I’ve taught writing workshops for quite a few years now and I’ve noticed that writers most often identify themselves as either pantsers or plotters. I’ve also noticed that there seems to be a fair degree of defensiveness around the self-identification…both from pantsers and from plotters.
What I’ve discovered over the years I’ve spent teaching and editing is that there is not a great deal of difference between those who pants and those who plot.
If one were in the kitchen with a plotter, the plotter would have the recipe for the fancy dish they were creating at the ready and they would have all of the ingredients prepped, measured, and ready to go into the mixing bowl…much as we see on cooking shows.
The pantser might have the recipe committed to memory. They would have all of the ingredients in the house but not necessarily on the counter. They probably wouldn’t have them measured out and prepped, ready to go into the mixing bowl.
Both the plotter cook and the pantser cook have the potential to turn out an equally yummy dish…they just have different approaches.
The plotter cook who has planned their cooking down to the tiniest detail is most likely to turn out a finished product most like the one the recipe author envisioned.
The pantser cook who is less tied to the written recipe and the pre-prepped ingredients might be more likely to experiment. Maybe they’d add an extra handful of nuts…or a bit more vanilla and a bit of nutmeg. Their finished product might be equally good as the plotters…but the pantser cook is less tied to the written recipe and the plan of execution so is prone to experiment more.
The same is true of plotter and pantser writers.
Plotters tend to know a lot about plot and how it is supposed to work and they tend to be fairly analytical in terms of imposing structure on their story people. This focus on the structure and imposing the structure is done ahead of the writing and can dispose plotters to characters that come out according to the written plan, but if the plan doesn’t adjust once the writing begins the rigid imposition of the structure can make the characters come across as wooden, as if they are acting more because it is time for them to do something to advance the plot a certain way than because they are actually motivated to make certain decisions or to take certain actions.
Plotters can also have problems as they begin writing when their characters do not grow at the speed they originally planned. In this instance the character may grow faster or slower than the author planned and this can make it seem as if the character’s motivation is out of step with the plot.
Pantsers who are more likely to experiment with an idea that flits by can fall into the common pitfall of having a number of scenes which may show the character or which may show aspects of the character the author wants to show but which do not move the plot forward.
Pantsers can also suffer from plots which change direction suddenly. It can sometimes seem as if the front half of the book starts out being about the development of the romantic relationship. Then in the middle a mystery is introduced and the second half of the book is about solving the mystery and the two story arcs aren’t developed to support each other.
I would argue that plot works or doesn’t work exactly the same whether you approach it as a plotter or as a pantser.
The thing that is important therefore is understanding how the pieces of the plot (and most importantly the things that influence plot) work together to form plot. Whether you figure out all of these connections and commit them to a paper plan before you start writing or whether you simply think about these things and use them as a guiding force during the writing doesn’t really matter a great deal. What matters is internalizing an understanding of how the pieces work together so that you can use that understanding to bring the pieces of the story together in a way that makes sense for the story.
When I think about plots I think of them with a couple of analogies. As those of you who’ve taken my classes know, I love analogies. They make the complex simple and easy to grasp. The first way that I envision plot is as similar to the wire armature that an artist might use when creating a clay sculpture. Many artists begin clay sculptures by creating a wire armature. The wire armature provides a structure and a form upon which to build the layers of clay that together form the finished sculpture. The armature provides a shape and in many cases strength. It shows the artist where the sculpture is bigger, broader and where it is smaller and more narrow.
Writers use plot in much the same way that artists use an armature. An armature is like a wire plan for a sculpture. A Plot is the literary equivalent. It provides a form…a path…a structure in much the same way.
I also see plot as being like a chain with interconnecting parts. One part links/motivates the next part and so on in a chain that runs through the story connecting all of the parts. I’ve sometimes referred to the plot as a breadcrumb trail through the story…or as a series of stepping stones that together create the path of the story.
There are many ways of looking at plot…and of looking at and organizing the plot and the functions it performs.
How do you envision plot?