Friday, September 7, 2012

Confessions of a Pantster #writertip

Honestly, I'm a Pantster. Some of my best friends are pantsters. I love pantsters, and I'm definitely write-brained, or right brained. My house is a mess, I have disorganization creds since I was a small child. So why am I making a confession now?

Panster's still need Plot Points
Huhhh??? Hold on a minute, backtrack. Did you just use the word PLOT???

Well, yes, and let me explain. Every story needs big moments, those spine-tingling, nail-biting, will they or won't they moments. These are the plot points. They hold up a story much like the towers of a suspension bridge. They present excitement, dilemmas, points of no return, and other tests to keep the story moving and the reader engaged.

If you look at a profile of a suspension bridge, you'll see that the towers occur roughly at 25% and 75%. For simplicity, we call them the First Plot Point and the Second Plot Point. More flowery terms are Call to Action, Point of No Return, for the first Plot Point, and Dark Moment, Moment of Truth for the Second Plot Point.

These plot points are not to be confused with the Inciting Incident or hook which occurs before the First Plot Point or the Climax or Final Battle which occurs after the Second Plot point. Rather, the First Plot Point is the end of the beginning and the Second Plot Point is the beginning of the end.

Larry Brooks has an excellent book Story Engineering, in which he not only explains Plot Points, but also those fascinating little reminders called Pinch Points. His explanations of Story Structure and how they fit with Concept, Character and Theme. He is rather down on panstsing, comparing us to people who won't take an airplane, but rather a five-day train trip. Nevertheless, he does present a workable solution. Think of only five points: Hook, First Plot Point, Mid-Point transition, Second Plot Point, Ending, then wing the rest.

So what is this Panster Doing talking Plot Points?
When I wrote my first book, I had no idea where it was going and where I was coming from. I had this story in my mind, a story of a princess with an unsatisfying life, and went exploring. I daydreamed many subplots, took off on wild tangents, and indeed changed my story quite drastically. I hesitate to count how many drafts I wrote, or how many times I subjected my critique partners to yet another plot change.

Plot change. There's that dirty word to the heart of a pantster. We are creative souls, daydreamers, unbound by charts and graphs and mathematical formulas. We write from the heart and there is no telling where the heart will turn.

Yes. That is true. But after fifty iterations of 'As the Heart Turns' a story starts to form. And what transpires is a series of climatic events, character arcs, reversals and victories. The bridge structure takes shape organically. And all of the story engineering points can be identified, in retrospect.

So How does a Pantster Plot?
Very minimally. I participated in NaNoWriMo in November 2011 and spun out a first draft. Right about that time, I saw some tweets with the hashtag #PlotWriMo and started following it. PlotWriMo is Martha Alderson's post-NaNo activity to help all of those pantsters who threw together a first draft to prepare for the first revision. Martha stresses stepping away from the first draft and thinking about the themes of and what she calls re-"visioning." She takes a more holistic approach than Brooks, and encourages you to dwell into the subconscious universal story.

You are encouraged to put away your first draft, not look at it at all, and sketch a series of mountain peaks on a large piece of butcher paper. You write plot elements above the line and character elements below the line. Then you think of your big picture thematic elements. Free association, jot down anything that comes to mind. Match them with your plot points, or what you remember your plot points were. No peeking. She also warns you against letting anyone else read your first draft. It is a fragile thread, a dream. You're also encouraged to think about your characters and sketch their emotional development on tiny postcards, a mini plot with all the points.

Take a look at her book, The Plot Whisperer for an explanation of her method. She has also recently published The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories.

A Pantster who Plots
Both of these systems are fascinating, but I must admit I did not follow it to its entirety. I dropped out of the beat sheet while trying to Story Engineer and threw out all my 3x5" mini plot lines sketched while Plot Whispering. Did I fail?

Not really. Even though I threw away my cards and diagrams and never completed my spreadsheet, doing the exercises helped me to be aware of the hidden messages inside my story. Mulling on the character emotional development also allowed me to deepen my relationship with my characters.

By the time I was set to revise, everything was once again organic, not over-engineered, yet harmonized with the universal story. So that's my confession. I hope it was entertaining or at least helpful. The next book I'm going to read about plotting is Holly Lisle's Create A Plot Clinic. If you've read it, let me know what you think.

What about you? Are you a Pure Pantster, a Pantster who Plots, a Plotter who Pants (don't get any ideas here), or a Perfect Plotter? What process do you prefer? Story Engineering or Plot Whispering?


  1. Great post, very interesting read. I do a rough outline and then see what i can do to make it more interesting as I go. Not sure what that is.

    Moody Writing

    1. Hi Mood, my pantsting gets me into trouble. I'm now stuck trying to cut and tighten. I think a rough outline puts you in the plotting side. :)

  2. I tend to be a pure pantser through the first 3/4ths of the manuscript, and than I can't wrap things up until I have perfected the first half, which can take awhile. I tried reading the Plot Whisperer and really didn't find it to be much help, but I might give the workbook a whirl. Good luck!

    1. Hi Jess, the Plot Whisperer is more philosophical and Story Engineering is more practical. I like knowing the principles and milestones so I have a goal to aim for, but I can't get myself to write an outline or synopsis. For me, it'll spoil the fun of the unexpected.

      What I like a PlotWriMo (Martha's December project) is the set of exercises to "do-over" a pantsed manuscript. So you get the fun of pantsing and the discipline of putting some structure to it.

  3. When I'm ready to write, I'm a plotter and outline where I want the story to go, but I sometimes spend months (even years) thinking about a novel before I sit down to get to that writing stage. I think that's the time I'm more pantsing (daydreaming the plot and characters), if that makes sense.

    1. That makes a lot of sense and helps you write tight stories. :)

  4. My two-novel set (first one available, second is drafted) was a pure pantsing exercise. I sat down with the first part in mind, not quite sure what the characters were *really* facing, and started writing. At some points, it was like I was taking dictation for the voices in my head. I figured that I'd have it wrapped up after 30,000 words or so… and the story turned out six times larger than that. A spinoff has already suggested itself. Have I ever mentioned that my Muse has a sadistic streak? The scary part is that I have this entire world in my head, and it's not the only one.

    My next major project, a YA modern fantasy, I have mostly plotted. The idea dropped in right in the middle of writing the above, and I didn't feel like I had the mental bandwidth to handle both at once. Rather than to lose the main points, I mind-mapped as much as possible so I can tackle it when I'm ready.

    So I can see the advantages of either method. I guess that's the mark of a true pantser, do whatever is most comfortable and gets the story written!

    1. Hi Larry, I dumped a manuscript that I had outlined. I had a spreadsheet, all the plot points and scenes laid out. I went into NaNoMoWri and whipped it out in two weeks. But I hated it. I felt like I was connecting dots in a coloring book.

      With half of NaNoMoWri still left to go, I pantsted Broken Build and used these two books listed above to structure it. Not saying it's the right thing to do, but does seem to get the best of both worlds.

  5. I'm a pantser mostly, but I do have to know quite a bit about the characters before I start writing. My stories are very character driver, so knowing their beliefs and secrets and dreams helps my plot form.

    I've taken a lot of Holly Lisle courses (including her How To Think Sideways bootcamp). She is funny and informative, and I think you'll like a lot of the tools and tricks she provides. However, she is very much a plotter, so some of her techniques don't work for me.

    If I already know the story before I write it, I get bored, so I just have a hazy idea and let my muse go from there. I suppose we are all different. Happy writing! So excited about your new project!

    1. Hi Chantel, I'm like you. I get bored if I know too much of what's going to happen. But, gee! At least I think I know who the villain is. Or I aim for a villain but if a better one jumps into the picture, I'll take it.

      Thanks and good luck on your new project too.

  6. Haha! LOVE THIS! I'm a pantser too, but sometimes, I have to make my plot points in a disorganized outline of sorts. I call this a plotting-pantser or a pantsing-plotter. Wrote a blog post on this not long ago. :)

  7. Great post. Very interesting to read through the comments as well.
    I consider myself a serious pantser, but I start out with a very rough synopsis. Then as I write the first draft, I see where the story takes me and makes changes onto my synopsis so I can keep track of what is happening and see how far I've drifted from the original idea. Sometimes that's fine and others, I try to steer my characters back into the ending I've 'forseen'. Of course, no matter what, that ending never works out. :)

    Thanks for the great tips, Rachelle. Keep it up!

    1. ha, ha, the ending. the scariest part is when the ending is 180 degrees from what you thought. But then you can't argue with your characters too much, you can only throw disasters at them, sort of like what Hera does to those she's jealous of. LOL

  8. Like Mood and others, I've become somewhat of a hybrid along the way. I'm actually a math person, usually very organized, so one would think I'd be a plotter, but I'm also the artsy-type, and somehow that's made pantsing much more natural for me. In pursuit of easier editing and greater productivity, I adopted a loose outline method that's working so far. Great post, Rachelle! I have that book, and I highly recommend it, too - plotter, pantser, or hybrid :-)