It’s customary to divide fiction-writers into plotters (work
it all out before you start) and ‘pantsers’ (i.e. seat of pants, just write and work out the story as you go along) and because I had so many problems with the plot of my first novel, I always considered myself to be a fully paid up member of the pants community. Even when I tried a detailed plan for Ailsa (full synopsis, three columns, four colours!) I found that it bore no fruit. I simply lost interest in writing to the plan and eventually tore it up and started the novel again. I expect this was due to the plan being deeply flawed, but it still put me off the whole planning exercise so that this time (novel no.3 – lucky for some?) I haven’t even tried.
But I happened to be browsing around the blogs this week and
first of all found another pantser (discovery writer, that sounds better!)
bemoaning her ability to get the plot sorted out, then popped over to visit old
friend Nina who has been talking about ‘plot junkies and characterphiles’.
As a pantser I felt I couldn’t possibly be a plot junkie. Surely the two are incompatible? But shock horror, I think I may be just that. I start with a situation, a setting or a theme rather than a character. And even if even if I grope around to get the story arc right, I know that this (for me) is what counts in creating a ‘real’ novel. Not that characters aren’t important. I feel as close to my heroes and heroines as any writer and have abandoned plot ideas (reluctantly!) on their behalf, but a single character is rarely my starting point.
And now that I think about it, I always do know where the story is going
in broad terms. It’s just getting there that gives me the headache!
So I’m a plot junkie with a discovery writing habit. Nasty, you may say. But one thing I have discovered – or rediscovered – as I grapplke with a new novel, is that for me the key is dialogue. Because even if I know what my MC is going to be or do, nothing much happens until they talk to someone. And when two (or more) people are in a room/railway carriage/lifeboat/launderette/kebab shop/art gallery, anything can happen. They can argue, fall in love, make a plan, tell all or reveal nothing. They might also tear a strip off someone else. And who
might that be? As soon as there’s dialogue, there’s life. The characters multiply, the scenes pile up.
My latest WIP, a historical novel, at first seemed a very different kettle of fish (oops!) Much of it involves real people and actual events. The plot, you might say, is predetermined. But in fact I’m writing it in much the same
way. The characters, in the sense of the main cast, are non-negotiable. But as
soon as they talk to each other, they are alive, to me, to each other, and hopefully
to the reader. If the dynamic is unpredictable, that’s how it should be. We
need to wonder what they might do. They might threaten to rock the boat. I might need another character to come to the rescue … and off we go again.
But this time I am exercising caution. History, as I see it, has provided me with a pretty solid story arc. The main turning points are matters of fact, their significance obvious to me at least. If I’m to make it work, I might need my characters to haud their wheesht from time to time so I can check
we’re all heading in the right direction.
9 thoughts on “Seat of pants, gift of gab”
Always inspiring, Ali!
Seat of pants or meticulous plotter, I don’t think it matters as long as the characters come alive. Then they seem to decide things for you, which is a great relief to me as often I haven’t a clue where they’re going. And yes, sometimes what they don’t say – ‘haud their wheesht’ as you so eloquently put it (wheesht is my most oft-used Scottish word in my Anglicised household) – is what makes characterisation, and ultimately, the story, leap out from the page.
Thanks for this! I don’t hear ‘wheesht’ so often, now the kids have left home.;)
I’m having to rediscover some almost forgotten vocab myself, not so much different words as how they were used. ‘Wearied’ and ‘wearying’ was used a lot by my Granny for sadness as well as tiredness. Was also fascinated as a child by ‘the morn’s morn’ for tomorrow morning! Need a trip up north to get back in the vibe!
Thanks for calling in.
For me it’s not either or, it’s both. I like the trope of writing is going on a journey; it’s helpful to have a map but don’t spend your time looking at it. Take time to admire the view.
Anyway, it’s all going to be changed because ‘writing is rewriting.’
Completely identify with the ‘writing is rewriting’ idea. IMO you can’t get it right until you’ve got something (however wrong) to work with.
It’s wonderful to hear someone else grappling with a novel in that way. I am a total grappler. Maybe that’s a category in itself?
Ha – yes, sums it up rather better I think.
I certainly find that if I plan things out in too much detail I lose the will to write. There’s something magical in the spontaneity.
Plotter or seat-of-pantser, a writer should do what is best for the story. I’ve found with every new story I have to write it differently- probably because I’m a new person when I begin a new story.
Hi – insightful comments. Yes, I suppose I’ve tackled each novel differently. Hopefully as a result of what I’ve learned!