Plotters & Pantsers

What’s the difference between a plotter and a pantser? Perhaps I was the last to know. When novelist Toni Lea Andrews first used the terms at the recent Romance Revealed Workshop here at the Library, I said to myself, a what and a what?

The occasion was a two-hour panel discussion of the romance genre featuring Sarah Wendell of the “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” blog and romance authors Kristan Higgins and Ms. Andrews. Even if you had never read a romance novel (I may have read one), you came away from the session entertained and, indeed, enlightened about writing.

A plotter is a writer who, before starting to write, maps out every detail of his or her story: characters, plot twists, settings, perhaps passages of dialogue (or quotes, in a nonfiction work), and, of course, the ending. Toni Lea Andrews allowed as how she is a plotter extraordinaire. So is literary novelist John Irving.

A pantser, as the word implies, writes a story by the seat of his or her pants, beginning with a vague idea of a story or a character and letting them take shape and move forward at will. A writer who fits the bill, according to all I’ve heard and read about him, is crime novelist Elmore Leonard, although he does rely on background information collected by his researcher, Gregg Sutter, for accuracy and authenticity in his fiction.

Whichever way you go in your storytelling, be alert to potential pitfalls. A plotter could get so obsessed with hitting all of his or her pre-planned checkpoints that the writing itself suffers. Give yourself the freedom to be inventive with your words, sentences and paragraphs. There is more to storytelling than just meeting the criteria of a formula with stultifying prose.

A pantser could end up with pages of singing prose, colorful characters and vivid scenes that add up to a sputtering story that lacks narrative cohesion and logically escalating drama. As a result, the reader may lose interest and not be compelled the finish it. According to Andrews, one thing is certain: Pantsers spend more time revising than plotters.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you might want to try Michael Lewis’ approach. Lewis is the author of terrific, novelistic-reading, nonfiction books, including The Blind Side, from which the Academy Award-winning movie was adapted, and the just-published The Big Short, about investors who made bundles from the economic collapse by their contrarian thinking. Listening to Lewis talk about his new book in recent interviews prompted me to re-read the interview he gave about his writing methods to Robert S. Boynton in Boynton’s book The New New Journalism.

Lewis said: “I write a point-by-point outline for even the shortest piece. . . .I outline chapter by chapter, each outline consisting of an ordered list of the information, scenes, characters and details I want to include.”

Aha! Lewis is a plotter.

Boynton then asked Lewis, What is in front of you when you begin to write? “Nothing, except for the computer screen. I write from memory, as if I were writing a novel.”

Wait a second. Is he really a pantser?

In fact, Lewis’ writing routine is a plotter-pantser-plotter sandwich, if you will. He outlines (plotter), writes freely (pantser) and then, at the end of the day, “I go back and check the text against my notes to make sure the facts and quotes are right, and that I haven’t inadvertently made anything up” (plotter again).

If you are struggling with one approach, make yourself try the other, or, like Lewis, experiment with a combination. What really matters is the end result: a story, a novel (romance, crime, literary or any other category), an article, an essay, a memoir or, like Lewis’, a work of long-form narrative journalism that says what you want to say and engages your reader from the first line to the last.

—Alex McNab

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Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 11:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

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