer your what ifs with the most honest character reactions and follow up with the deepest whys. To try always to keep in mind a relationship of resistance and challenge between character and plot events. Even if your emphasis is on the whys, you need to destabilize resistant characters with outside events to open them up to new questions, to get them cracked open, and ultimately to get them to change in some way.



Looking Forward

I never realized how important short-term memory was to happiness until my father began to lose his. If I tell him I’m going to visit, he forgets the moment we hang up. He’s happy when I get there, but he misses out on the anticipation. Last summer, he kept forgetting to be excited about the Indians games. We all need things to look forward to, in life and in fiction. Many of us turn to fiction for exactly that: the sense of expectation that our real lives at times may lack.

I’ve written a lot about the importance of tension in fiction. Tension involves a possible threat to or question about a positive outcome. That counterpoint is essential. We need hope. We want to see mysteries resolved, a couple united, a soul redeemed. We read on because we want to believe. Not every story has a happy ending, but we crave something to look forward to, even if instead it’s justice served or the satisfaction of insight.

The past year was a difficult one for many, and the future is uncertain. We worry about our families, our friends, our country, our planet. The future of humankind. Hope may be something we have to work at consciously. In your writing, and in your life, I’d like to encourage you to look forward. To forge a new path for your readers and yourself.



Get Out to Lean In Takeaways from CWC 2016

Chicago Writers Conference

This week we turned our blog over to CWC2016 attendee Ellen T. McKnight, a fiction writer published in literary journals and currently at work on a novel. She teaches writing workshops and hosts a blog about writing called Connecting through Story. Follow her on Twitter @EllenTMcKnight.

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Like many of you, I’d rather be closeted away with my writing than do just about anything else. But the kind of inner life that drives good writing isn’t always compatible with the extroversion required of writers these days. The idea of self-promotion makes us wince. We need help to understand how the inner and outer aspects of writing fit together. This year’s Chicago Writers Conference was a great reminder of the importance of putting ourselves out there.

For more of my guest post on the CWC blog, please click here.



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