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Confessions of a Recovering Plotter

E.L. Doctorow famously said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I’ve always loved that quote on writing because it’s so vivid and atmospheric, but for me, at the beginning of my writing career, it wasn’t especially true. In the age-old plotter vs. pantser debate, I would have said that I was a plotter all the way. I loved outlines. L-o-v-e-d them. I would not only outline the book in detail, I would outline each chapter before I wrote it, and then each scene of each chapter, too. I don’t think that effort was at all wasted; it helped me write my first books and land my first publishing contracts, and even more importantly, I think it gave me a deeply ingrained sense of story structure and plot. After writing several books, though, I noticed something: no matter how much I outlined and plotted and planned in advance, a certain percentage of my outlined plot points never made it into the book, because when it came to actually write them, they either just didn’t work– or else more often in the course of the writing process, I would come up with something that actually worked better than what I had originally planned.

Because I like outlines, like I say, and because I also love learning more about story craft, I tried stepping up the plotter game, using things like beat sheets and pinch points and all-is-lost moments. And to be clear, I’m not criticizing any of those things, I think they can be vitally important story elements, I think that using them to structure your novel in advance might work great for some authors. It just . . . didn’t work for me. At all. When I tried to outline my story with that level of structure and detail in mind, all I ended up with was a giant, unworkable mess that I eventually scrapped. I really did love the basic story idea, so maybe I’ll go back to it . . . someday. For now, though, I’ve come to realize that my writing process actually works better if I let go of a little of the control and allow a bit of the pantsing side of things to creep in.

For me, personally, writing is all about knowing the emotional journey that my characters take over the course of the book. So before I start writing, I have three key emotional points in mind: where my characters start out, why they need to change, and then where they end up by the end. Then I come up with plot points that can happen to effect that emotional change. For example, if I had a character who was deathly afraid of heights at the start of the book, and I knew that overcoming that fear was going to be part of his emotional journey, I would need a couple scenes where he faces that fear. Maybe one in which he tries to conquer the fear and fails, and one in which he ultimately succeeds. At any rate, thinking about those key emotional turning points gives me maybe 3-4 key scenes that I can picture in advance before I start writing. And that’s . . . kind of it, really. Once I have that very basic framework of a beginning, a few points in the middle, and an ultimate goal at the end, I can jump in and start writing for the most part without looking back. And it is like making a car trip at night, because there are always the possibility of surprises along the way. A deer may jump across the road and make me swerve out of my lane. My GPS may get stolen, leading me to get lost. But as long as I have those few key story components in mind– but not rigidly so, because even they’re subject to change– I’m okay.

Does the plotter in me miss the security of a more detailed outline? Sometimes, a bit. But one of my favorite talks on the creative process is John Cleese’s lecture on creativity [1] . (And if you take nothing else away from this post, go watch it, seriously, because it is just that good.) At any rate, in his talk, Cleese posits that the best and most successful creative endeavors come from a willingness to exist in a state of uncertainty– a mental state where you don’t have the perfect line of dialogue yet or the perfect plot point, where you haven’t yet discovered what comes next, because it pushes you not to be satisfied with the easy, obvious answer, and to reach for the unique, strikingly creative one. As much as I love my outlines, I do think that’s true, at least for me. If I can let go of my desire to know everything about my story in advance, the writing of it will take me to a deeper level of understanding, one where the story becomes so much more than I ever could have planned.

What about you? Where do you fall on the Plotter/Pantser scale? Have you ever tried changing up your routine by trying one or the other?

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About Anna Elliott [2]

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen’s classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.