Writer’s Life: Plotting it vs Winging It

I’ve talked before about Plotters versus Pantsers, and where I fall within the spectrum.  To summarize, Plotters want everything planned in advance.  They craft outlines which capture the high-level structure of their story.  Within the nodes of the outline, they outline further, laying out the chapters.  Within the chapters, they outline the scenes.  They go deeper and deeper with their outlines, until it’s a small step to just writing the story.  They string up their structure with prose, sewing flesh onto the skeleton of their ideas.  Famous Plotters include Brandon Sanderson and Jennifer Brozek.

Then there are the Pantsers, though they may prefer to be called Discovery Writers.  They aren’t bound by the constraints of an outline.  They start with a vision.  Then they sit down and write.  They are the first readers of their stories, the words appearing beneath their cursor with the movement of their eyes.  They need the surprise.  They often have an idea where things are going, but they’re more prone to let the characters take over.  Famous discovery writers include Stephen King and Dean Wesley Smith.

It’s interesting listening to writers that are at the extremes of the spectrum, because they seem to have such disdain for the opposite approach.  I remember listening to Dean Wesley Smith on a panel at my first WorldCon (Reno, 2011).  He described how he refuses to outline because when he does, he spoils the story for himself, and he no longer has any desire to see it through to the end.  Years later, I listened to Jennifer Brozek at a different convention.  I think it was a Con-Volution, but it might have been somewhere else.  She talked about the outlining process, and how when a Discovery Writer finishes their first draft, THAT’s their outline.  Both had compelling arguments that resonated with me.

And of course, in Stephen King’s book On Writing, he talks about plot like it’s a clumsy tool.  He talks about the story like it’s a fossil buried in the ground.  The Discovery Writer works at the excavation, carefully revealing the finer details.  The Plotter, on the other hand, goes into the same excavation site with a bulldozer.

As someone that is still trying to perfect his writing methods, I think about these perspectives on writing all the time.

It’s clear to me that each writer is different, and that the methods of one may not be appropriate as the techniques of another.

For myself, I’m starting to think that I need different techniques for different stories.  For example, when I started The Repossessed Ghost, I already had a character with a strong voice in my mind.  I’d dabbled with him in a few short stories years before.  I’d played him in a roleplaying game.  I liked Mel, and I thought he deserved to be in his own story.  But I wasn’t entirely sure what that story would be.

I started with a scenario.  He’s a repo-man, and he finds a ghost in a car.  What happens next?  I thought that he’d become a suspect in her murder.  So I went that direction.  One thing led to another, and the ideas started to fall into place very organically.  I wasn’t sure how the story would end, and I didn’t really know what the main conflict would be.  Somewhere in the middle of the first draft, I started to think the book was a strange love story.  I even tried to end it as a love story.  That turned out to be a bad idea.

The first draft of that story involved a lot of Discovery Writing.  I wound up editing it for about 3 years, and maybe it’s still not really done.  I certainly don’t want to work on it anymore, right now.

That approach worked for that story, but it isn’t going to work for Synthetic Dreams.  That story is too complicated.  I’m coming into this story with strong ideas about the world and the themes I want to explore.  I didn’t know who the characters were until I was about to start writing.  I really like the main characters now, and I want to see what happens to them.  But they weren’t the ones that drove this story into existence.  This story isn’t going to go anywhere unless I chart a course.  So for Synthetic Dreams, I’m doing a lot of outlining.

In November, I’m starting an entirely different story.  Like The Repossessed Ghost, I have a strong sense of the main character.  But like Synthetic Dreams, the story is big.  There are mysteries involved, and I have to know in advance what crimes my main character will be solving.  I need to know the bigger picture so that I can make the smaller pieces fit together into a coherent whole.  In preparation for NaNoWriMo, and to make sure that this new story makes sense, I’ve done some outlining.

There is no magical one-size-fits-all solution.  If there was, we’d all be doing it.  Instead, we fumble around, experimenting until we find something that works for us.  And sometimes what works once doesn’t work the next time.

I think I like it like that.  When I talked about playing music, I mentioned how I like to go into situations that scare me a little bit.  Well, every story is a little bit scary.