Plotting vs pantsing*, which is best?
There’s a long answer and a short answer for this. If one works for you, it’s clearly better than the other. But what does “work” mean? If you do have a preferred method and a long string of books and stories out, keep going! Clearly, you’re awesome. If you have a preferred method and random acceptances within a larger body of rejected work, maybe give the other a try.
I’ve tried sitting down and plotting out my novel, even in series where I knew the characters and the world and the overall problem. I’ve never followed a synopsis past the first bend. Bright Side of Midnight required a synopsis before I got the contract for it, and I wish I’d kept a copy of it because the only part of the book I kept from it were the names.
Personally, in my opinion and as I see it (is that enough disclaimers?) I don’t think the average author starting off can sit down and write out the entire plot of a hundred thousand word novel and not follow it off a cliff. Beginning a book is easy, but muddling through the middle and the end is where books fall apart, and they can fall apart whether the book is meticulously planned out or pantsed the hell out of.
So what goes wrong? Simply put, not nearly enough things. If you’re Jonathan Kellerman and you’re writing a book a year for a million plus bucks, you can have your book be about two guys who goes places and talk to people and get the next clue for the next place you got to be and still make the bestseller list. How? I have no idea. I do know that I used to buy the guy’s work in hardcover as a starving student back before the million dollar contract and now I don’t even get his books out of the library. I remember the first time I read him italicising the important thing that the person said in chapter three that made everything fall together and I felt personally cheated that I had paid attention and remembered that plot point, but that the author automatically assumed I wouldn’t be. So that was it with Mr. Kellerman and I. We started out great. I remember hopping a bus to get the next four books in the series to get me through the weekend on a Friday night at 8:27 pm back when malls closed at nine with my next door neighbour across the hall in residence, to disinterest in just over a decade.
If you’re not a bestselling author, though, you’re probably not going to get away with the going somewhere and talking to people plot, and yet I see it over and over again in unpublished work. It doesn’t matter if I’m reading what genre. It’s absolutely telling the reader what happened in a showy kind of way, and readers are on to you. Whether you plan or pants, don’t do that.
We all can quote “show don’t tell” to each other until the cows come home, but that means you can’t show the reader being told something important. Every point your main character has to learn should be shown to the reader. I think everyone gets one tell, whether they talk to the old man or woman, go to the library or google something, the main character can look up one important detail, but everything else is just too simple. Nothing is worse than having the main character remember something that they have always known as the climax of the book. Nothing makes me want to throw a book against the wall than having the main source of tension being a brain fart that they haven’t remembered something up to the critical point.
When you go back and read your novel, be extra careful to see that you haven’t done the discuss, action, debrief, discuss plot. That’s when characters discuss what they are going to do in chapter X, do it in chapter X+1, debrief each other as to what they did in chapter X+2, discuss what they are going to do next in chapter X+3, do it in chapter X+4, discuss what they did in chapter X+5… and so on and so forth. It’s really easy to do, especially if you have really chatty or snarky characters, but if you keep track of what your characters actually DO each chapter Not what they talk, argue or explain, what they physically *do* in each chapter. If you get a lot of discussion without much happening, you have a problem. It’s not impossible to have an exciting book where characters do nothing but talk, it’s just a lot more difficult to do well enough to interest the reader.
I’m not saying that each chapter has to have the world at stake, but in filthy commercial fiction, the reader is reading for the dopamine rush that they are going to get from your work that means they’ve put down the internet, their game, television, movies, or doing something outside with other people. They’ve committed not just their after tax dollars, most of them are also giving you their after-work hours. You have to give them something back for that time, and it’s your characters sitting around talking, you really, really, really have to be good. Donald Maass says in Writing the Breakout Novel that the only thing that can happen in an argument is that one character can change their mind. There may be a couple times in a book where that is a significant plot point, but it certainly can’t carry the darn thing. Of course there are a lot of books that are about people talking. I know that. I’m not writing to the author who can make people standing around talking in a room exciting. I’m talking to the 99% of writers that can’t, and especially to the 33% of writers out there who think they can. You can’t. Because if you can, you have, and if you have, you’re not reading this.
So whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, plan on things actually happening on the page that are exciting. I know that seems so stupid it doesn’t deserve to be written down, but you would be shocked at the number of manuscripts I have read where the exciting bits either happen off screen or, worse, before the book began. In a trilogy, you get maybe one time where you can leave it to the readers imagination at just how awesome/gory/gross/amazing something is. The rest of the time, having the exciting things happen on the screen is why they pay you the big bucks. Unless you’re Diana Wynne Jones. In which case you can write entire series where the most exciting things happen after the book is over, but the way you write is so awesome, no one even notices. The Dalemark series will always be awesome.
So whether you plot before you write or plot while you’re writing, it doesn’t change the fact that books should have things that happen on the page. A lot of people talk about the three act plot arc, and that’s fine, but writing second acts is a really hard thing to do. I like to think of it as movements. You have the beginning of the beginning, the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end, and the end of the end. By the end of the beginning, you have all your pieces on the board. Like a closing argument, anything that is added on at this point is a god-in-the-box when it comes to plot. If the beginning is all about making the world seem huge, moving from the end of the beginning to the beginning of the end is when you start making the world small again. In the second half, you’re just tying up loose ends. By the end of the end, the vast majority of your story should be told but for the few loose ends you’ve left for potential sequels. Each book, however, has to have an end of the end that feels worth the beginning of the beginning, like a mathematical equation.
Can you keep that all in mind while you pants your way from the beginning to the end? It can be done. We’ll talk about how in Part Two.
*Pantsing, aka flying by the seat of your pants. Not planning. Not necessarily a bad thing.