It’s not pantsing, it’s organic storytelling

That sounds better, doesn’t it? Sounds a lot more like “go with the flow” and lot less like “make shit up as you go.” But let’s face it, pantsers, you’re doing both of those things.

Sorry, plotters – so are you. Your “make shit up as you go along” phase, or MSUAYGA, just happens a lot earlier than pantsers’ does.

Folks, there’s no right way to write a story. There are, I’ve found, tons of wrong ways to do it, but that’s beside the point. When it comes to actually putting pen to paper, coming up with a plot, with characters, with all that fun stuff, it varies from person to person. And what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for someone else.

I’ve always firmly qualified myself as a panster, even in an academic setting. I don’t like outlines. I never have, and I don’t think I ever will. The idea of writing a narrative summary that’s longer than most paperback back-copy is truly horrifying. And as for those that do 10,000-word outlines? Don’t get me wrong: I’ll write 10,000 words to find a story (and I’ve done it lots of times), but I certainly won’t plot out every minute point that’s going to happen over the course of the next 100,000 words. And here’s why:

What if something else happens? The voices that Stephen King likes to call “the boys in basement,” the ones that tell you that Susie just died or that Russell’s the bad guy, sometimes those don’t line up with what you spent four days on. Sometimes Jeff doesn’t say what you want him to, and what do you do if Lucy doesn’t fall in love with Sean like you’d planned?

What do you do then? Panic, I say. That’s the easiest thing to do.

And when you’re doing with that, re-evaluate. Like I said, I’ve always considered myself a pantser. It wasn’t until this year – this novel – that I realized maybe I’m more of a hybrid than I cared to admit.

And maybe that’s a good thing.

This WIP skipped merrily along, wreaking havoc on my main characters, bringing in an ex-boyfriend from high school and trapping them in a burning church while a suicidal cult member tried to kill them and finding dead teenagers. Then I realized I’d written 40,000 words and maybe it was time to start tying up loose ends.

Which sounded, gosh, an awful lot like plotting.

I didn’t like it one bit. I tried to scare it away with noise, with fire, with guns… nothing worked. The idea kept coming back and knocking on the glass of my brain, saying, Hello? Time to start making sense of all this clusterfuckery. Let’s go now, put on your big-girl pants and figure out how this thing is going to end.

Fine, I said. Fine. You want to play that game? Let’s play it. Balls out. So I took a stack of index cards and scrolled back to the beginning of the document and read every word again. Every word. And I scribbled down questions readers might have that could be answered in revisions or could help wrap up the plot. Because it needs to get wrapped up.

Unless you’re writing literary fiction. And then you don’t need plot, because that’s for people who are interested in, sniff, money.

Yeah. And it’s not going to come unless your shit makes sense, and it’s not going to make sense if you just vomit into your word processor for 100,000 words and then hope for the best. The other option here, that I’ve found, and which is a lot more labor-intensive (I know; I’ve done it), is to just go ahead and vomit your words until it somehow crashes to a halt, then take your manuscript, save it as WIP OUTLINE, and write your damn novel.

Because here’s the real issue here. Letting the story grow organically isn’t a bad idea. Sometimes it goes exactly where it needs to go, and sometimes scenes get deleted (which I’ve done, mid-first-draft, for the first time!). But it goes and goes and you feel out your characters, you explore your setting, and you take your reader with you. But at the end of the day, your reader needs to feel like you’ve accomplished something. And some people can just do that.

[Surprise! Ray Bradbury was a total pantser.]

But truth be told, most of us have to work for it. And it’s totally worth it in the end.


Awesome books on plot: PLOT & STRUCTURE (Write Great Fiction), James Scott Bell. NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! (and official book of National Novel Writing Month), Chris Baty.

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