Story types: plotters and pantsers

At this point I have The Bear’s Wife and the Settlement trilogy (and two associated novellas) under my belt, and–I’m ashamed to say–since September I have accumulated three substantial starts to other books, all of which are in Time Out at the moment. While I’m by no means a seasoned writer, I have discovered that there are different types of story structures, and that some lend themselves better to plotting than to pantsing, and vice versa.

Type 1: purely pantsed
Example: The Settlement novels
The author’s technique: create a group of characters. Throw them in hot water. See what happens.

You can see why this kind of story lends itself to the pantser’s approach. The only thing you need ahead of time is a feel for the world and the characters. And no, I don’t mean you need to do any elaborate worldbuilding. I only mean you need a vague idea and to evaluate your decisions, as you write the story, to make sure they make sense.

And you don’t have to figure everything out right away, either. I wrote Dark and Deep without knowing where the settlers were or how they got there. I also wrote it with zero physical description of Alex, Anna, or Arthur. All that was spackled on later.

The hazard of this approach is that you might end up with no driving story line and no stakes. So keep an eye on giving your characters real problems while you’re writing, okay?

Type 2: mildly plotted
Example: The Bear’s Wife
The author’s technique: define your problem and stakes, then pantse the rest.

I read Dwight V. Swain’s classic Techniques of the Selling Novel just before I began to write The Bear’s Wife. I knew I wanted to write a story in installments, so I took his advice and for each section of the story I filled in the blanks for the following sentence: W, facing problem X, must Y before Z. Simple as that. I also decided that I was going to have a heroine who was fun to be around, and a hero who was unambiguously the good guy. End of planning. The rest was pantsed.

This, I think, lends itself well to genre fiction, such as a traditional romance which has scripted beats and a foregone conclusion. In fact, if you follow the Seven Beats approach to writing a romance, you are doing this. I haven’t come up with anything clever; I’m just following writing advice.

Type 3: author as sneaky bastard
Example: one of my WIPs in Time Out
The author’s technique: meticulously plan ahead of time

This novel was conceived as a Clever Novel. It has an unreliable narrator. The story begins late in the action, but the reader doesn’t necessarily realize that until the end of the book. This kind of book needs to be meticulously planned ahead of time: the author needs to know all that history and to keep in mind what the narrator is actually thinking versus what the narrator should appear to be thinking.

This is exhausting, for a pantser. It’s probably bread and butter for a plotter. In any case, as a pantser, I find myself constantly re-writing scenes either because I’ve finally figured out what was actually going on in them, or because I forgot what my character’s motivations ought to be. And that, dear readers, is why this book is in Time Out.

What I have learned about my own writing process is that (1) I want my narrator to be likeable and honest, and (2) writing is magical for me when I’m writing Types 1 and 2. Type 3 is a chore.

Anyway: if you are trying to figure out your own writing process, I hope this helps. If you want to dive into the story and write, you’ll encounter the least grief with Type 1. If, on the other hand, you take after any of the assorted authors with R. R. as middle initials, go ahead for Type 3. You’ll have a blast.

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2 thoughts on “Story types: plotters and pantsers

  1. By pantsed you are talking about seat-of-your-pants writing, yes? I am getting into serious writing again after some years, and don’t know the newer terms yet.
    I gotta confess, I am a compulsive outliner. Something about the act of writing an outline cements things in my head and provides a spine to hang the elements on.

    • Yes, that’s the cutesy name for seat-of-your-pants writing.

      I wish I could write outlines for my stories. Somehow, knowing the end kills my enthusiasm for writing the rest of it. I like to be surprised, just like my readers 🙂

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