Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Entangled Plots (or why I'm not a pantser, either)

There are two basic schools of writing: outliners and pantsers. Outliners strategize, plan out every move like an elaborate game of chess, and finally, when everything is perfect, write the book. Whenever I think about writing an outline, I hit the same block the Oracle did in The Matrix: I can't see past the decisions I don't understand. If I don't know why my MC would choose the boy I want her to choose, I can't make her do it--and I certainly don't know what she might do next! And I can't know why she'd choose him until I know what he says to her. And I don't know what he says to her until I see what else is happening in the scene! (And around we go.)

But then, when I try "discovery writing" or "pantsing," I run into dead-ends.

Ever play Entanglement? It's a very fun game with all sorts of parallels to writing. Parallels I've been dwelling on lately, instead of, you know, writing.

The object of the game is to lay out tiles so that the little red path gets as tangled as possible... without running into any walls. Sounds familiar, right? When I first started, I would spin each tile, examining carefully all the best options for maximum entanglement, make my choice, and move on to the next one. I wasn't very good at it. Then, one day I decided to stop thinking about it and randomly selected the path I would choose. Best. Score. Ever. Ever since, I do that a lot--just let the tiles fall as they may. It's a lot faster and, really, it's rather amusing to see the developing pattern lay itself out.

But then we get this problem:

There is literally nowhere to go from here. There is no way to get back to all those lovely blank tiles on the other side of the board. My score is excellent for the first half (as excellent as I get, anyway), but suddenly my game is over. Whatever I choose next will end it for me.

This is exactly what happens when I try to pants a novel. I'm writing along, enjoying the story, watching as my clever characters become more and more real... then BAM. Wall. There is no way forward without backtracking, deleting several recalcitrant character traits, and trying things another way (sadly, there is no UNDO option in Entanglement).

So I combine the two. I set benchmarks. I drive my characters toward those benchmarks, but I let them take their own way. If they like to wander too far off the path, they get a partial lobotomy, we backtrack, and we try it again. I don't let my characters take over, but if I don't understand them, I can't write them. Frustrating but true.

So what's your process?

Don't forget to call in to talk to Mary Robinette Kowal tomorrow night at 9:00 PM EDT. Go to the Farland's Authors' Advisory Conference Calls blog for details.


  1. I can't outline everything, because I feel like I wrote the book already and it takes away the fun of exploring for me. I'm a total pantser. I usually know what the ending to my story will be and I know a few large landmarks along the way. Then I set my characters loose and see how they get from point A to point E. Do I run into dead ends? Ohh, yes. But sometimes those dead ends were exactly what I needed to see how I really needed to do this. Sometimes I write myself into a box, but I've found that writing myself out of the box can give me some of the best plot/characters of the story.

    There are times I have no idea how a character could possibly get from where he is in point A all the way to where I see him at point Z. How the heck is he going to come far enough as a character that he will be able to DO what is required of him? There was one time I was very daunted by this. Then I started writing, and by the time he got to point Z, he had grown so much that it made perfect sense.

  2. Michael--I actually envy you, because in almost every other kind of writing, I outline first. Once my right brain gets involved, though, it points out that real people don't act logically. If the left brain tries to force it to create some nice scenes before the scenes that come before them are written, right brain rebels, shuts down, and goes off to pout in a corner.

    Laura--I envy you, too, because that kind of writing is so fun! The one time I tried it, though, my left brain got bored and wandered off, and then there was no one around to help me out of the box right brain wrote me into! Once I pointed out the problem to left brain, it just rolled its eyes and pointed out that, if I wanted to go forward, I would need completely different characters. Cue the lobotomies.

    So now I have to keep both halves happy or we don't go anywhere. :)

  3. I outline using the basic 12 steps of the Hero's Journey explained in my writing class just to make sure I have a complete story to tell. Then I just start writing and see what happens. This usually results in multiple tangents and a lot of extraneous material. This means that I write two or three times as much as I actually use. In my current WIP my MC got to one point and I didn't know where he was going next. I had one thought and wrote out 1000 word scene. Next day had a different thought and wrote an entirely different 1000 word scene. Another day - another 1000 word scene. On the fourth try I found out where he needed to go and wrote that 1000 word scene. I was very happy with the result, but don't think I could have gotten there without writing the same step 4 different ways to get the one I wanted.

    There is a German proverb that says "what is the use of running if it's in the wrong direction." I use outline for the direction of the story and then start running.

  4. Josh, I have to admire you--it takes a truly great author to be willing to write the same scene FOUR TIMES before he's ready to pick one and move on. I think most of us stop after one or two. You rule.

  5. Generally panster, which is surprising for me, since I'm usually such a list maker. Outlining makes me feel like I'm writing the story twice. But then, now that I've been on the editing treadmill, that doesn't seem like such a big deal.

  6. LOL--Donna, that's a great point! Why worry about writing it twice when you're going to REwrite it 50 times? (Measure twice cut once, right?) :)

  7. I can't outline. Tried it, didn't work. I can't pants. I have to know where I'm going. So I do have vague ideas of what I want to happen and then watch how it plays out. So maybe, just maybe I'm a benchmarker and now I know what it's called!

  8. Ruth: Yay! Excellent name! Benchmarkers Unite! :)

  9. I'm a pantser all the way. I do tend to write some things down though. Certain scenes that I think of while I'm driving or something. But I'm definitely a pantser. No outlining here. Although I just brainstormed a new story idea and used the Aprilynne Pike timeline method. I outlined the whole book in about 15 minutes. Never done that before...

  10. Robin - I don't know if my method is worthy of admiration. It isn't very efficient. I have merely found that I can get stuck thinking about the exact way to do something for weeks when pounding out some potentially useless prose will usually do the trick in half the time. My method - or madness - depending on your point of view.

  11. Well, Josh, at least you're not just sitting back whining about being "blocked"--you've found a way to push through it. You're also not pretending that your "useless prose" is perfect--you know it might get cut and you write it anyway. What more can any of us do? :)

  12. Chantele--I'll let Aprilynne know! I'm sure she'll be impressed. :) (Isn't she cool?)

  13. I have to say that I an am outliner. For me it has been a great way to make sure that my plot is solid. And since I am writing a series of books, it helps me make sure that I introduce things/items/ideas/plot threads that are important for future books. I not sure how one could do that successfully in a pantsing method.

    In fact, I would call my outline method extreme. I actually first outlined and then wrote those outlines in a paragraph format to make it easier to read and see how the story fits. It also makes it easy for others to review my outlines as well.

    My paragraph outlines for the series I am currently writing is actually over 100 pages, along with another document over 15 pages of back story.

    That being said I have the highest respect for those who can write without outlines.

  14. I meant to also add Robin, great blog this time, and especially the comment discussion afterwords.

  15. Thanks, Eric! David Farland has an extensive outline class and, from what I've heard, the outlines get LOOOONG. Sounds like you're on the right track. :)

  16. Wow, that game looks intimidating.

    As to panster or plotter, I'm actually a little of both. I'm mainly an organic writer. My muse is inspired through visual stimuli—I'll see something intriguing that will spur a story idea. Next, I have to motivate and get to know my main characters. After that, I research, which always births a very sparse skeleton plot. I often end up veering off of my original plot.

    That's what's nice about having it be vague, just like you w/your benchmarks. You're free to let your characters feel their way through the story.

    Great post!

  17. You say: Outliners strategize, plan out every move like an elaborate game of chess, and finally, when everything is perfect, write the book.

    I don't think that's necessarily true. I outline before I write, but it's a very loose outline. I can't go forward with everything all tied up with a pretty bow. I have to let the story happen organically. But I also can't go into it blindly. I have to know the basic points, the main disasters and how they are fixed. Those are very large, loose things that can bend all over the place. Everything else I discover as I write. :)

  18. I tried pantsing quite a bit when I first started writing, and inevitably, it screwed me every time. I can't tell you how many times I had to stop and revise, or how many entire chapters I had to delete or save in a document somewhere should I ever need them. I think it's good to have a balance between pantsing and outlining. I had to force myself to write a loose outline and figure out the most basic elements of my plot before I could start pantsing again. It's good to leave room for surprise, but you run the risk of creating major revisions and headaches for yourself if you keep the entire book a surprise. I hear some people thrive and write better that way, but for me? Never again!

  19. Anita--the game is pretty mindless, actually. I like to play it while I'm on the phone. :) (Of course, I'm more interested in watching the pretty line get all tangled, and less interested in plotting out the best way to make it MORE tangled.) Yay benchmarks!

    Michelle--you sound like a benchmarker. :) Join the club.

    Ashley--when you save your cut chapters, do you ever dream of putting them up on your blog for the edification of your future fans who will be so in love with your book they want to know Every. Single. Detail of its creation? Yeah, me, neither. I mean, that would be so totally pathetic to plan for that, right? :)

  20. Are you kidding? If I actually *had* fans and they ached to see the "deleted scenes" as a result of their DEEP, ABUNDANT love for my characters, what kind of person would I be if I denied them such a privilege?

    Obviously, I'm joking.

    But seriously... ;-)

  21. Ashley, I would never suggest you could be so insensitive as to deprive your fans of anything. I'm sure you'll be a magnanimous idol. :-D



  22. I have a visual memory and a need for organization. So it only makes sense for me to create an outline... but every time I write I want to just sit and write. It's like this whole internal battle. Here I am actually struggling with my outline. It's all good and necessary and I've come to an understanding about my writing. I need to both outline and free write to develop plot for my outline. I usually take notes and world build filling three to four composition notebooks before I'm able to write a story anyhow. So my outlining has become a combination of the two.
    Which could all change at any moment because I'm like that... contradicting.
    Thx for a fabulous post. Robin you're insights are excellent.

  23. Thanks, LC--the day writers can't change their minds about which process works best for them (and for their current WIP), is the day we all go ice skating in hell. Embrace the contradiction. :)

  24. Wow - it's like you're in my head. Seriously.

    I have this exact same frustration. I keep telling myself that if I could just outline the whole book first, I save myself endless periods of writers block. But alas, like you - I can't outline when I HAVE NO IDEA why/how characters will make certain choices. That info doesn't come until I'm writing it.

    "Good guy wins" is the closest I ever get to writing the end first. LOL. I'm experimenting with outlining by act. Once act one is written, I have a much better idea how act two will go, and so on.

    Excellent post. :)

  25. Thanks, Cheryl! It's nice to be understood. :)

    You really should listen to Aprilynne Pike's conference call for Authors' Advisory. It's a pretty good middle-of-the-road way to outline. Helped me a LOT.