Making Stuff Up: Planning, Pantsing, and Me
by Eric Garrison
In any writing circle, writers, especially novelists, self-identify as planners or pantsers. It seems to be as fundamental a division as eye color, handedness or Star Trek vs Star Wars fandom.
Planners want to know every detail of the story’s path before they start to write. They do charts of story arcs, character arcs, do questionnaires to flesh out character histories and family trees. The framework of their outlines is as detailed and solid enough to make a computer programmer cheer with recognition. It’s sensible and has many advantages. The writer need not keep all those details in her head. She can refer back to it later if the main character’s cousin’s dog’s breed gets forgotten by Chapter 37. Often, the book’s synopsis can be created with little effort from this planning.
There are many varieties of planner, from simple outliner to fans of Scrivener software to devotees of the Snowflake Method. I’d only recently heard about the Snowflake Method, it’s intriguing and seems like a wonderful way to approach a big project by successive approximations, each pass adding and refining the story more detail until you have a novel. I may have to try it sometime.
On the other side of the coin are the pantsers. Writing by the seat of the pants is the oldest form of the art, predating the written word. I was at a writer’s retreat once, and sat in slack-jawed awe, listening as one of the other writers there spun a story *live* for all of us sitting around. Just made it up on the spot. No notes, no paper, no computer, nothing but her brain and her voice. And it was good. Sure, had it been written down, it would have needed editing and trimming and such to make it more readable and suitable for publication. But this was a raw, improvisational exercise that held the room spellbound as the oral story unfolded.
My first couple of novels, including Four ’til Late, were entirely pantsed. With Four ’til Late, I started out with a concept: an amateur ghost hunter protagonist and his friends set out on a haunted road trip. I had no idea what was causing the haunting at first, all I knew was they’d be beset by supernatural troubles the whole way from Indianapolis to New Orleans. A couple of chapters in, after the characters interacted with each other, I discovered what kind of people they were, what the main character’s history with each was, and this made the source of the hauntings more obvious to me. All I had to do was steer the story toward the hazy ending this suggested, and with each passing chapter, it became more and more inevitable in my head.
Of course, a pantser isn’t free at that ending. No, instead of doing all the structural work up front, they save it for the end. Having made up a full story, they can go back and revise and refine the story, hack out parts that don’t fit, build up new parts to better support the ending, and so on.
Both methods require some form of this. Beta readers help reveal parts of the story that are clear to the author but not so clear to the reader. Editing helps refine both awkward parts of the story and the grammar, spelling/typos, and general language polishing.
I said my first couple of books were pantsed. I have not become a detailed planner, but I’ve seen the value of at least a little preparation before starting down the road to writing the novel. I do what I call laying down rails for the story to run along. Similar to the Snowflake Method, I start out very rough, just an idea of a beginning/middle/end in three acts, then I break those down into smaller pieces, what I think will become chapters. At the very least, this grocery list approach to sketchy outlining lets me know what comes next when I find myself stalling out on forward momentum writing. Pantsing has that risk, and when I wrote Reality Check, my outline was TOO sketchy and I almost gave up on it. Instead, I wrote a grocery list outline for the rest of the book and got my story back on rails and regained my momentum.
So am I a Pantser or a Planner? I’d say I’m still a Pantser at heart, but I like those rails to run my story on. If it jumps the track, it’s usually because the story seemed too forced. So, I’ll stop at the at point, see where the new direction is taking me, and lay down new rails. I know my way isn’t for everyone, but I thought I’d share to show there’s not just two ways to approach storytelling. There are many, within and outside of the two broad categories.