Sunday, March 17, 2013
The Perils of Pure Pantsing
James Scott Bell
There are pansters. And then there are pure pantsers.
Pantsers (derived from the idiom "seat-of-the-pants," as in performing an act solely by instinct) are those writers who do not plan (or plan very little) before they write. These folk love to frolic in the tulips of the imagination. "We get to fall in love with our words every day," they say. "We are intuitive. Don't rain your outlines on our parade!"
Okay, well, that's one approach to writing a book, and there is nothing sinful about it. Get that? I am not saying to you that this is in any way an invalid method of finishing a manuscript—so long as you recognize the hard work that must follow to shape a readable novel out of this mass of pantsed material. But to any writer or teacher who says writing this way is not only best, but easy, feed them this phrase: Pants on fire!
Then there are the "pure pantsers," a more radical ilk. These are the ones who want to throw away all thought of structure, whether at the beginning or the end of the process. They find structure formulaic and offensive to their artistic sensibilities. They stand on their tables and shout, Off with the shackles of what's been taught all these years! Throw away the tools of the craft! We are the true writers around here! We laugh at you structurally imprisoned slaves! Join us! (Perhaps we should call this the Occupy Storytelling movement?)
So let's have some plain talk about pantsing.
In The Liar’s Bible, Lawrence Block recalls writing one of his Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries. Larry wrote and wrote without an outline or even the thought of one, then looked up from his manuscript one day and observed:
I had incidents. I had plot elements. I had characters in search of a story. But all manner of things were happening in my book and I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on. Why had a man named Onderdonk inveigled Bernie into appraising his library? What were hairs from a golden retriever doing in the cuffs of a corpse’s pants? Who was the young woman Bernie ran into in the Kroll apartment, and how did she fit into what was going on? Who had stolen Carolyn’s cat, and how, and why? What connected the Mondrian in Onderdonk’s apartment, which someone else had stolen, with the one in the Hewlett Museum, which Bernie was supposed to steal in order to ransom the cat? If I couldn’t answer any of these questions, who could? And if nobody could, how could I keep on writing the book?...
For a time I persisted, telling myself to Trust The Process, and feeling all the while like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis. Then, with 175 pages written and a maximum of 75 left in which to Wrap Things Up, I stopped writing and threw up my hands. And my lunch.
All pantsers face this at some point. They have to wade into that mass of verbiage and excreta and figure out what's good, what's dreck, what fits, what doesn't, where the story is going and how to help it get there. But if they have been told to "forget about structure" they are lost at sea in a leaky boat with no navigation tools.
Sometimes I have to fire up my rescue dinghy and motor out there with a life jacket.
The other day I consulted with a #1 New York Times bestselling author. She called on me because she's a fan of Plot & Structure and needed help getting a novel idea into shape. The book was fighting her and she had pages due her publisher.
So we sat down for three hours and hashed it out. It was easy duty for me because she gets structure. She's studied it. She's used it. She knows it. And her book is going to be killer because of it.
After that meeting I had another consultation, this with a new writer. He has a pantser's mind, and it shows. He writes reams and reams, and his imagination soars . . . but he keeps going off on tangents (a fancy term for rabbit trails to hell). Ideas burst out of him, but he has no idea what to do with them, how to form them into a coherent story. When I sat down with him he said with obvious frustration, "I know I can write, but I don't know where this story is going!"
So I walked him through some key questions, based on what I call "signpost scenes." These are key scenes in a well-structured story, scenes you can write (even pants!) toward as you move along. After I prodded him with a few "What ifs," he started to get it. He began to see the structure of the whole laid out in his mind. He was excited. He could feel the strength that structure gave him, and the direction: he now knows what kind of scenes to write so they are organic and related to the plot. He is not just spinning his scribal wheels. (And he really can write. His story is going to be killer, too).
So, dear friends, I am not telling you not to pants your way through a manuscript. I am telling you that at some point you've got to face structure because if you don't, you're going to end up with a novel that doesn't sell, except by accident. (Yes, accidents happen, but that's no way to build a career).
Sure, there are some writers who say they don't ever think about structure and they do just fine. I believe about ten percent of them. The ones I believe are the lucky ones. They can intuit their way to a novel that works. Maybe even on the first draft (you can choose to hate Lee Child at this point). But the structure is always there, even if they don't plan for it. They've simply got it in their writing bones.
But the overwhelming majority of authors need to study and utilize structure and technique. I recall a sad story about a talented writer (his prose was superb) who inked a deal for a three-book thriller series. The first book came out and bombed, and as a consequence the big publisher let the other two "die on the vine."
I read that first book and my heart just sank for the guy, because his structure was off. He made some obvious craft mistakes up front which resulted in a dull first act (which you really want to avoid in the thriller genre). I wish I could have been his editor, because with a little help so much of the trouble could have been avoided.
Here's the key to everything: you must put your original voice and vision and style and spice and characters and love and passion into a story that, structurally, helps readers feel what you want them to feel.
That's what the craft of structure is about. It's not to limit you, the artist. It's to set free your story so an actual audience can enjoy it.
So go ahead and pants your way through a first draft if you like. But after that put on bib overalls and get your tools out and start working on the structure.
You may wish to ignore this advice. You may seek to pitch a tent in Occupy Storytelling Park, grow a beard, and rail at the passing pedestrians. But understand this: several of them will be writers who know structure and are on their way to the bank to cash their checks.