Pantsing and Planning Can Be a Sliding Scale

Snippets of an Author’s Life: Post 12

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In novel writing, I’m not a meticulous planner at the outset; rather, a concept drafter. Once I know where the story is going and how it ends–like connecting two points, the problem (A) to the solution (B)–it makes sense for me to begin to write it. This tends to save a lot of time and effort by keeping a goal in sight rather than wandering aimlessly, yet still leaves plenty of opportunity for discovery.

I do create outlines and timelines, just not in the beginning. Directional jot notes and scenes come first; outlines come when there is a story. I work on scenes a great deal in my head–where a lot of the initial formulation and characterization take place–then write them out when I’m “in the zone,” aligned emotionally, which makes them more authentic. But things can change or evolve as I go. As the story simmers in the subconscious and on the page, backstories and motives become more defined. Sometimes characters even take control of the keyboard when they’re being written about. Outlines, whether mental or written, get revised.

For example, in Beyond the Precipice, Scott Lère’s parents weren’t supposed to be so stiff. In fact, they were never intended to appear in the story at all. But something wonderful happened during the journey of transferring the novel from mind to page: The inclusion of the Lères created a parallel between the well-to-do Lères and Willoughbys (offsetting protagonist Bret’s poor family) and, simultaneously, a contrast between the Lères and the Willoughbys in how they interacted with their family members. The latter emphasized who the Willoughbys were and why they were so special to Bret.

It is during the scene in the Lères’ living room in Riverbend, Edmonton that Bret himself becomes fully aware of these dynamics–an enlightening, since he has known the Lères for nearly half of his life but the Willoughbys for only a short time.

Introducing the Lère family in its entirety presented a triangle consisting of the differences between rich and poor as well as the similarities and differences among the rich. This dynamic augmented the story by strengthening the relationship between Bret and the Willoughbys, while illuminating the subtle but growing conflict between Bret and Scott. (Perhaps a meticulous planner would have seen something like this and accounted for it in the novel plan, but I did not. I took an accident or a whisper from the subconscious, plugged it in, and revelled in my aha moment long afterward, when I reached the part of the story that links the two scenes with an invisible thread.)

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This setup enhances the Willoughbys’ purpose in the story, helps to explain why Bret is drawn to them, and gives Bret another angle on how the rich are not always alike.

From an earlier scene in Bret and Scott Lère’s apartment off Whyte Avenue, as Bret gets ready to leave for his second day at work in Dr. Willoughby’s lab:

“So what have you found out about Kern Willoughby?” Bret asked.

“He’s kind of an icon at the hospital.” Scott gave him a hard look. “How’d you get into his lab?”

Bret shrugged. “When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

“What’s he like?”

“Strangely likable.” He stuffed his mouth and spoke around his food. “Not what I expected.”

“What did you expect? Some pompous—”

“Yeah, basically.”

Scott chuckled. “Just because a guy is rich doesn’t make him a slimeball.”

As the image of Galan formed in Bret’s mind …

At this point, in chapter four, Bret is not fully convinced by Scott’s remark. His view of well-to-do people remains defined by his self-important, controlling uncle.

In terms of characters stealing control and writing their own lines, this happened with Scott and his parents during the Lères’ living room scene (chapter 19). Since I knew what was coming later in the book, this scene somehow designed itself to set a precedent for what happened with Bret and Scott’s friendship.

Although I do write to get results, I also write because I’m compelled to. I need to put life into words, define it, present it. The process of writing–making things work–keeps me engaged. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever loved. Part of that process is the intent to deliberately plant foreshadow, create character growth, and use techniques to elicit emotional responses out of the reader, though a great deal of that happens in subsequent drafts. The first draft is a free-flow, a journey of discovery from which subsequent passes glean anything potentially useful or even surprising, conjured by what the subconscious has cooked and bubbled to the surface.

Writers form a continuum that runs from detailed planner to pantser, with most of us on a sliding scale somewhere in between. Every writer I’ve spoken with has, in some way, refined a process that is unique to him or her–a process that can even vary from book to book or genre to genre. But writers can also learn a great deal from each others’ approaches, especially when they become stuck. Sometimes more planning helps. At other times, a lack of constraint can add critical components to a story, or at least get the story flowing again. Looking at different approaches prompts us to consider other ways of doing things, which may ultimately translate into a better book.

Pantsing vs. Planning explained, with famous author examples.

About Eva Blaskovic

I am a multi-genre author of literary fiction and fantasy, and writer of non-fiction articles on parenting, writing, education, health, and travel. My background encompasses both the sciences and the arts. I teach at a specialized clinic for learning difficulties and mentor young authors. In addition to writing and teaching, my passions are weather, Indian food, gardening, and music. I have played eight musical instruments and spent many years immersed in taekwondo and karate. In my youth, I was an avid canoeist. I was born in Prague, Czech Republic, grew up in Ontario, Canada, and moved to Alberta in 1988, where I raised four children.
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5 Responses to Pantsing and Planning Can Be a Sliding Scale

  1. Pingback: Surprising Things I Learned the Year I Won NaNoWriMo | Beyond the Precipice

  2. jazzfeathers says:

    Really enjoyed reading the post. It sounds a lot like me. I normally say I’m a planning pantser, but I like your definition of concept drafter.
    I would never be able to just write, without at least a very basic outline of the story, that means, the main plotpoints in mind. But then, once I’m off and I know where I’m going (more or less) anythogn can happen 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: When Characters Become Sentient | Beyond the Precipice

  4. Pingback: A Story Is Driven By Characters, Not Plot | Beyond the Precipice

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