When you write, do you prefer to outline beforehand? Or write by the seat of your pants?
I go for a walk without a map and discuss plotting versus pantsing. Beware: heavy-handed metaphors ahead!
Hello folks, Mark Stay here. I’m on a walk today.
One of the things I want to talk about today is plotting versus pantsing. Something that’s been on my mind quite a bit. And I’m on a walk because, and you should be aware of this, there are some heavy-handed metaphors on their way, because I’m going on this journey today and I have no idea where I’m going. Hey, hey, hey. Plotting, pantsing, eh?! Anyway, so let’s get on with it.
So, yeah , let’s define some terms first. So, a plotter is someone who outlines before they write. A pantser is somebody who writes by the seat of their pants. And this term was completely new to me before I started the podcast I hadn’t heard of it before. I think it’s an Americanism, frankly. But yeah, it kind of makes sense. You know, there are people who make it up as they go along. And I’ll be honest, I was, uh… the idea of that always kind of terrified me and I was always a very big outliner. And anyone who’s listened to the bestseller experiment podcast will know that I got quite a bollocking for that from Ben Aaronovitch, because my outline was, well, for Back to Reality that I’d written with Mark Desvaux was some 50-odd-thousand words long. Which is, to be fair, is quite a lot. And it was quite a wake-up call for me. In my defence my background’s in screenwriting and in screenwriting, you have to outline everything because you need to serve stuff up to directors and producers, pitching stuff that you haven’t actually written yet. I’ve done it. Just this week, I put together a 10-page outline for a TV show for the director to see. Now, I’d rather write that 10-page outline than a 50-page pilot show that he then doesn’t like at all, you know, so it makes a lot of sense to do that, certainly in the film world. And certainly if you have a deal with a publisher, they’re gonna ask to see synopses upfront, but not big ones, usually just three paragraphs tops, usually. So, you know, you do have to outline a bit and certainly Ben Aaronovitch says he does, like, a page. You know, before he writes anything and other authors we’ve spoken to, people like Martina Cole, you know, they do a page. The important thing is they have an ending. They know where they’re going. They know where the protagonist is going. Anyway, back to me. and my fifty thousand word outline.
Ben’s bollocking was quite a wake up call because it made me think, actually should I really be… is this is the right way to do this? Is there a right way or wrong way to do this? So the book I’d been working on before the podcast that I put aside to write Back to Reality was my fantasy novel, The End of Magic, which I had outlined very, very heavily. You know, I had three plot strands going on and I needed to know where they were going. And I felt outlining would really, really help me. And I’d done it. I’d finished the draft before starting the podcast, put it away. And then sort of a year later, after we wrote Back to Reality, I picked it up again, had a look at it and realised two of the threads were fine, really, really good. There was one character that just wasn’t working. A character called Oskar, and he needed work. I had a choice, then. I could have sat down and outlined it very heavily. Or I could have pantsed it. Fly by the seat of my pants. Well, that’s what I did and I loved it. It was great. I mean, I had the safety mat in that I knew everything that was going on all around him, you know, I knew what’s happening with the other characters. I knew how the story was going to end. I had a very good idea of how I wanted his story to end. So I approached the rewrites of his chapters just with the attitude of “What happens next?” What can be the most interesting thing that happens to poor old Oskar? I made his life hell. Very difficult. And I loved it. I had a great experience. And what’s interesting is in a lot of the reviews, people single out Oskar’s thread as their favorite bit. So that was a lesson learned, you know, and I took that to heart. So when I started working on my next project, which was the Woodville books, I figured, you know what? Let’s pants this one. And I did.
The Witches of Woodville Books, starting with The Crow Folk. OK, I figured, you know what? Let’s pants these. A little bit of history on the books. I’d been writing them on and off for about ten years, basically as contemporary fiction set in the current day. You know, with magic and what have you. It just wasn’t working. And so I put them away and it was my TV agent who said, you know, why don’t you set them in the Second World War? He figured I could sell a TV series like that to the Americans. Much to his annoyance, probably, I started writing it as a book series. And it all clicked into place. But what I did was abandon any previous story ideas. I worked on the characters, particularly the character of Faye, and just figured where I wanted her to end up and headed towards that ending. So I did kind of a one-page outline and got to know Faye. I wrote the book up and around her. And I would ask the question, what happens next? How can I test her? How can I make life difficult for her? How will she recover? And pick herself up? And dust herself off and become a better person? And it was fun. It was really freeing.
The other habit I started was I got a notebook and at the end of my writing day, which is only a couple of hours each morning, I would write what happens next or write down sort of half baked ideas, “What happens next?” Or finish mid-sentence. And the old brain— Wow, look at this. The old brain would be ticking away. And I would usually have ideas at some point during the day. Send them to myself. And the next morning I knew what I was going to be writing. So, in a weird way I was still outlining. But just, you know, one nibble at a time. And it worked and it needed surprisingly few rewrites as well. Because that’s the thing with outlining. I think I always viewed it as a safety net. I always viewed it as that thing… How rude. I always viewed it as that thing of, you know, at least I know where I’m going. But, you know, I’ve been writing for so long now, I kind of know story structure. I kind of have a good idea of what should happen next. And then I heard on the Script Notes podcast, a brilliant talk by the screenwriter Craig Mazin, where he said what he uses is, he knows where he wants his character to end up. He kind of has his ending in place. And then he writes from the opposite of that, you know, so he knows how they’re going to change over the course of the story. So he says, whenever I got stuck, I would just think, OK, I’m going from “this” to “the opposite of this”. How is this chapter affecting that? How is my character changing in this part of the story? And it’s such a simple rule and it works. So I use that. And I’ve used it for the second book in the Woodville books, which I’ve just handed in to my agent. You know, that’s kind of been my method. But that’s not to say that I’ve abandoned plotting altogether. I have to do it with screenplays. It’s just like I said, I’ve just done a TV thing. So this idea that it needs to be an either/or thing is hooey. I think George R.R. Martin says, you know, writers are either architects or gardeners. You know, they build something or they let it grow organically. I don’t see why you can’t be an architect with a garden, frankly. Why the hell not? Yeah. By the way, this is where we shot the video for The Crow Folk. It’s changed a bit since the summer, hasn’t it? There’s normally a path here. These are new!
That’s not to poo poo people who outline, you know, outlining, I’ve done it and it’s been successful for me, you know, if that’s the way you do it, go for it. All power to you. But I don’t think you have to define yourself as one or the other. You know, allow your writing style to evolve over time, allow yourself the flexibility to change the outline, because, by all means, study the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, all of those seven point story things or whatever. Understanding structure is important. Definitely important because it allows you when you are stuck to maybe fix things. But what I would say is all those books, you know, on why Thelma and Louise and Silence of the Lambs is, you know, the greatest structured screenplay ever. They’re all done from a point of analysis. After the fact. The screenwriters weren’t thinking like that. You know, they were just thinking what happens next? And either through experience or their own insight, they were able to come up with great solutions. And believe me, they didn’t come up with it first time. They would have rewritten and rewritten until they got it right. See, don’t let anyone define what you should be as a writer. You have to figure it out for yourself. That takes time. It’s taken me over 20 years.
So here’s the heavy-handed metaphor bit. When I left the house this morning. I didn’t know which way I was going to walk. I knew that I was going for a walk, but I didn’t have a preplanned route. But I know the area really well. I didn’t realize it was going to be so muddy back there. But I got through it because I’ve been here before and I sort of know the way. Huh? I told you. It’s heavy-handed, didn’t I? I’m a writer. I do metaphors, me. Oh, yeah. But, you know, I’ve ended up here. I’m pretty happy with that. Yeah, it’s not bad. All things considered, at the end of it, I’m going to reward myself with a cup of tea, maybe a little cookie or something. Here we go. Till next time, happy writing. And if you get lost, don’t worry. There’s usually a path somewhere.