Thursday, September 9, 2010

Plotting For Pantsers

Those of you who know me know I am about as close to pure pantser as a writer who produces coherent stories can be. I often have no idea what's going to happen past the next chapter or so, and only a vague notion of how I'm going to get from there to the ending - if I know what the ending is supposed to be.

For those of us who plot by the seat of our pants (pantsers), it's a fairly common experience. It's also why plotters think pantsers can't carry a plot in a bucket. Of course, those of us who plot in detail (something I personally can't do) have nice detailed outlines and they know beforehand what's going to happen - so those fortunate souls probably look at pantsers like me with complete incomprehension anyway.

So how can a pantser plot? One option is to ask Pratchett how he does it (he's probably the most prominent pantser in the genre at the moment) - but he's probably not going to be able to tell you. See, the biggest difference between plotters and pantsers that I can see is that for plotters it's all up front in the conscious brain. Pantsers just about everything is subconscious until it needs to be made conscious (usually while you're writing it, sometimes later than that). I'll find myself dropping something in for no reason I can see - and then later it turns out to have been key foreshadowing.

Anyway, here are some of the things I do in lieu of having a carefully planned out plot. I try to have a very good idea what drives my characters, even when they're being recalcitrant. I look for at least one overriding need which they're going to try to meet. In Impaler, Draculea's strongest need is to protect his family - a need which is so strong he'll risk everything on the slim chance of success - not least because there is no other option.

Which is - for me at least - the key to plotting. Once I know what a character needs most, I arrange to remove the options they have of getting it to drive them into the method that will challenge them most. Impaler was easy - it was all historically there. For other books, I've used weather, other characters, anything environmental I can so that the only choice they've got is the one that leads to the end. Sometimes, if I have a character with a strong sense of duty I can use that instead - the character's own nature will push him or her into situations that force the plot.

Another technique is to borrow from the world of psychology. I hope you'll forgive the digression into what's only a short distance removed from pop psychology, because it does make a handy tool to figure out what that oh-so-irritating character will do next.

What I'm talking about is Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, which is at its core the simplest commonsense. The most basic human needs are for food, safety, and shelter - not necessarily in that order. If those aren't satisfied, higher order needs will be ignored in favor of meeting the lower order needs. So, starve your character, and his most urgent priority will be food. Put him at immediate risk of his life, and he'll do his damndest to survive. Strand him in the middle of winter, and he'll focus on finding somewhere out of the weather. And so forth. You can drive a plot a long way by this method, throwing obstacles that force your main character to fulfill a basic need in a way that will make their real goal harder to achieve.

Another useful technique is to re-use the minor characters, letting them help or hinder the main as the need arises. Pratchett uses CMOT Dibbler - and his many avatars - this way. Dibbler is mostly a background noise character, but he's always there and can be relied on to complicate things, drop a useful or frustrating hint, and sell food items of dubious origin. Pratchett could have worked with anonymous food vendors, but with Dibbler, he doesn't need to, and he has quite a bit of layered information in the things Dibbler does.

All of these things can help, but there's no real substitute for understanding plot structure. The thing with pantsers is, we need to understand it at a conscious level as well as an instinctive one. I use that order because that's the order I learned plotting. I read so much I have a built in grasp of what plot structure should look like. The result is that I'll naturally spawn intricately layered plots without really understanding what the heck is going on until - in extreme cases - I've finished writing the book. This isn't a good thing - the Epic With Everything is 160k words, and was written while I was still in uber-stripped-down style with next to no setting. Properly cleaned up and expanded there's at least three novels crammed into it, all of them hopelessly intertwined. Maybe one day I'll get good enough to tease out the structure of the thing and make it work as separate novels.

By learning plot structure at a conscious level, I have a better idea what's happening, so I can consciously shape what I'm writing to improve the pacing and foreshadowing in what I do.

What are some other ways pantsers can improve plotting?


Ben Godby said...

I like to throw in wild and wacky stuff and see what happens. This can, of course, backfire, but I've had a lot of success with it--even when the details I possess are scanty.

For example, in my current work I just threw in a pair of extra-terrestrial cyborg secret agents. One of them is sterotypically Italian, and the other is equally-so French; they come from a space station casino. They desperately want to acquire an object in the possession of one of the protagonists.

When I thought of this idea, I didn't even know what the object in question was. But that came--from the seat of my pants. As I wrote these characters into the story, their existence justified itself made closed loops with the other loose ends I had created. Also, they took on real personalities instead of the stereotypical ones that leapt immediately from my brain.

In other words, I find that if I "pants it," I create a lot of random things, but they end up in agreement at the end because all the loose strings sort of magnetize each other and hitch up. The characters also become more real, because I allow them to become themselves.

Great post, Kate!


MataPam said...

I generally start with an end in view, sometimes that changes, more often it's the only fixed point in the whole concept.

I find outlining (in a very undetailed manner) mostly useful when I'm in the middle of the story already, and having trouble seeing how to get to where I'm aiming.

Here's an example of my version of outlining what will probably wind up being three chapters:

1- Smugglers meet Harnay. He admits to taking some of their supplies further afield. Laughs as he refuses to let them compete with him, refuses to help them through the Corridor. He runs a chant and dance, bringing up a sizable chunk of magic, to their astonishment. Drawn by the magic, the Oners find them just in time to become the targets of the magic.

2- Smugglers follow Harnay on horse path through mountains. Harnay has decided that one of the teenage girls is just what he wants, and lets them track him.

3- Oners get their trucks restarted and detour through the road-pass, confident of their ability to beat the horses to Tannay. They underestimate the speed of the Fallen horses. They swing back to the west, only to find they've missed the smugglers, and they have to detour further

This basically solved a tangle about how to get all three groups to point A at the same time for what I had thought was going to be the first fight. Sometimes I have to withdraw from the writing fugue and plot out chunks like this.

Daniel Casey said...

What a good post. I'll be thinking about the ramifications of this one all day. Thanks Kate.

Being one who tries to obsessively plot out the direction and waypoints of a story I am trying to tell, I have no idea how to improve plotting. Most of the time I usually end up with a map (plot) of where I am hoping to end up and then, in sitting down to actually write the dang story, I end up with an "I'm going that way>>" by one or more often several of the main characters, so the plot is hopelessly discarded, leaving only a vague impression of where I was hoping to go and why.

@Ben: Oddly enough the metaphor of all the loose ends tying themselves up makes sense. Often when I'm pushing a story past 10,000 words, it comes out looking like a much tattered blanket that somebody has gone to the trouble of tying all the lose strings up, and the end result is a ball of material.

Heck, in a recent 60k plus novel (it's not done yet.. sigh) I was dragging in a strapping young man as the other half of a love interest for the protagonist, but he had the nerve to bring along his not so timid and retiring girlfriend. It makes stuff interesting, tricky, convoluted, but interesting.

Anonymous said...

I'm getting better at pantsing and I realize that pantsing may be my nature. I've realized that if I can throw an obstacle in the way of MC that I can (within reason) fix it any way I want's fiction, after all. I was trained in journalism where the story was what the story was. There were no options in how to tell the story. But with fiction, as long as it's not the Deus Ex Machina thing, I can fix the problem any way I want. I might have to go back and add a little foreshadowing or put a path for the solution to happen earlier in the story, but it's still my story. The freedom boggles my mind.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I don't want to be a pantser. I like my little ordered plots. I'm going to hold my breath until I can use them again.

The last book I wrote, I had no idea how it ended until a chapter away. This is Not Good.

And in Darkship Thieves a violin dropped in out of nowhere. Worse, it figures in the next couple of books. Do you know what that does to a control freak like me?

MataPam said...

Ha! You deserve all the violins available, for telling me about editing by reading the &^%$ thing backwards. THIS IS NOT FUN!

I wanna go pantsing! I want to add #11 to the stack of novel sized stuff that I ought to do this to.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually I think that was Monkey who said to do that. I don't do it on my books.

Chris McMahon said...

In the case of a pantser, I think it is very much related to character. If you know your character, and their story, then their arc looks realistic.

A plot is merely a series of events. If those events are teased out organically through multiple re-drafts and non-linear scene-sketching, it does not make any difference at the end.

Having said that - I find pantsers often excel at hook, but let me down at the conclusion.

Stephen Simmons said...

I don't know which I am, yet. The SF work that I've submitted Volume One of ended up being almost entirely pantsing, even though I *thought* I had a "plot outline" when I started writing it. The fantasy WIP, OTOH, I've plotted heavily (I might even say obsessively), since it has five timelines moving in parallel that I have to keep track of ... but I still find myself blithely following the Characters off the reservation as I work to turn that outline into prose, then tweaking the other threads to adapt to what the Characters have changed ...

MataPam said...


I should have known that reading backwards would have come from He Who Hangs Upside Down.

Violins . . . interesting. Is your subconscious trying to tie the different books together? Brains are such odd things.

Al.X. Ross said...

I know the beginning and a possible end when I start writing, sometimes I know a few in between scenes that needs to happen.

The road leading to them is led by my fingers typing.

I think one possible advantage is, that the reader will not know what to expect on the journey you take them on.

Brendan said...

The characters I find most interesting(or annoying depending on well/badly they are written) are those who ignore Maslow. What makes a person run into a burning building to rescue a stranger, or starts the fire in the first place so to be seen rescuing a stranger? These people become our heroes and villains.

Kate said...

Thanks for all the interesting perspectives, and sorry for not getting back sooner - I've been travelling all day and have just slowed down enough to actually go check the blog.

Welcome to those who haven't posted here before or are new to the world of Mad Geniuses.

Ben, Matapam, Daniel... Oh, heck, just about everyone - I've found pantsing can add a certain richness to plots, so long as you don't let it get out of control and end up with a meandering mess that has no idea where it's going or what it's doing. Kind of like surfing a tsunami, especially when your character decides no, he's not doing THAT, he's doing THIS instead.

Ben Godby said...

Kate... I'm... going to have steal that tsunami metaphor.