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Here’s What Both Pantsing and Plotting Miss: The Real Story

photo by NCinDC via Flickr
photo by NCinDC via Flickr [1]

In January I wrote a post [2] suggesting that if some Pantsers weren’t successful, that maybe, just maybe, for those specific writers, it might be helpful to ask if Pantsing is a habit, rather than their inherent, unchangeable writing process. And, since that habit wasn’t serving them well, whether they might consider breaking it.

It was a simple question. And it stirred up quite a bit of passion and controversy, which is always a good thing. I love a spirited debate.

But an interesting thing emerged during that debate. It was assumed by many that if Pantsing was off the table, there was only one other alternative: Plotting. Many people therefore assumed that I was advocating Plotting, even though I never once mentioned Plotting or outlining.

A quick recap for those of you who aren’t familiar with these terms:

So first let me set the record straight: having worked with writers for decades, I’ve seen that Plotting, as the very first step in writing a novel, is one of the most counterproductive things a writer can do. And, let me say even more strongly than I did before: for most people, Pantsing is not nearly as productive as it’s touted to be – and very often is downright damaging.

[pullquote]Both Pantsing and Plotting, by definition, bypass the key element around which a story is built.[/pullquote]

This is not because the people in either of these camps weren’t good writers, or didn’t have a splendid story to tell – which is what made it all the more heartbreaking. It simply had to do with the nature of what a story is, and the fact that a lot of the common wisdom about writing is wrong.

However, as I said before, if either Pantsing or Plotting is working well for you – great! I am not for a minute suggesting you stop, or casting any doubt whatsoever on your process. In fact, I’m really looking forward to seeing your novel in the window of my local bookstore.

But for those of you who are not quite so sure about your process, or who are wondering why you’re not achieving the result you know you’re capable of, here’s what I am suggesting:

Both Pantsing and Plotting, by definition, bypass the key element around which a story is built. It’s the element that drives every story forward, which is why both methods often yield manuscripts that are primarily just a bunch of things that happen, rather than an actual story. It’s a big part of why agents reject 99% of submissions, and why most self-published novels sell fewer than 100 copies, and it’s simply this: your protagonist’s inner issue, her inner agenda, and the story-driven evolution of her internal belief system, is where the real story lives.

And lest it sound like I’m saying that Pantsing and Plotting are inherently bad no matter what, I’m not. ‘Cause the good news is that by shifting focus, and drilling down to your protagonist’s inner issue before you begin writing or outlining, you’ll find places where both Pantsing and Plotting come in very handy. Turns out understanding the specific “why” behind your protagonist’s inner issue won’t hamper your creativity at all, but will ground it. And in so doing, will cut down on the time you spend rewriting, give your story more depth, and make you a much more confident writer. Here’s the scoop:

Your Story’s Third Rail

What drives your protagonist forward is her internal agenda: she arrives on page one already wanting something very badly, and with an inner issue – a misbelief – that she has to overcome in order to have a chance of getting it. Overcoming this internal misbelief is what the story is about. The plot is constructed to force her to confront it — which is where the struggle comes in — ultimately causing her to change, internally. Otherwise, that thing she wants? Even if she gets it, it’ll taste like ashes.

Think of your protagonist’s internal struggle as your story’s third rail – the live wire that gives meaning and juice to everything. Which means that everything that happens in the plot must in some way “touch” it – causing the protagonist to grapple with it as she makes sense of what’s happening, and decides what to do as a result.

[pullquote]Readers don’t come to story for what happens on the surface (think: the plot), they come to get insight into what goes on beneath the surface.[/pullquote]

Can you see where this is going? If you don’t know what she wants, why she wants it, what her misbelief is, and why she believes it, you’re just writing a bunch of surface things that happen. Readers don’t come to story for what happens on the surface (think: the plot), they come to get insight into what goes on beneath the surface.

In other words, the story isn’t about the plot, nor is it about the surface decisions your protagonist makes; it’s about why she makes those decisions and how she changes as a result. To quote T.S. Eliot: “The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” Likewise Proust: “The true voyage of discovery is not in seeking new places, but in having new eyes.”

How the Brain Rolls

This isn’t an arbitrary writing rule, or a “formula” – it’s how the brain rolls. It’s how we’re wired to make sense of, well, everything. Whenever we make a decision – from what kind of marmalade to buy to whether or not to leave our spouse – we do two things: we scan our specific past experiences to decode the present, then we leap to the future, to assess how the consequences of the decision we’re about to make will affect us: Will this new rind-studded, luscious-looking orange marmalade taste as good as it looks, or will those rind-bits stick to my teeth? Will life without my spouse be a major why-did-I-wait-so-long relief, or will it prove that old adage, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?

[pullquote]The story isn’t about the plot, nor is it about the surface decisions your protagonist makes; it’s about why she makes those decisions and how she changes as a result.[/pullquote]

Thus when it comes to writing a story, the first order of business is to figure out the very specific events in the past that your protagonist will rely on to decode the present, and then use them as a yardstick to gauge the possible consequences of her actions. This is something she’ll do at every turn — that is, draw conclusions about everything she encounters, and not in general, but in terms of how it affects her, given her specific agenda. In other words: the past is the lens through which your protagonist will see the world and evaluate the meaning of everything that happens to her.

Plotting Gets It Backward

Can you see how Plotting gets it backward? Plotting begins by mapping out the surface events of the story with no regard to the protagonist’s very specific past. Problem is, the events in the plot must be created to force the protagonist to make a specific internal change. And that means that you need to know, specifically, what is going to change inside her before you begin creating a plot, and for Pantsers, before you begin writing. You have to know – from the get go – how your protagonist sees the specific world she’s going to have to confront: What were her past experiences, and what do they tell her things mean? Where is she misreading what’s happening, and, as important, why is she misreading it?

Plotting won’t get you there, because it’s about outside events. Pantsing won’t get you there because you begin writing forward without a clue about your protagonist’s specific past or how he or she’s seeing the world (except, perhaps, in very general terms) before you let ‘er rip on that first page.

So, Where Do You Begin?

First, you need to have a sense of what story you’re telling. What’s your point? What will your protagonist be grappling with? Armed with that fledgling info (and yes it will evolve as you dive into it), your goal is to create the lens through which your protagonist – and your reader – will see the world that your story will then plunk them into. I’ve gone into great detail about how to do exactly that already on Writer Unboxed: Story First, Writing Second [3].

The good news is that, once you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for in your protagonist’s past, you can do a bit of Pantsing. Look at it this way: Many writers think of Pantsing as Creativity, Unleashed. But here’s the thing: creativity needs context – it needs a leash. Creativity without context is like a two-pound jar of peanut butter without the jar. It gets all over everything, and makes a big fat hard-to-clean-up mess. But if you have a context – if you know what you’re looking for in your creative brainstorming, and why you’re looking for it? Let ‘er rip!

Same is true for Plotters. You’ll no longer be tempted to create a surface plot — that is, a bunch of things that happen – just to see how your still unfleshed-out protagonist will respond when tossed into the maze. Instead you’ll be able to construct a plot that will force her to make the internal change you know she needs to go through. And since you’ve already dug around in her past, you’ll have a lot of specifics that play forward, so you’ll know what needs to happen, and where your protagonist is going to balk, feint to the left, or charge full steam ahead – often in the wrong direction, which makes for a great story.

That’s why writing forward once you know your protagonist’s inner issue will make you a more confident writer, whether you’re a Pantser or a Plotter. After all, if you don’t know the specifics of what your story is about, how your protagonist sees the world, what she wants, what’s holding her back, or, let’s face it, what your point is, it’s so easy to end up writing in circles, hoping all that will somehow appear. That’s no fun, and can make for cranky writers. ‘Cause as Seneca so astutely says, “If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.”

So, before you Pants or Plot, why not spend some time developing your story’s the third rail? Who knows, it might become a habit!

About Lisa Cron [4]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [5] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [6] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [7]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [8] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [9]