Product over Process

When you study writing, you run into this thing a lot – Plotting vs. Pantsing.

They say these are the two ways two ways to write. Plotters outline their whole story – beginning, end, and all the milestones in between – before they start writing any actual story. Pantsers just dive in, and let the story develop as they go.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice, neither does much writing at all. They mostly sit around on the internet and argue about which process is better.

Plotters argue their stories are more structured. Since they know exactly where the story is headed before they begin, everything they write is pertinent to the story. Pantsers don’t know where the stories will go, so they end up including a lot of extraneous junk and threads that never go anywhere.

Meanwhile, pantsers argue that their characters are more natural. There is no predetermined course for them to follow, and so they are able to pursue their dreams and desires and whatnot. Plotters write characters that are stilted and artificial, who are loyal to the plot structure above their own needs.

It’s all bullshit, okay?

The problem is, neither process actually helps you figure out what to write or how to write it. When you’re facing down the blank page, what difference does it make if the top of that page says Outline or Chapter 1?

You still have to decide what to put into the outline or first draft. You still have to think it all up. Now, if you write down what you thought up, maybe organize it a little, you’re plotting. If you instead commit what you thought up to memory, you’re pantsing. The whole question boils down to whether you want to keep notes or not.

Deciding if you are a plotter or a pantser is like taking a quiz in Cosmo to find out what kind of kisser you are. How do you intend to ever use that information? You’re still just going to do whatever you do, and either you’ll be good at it, or you won’t.

Still, eventually you’ll get around to writing your first draft and it is going to be “shit,” according to Hemingway. But now that you have identified yourself as a plotter or pantser, you might be able to predict in what way it is shit. If you’re a plotter, it’s probably inconsistent characters and plots driven by timely coincidences. If you’re a pantser, maybe your plot fails to arrive at any real point, or maybe your tone changes going into the last third of the book.

Whatever the problems are, you have to fix them. You can’t use Plotters for life, yo! as an excuse for your shitty characters. Plotters will eventually have to make their characters act naturally, and pantsers will have to cut the extraneous bits of story that never went anywhere.

When it comes time to make these changes, both writers will have to grapple with a much more difficult task: reconciling these unrelated pieces. Your characters have to act consistent with their nature, and at the same time, move the story forward. The plot must be logical and concise, always moving forward, and at the same time, emerge naturally from the characters doing their own thing.

We can discuss the pieces of writing one at a time. We can study them one at a time. But when we write, we have to do them all at once. A story is a dozen things working together – characters, plot, theme, tone, pacing, setting, tension, and like five other things. That’s the end game. That’s the final product: a story where all these elements come together and work in unison to create a single work of art. You can’t just ignore any of them. Choosing to plot or to pants is just choosing which parts of your story to put off for a later day.

That’s a bad approach. If you choose to neglect some element of a story – for example, if you decide theme is something you can throw in there later – you’re setting yourself up for a lot of extra work. You’re giving yourself a lot of darlings to murder. Because if you don’t think about theme (or whatever story element you don’t care about), you’ll make a lot of decisions that turn out to contradict one another in terms of theme (or whatever).

If you don’t think about plot structure, you’ll write a lot of clever and beautiful scenes, and then when you try to impose some plot on the next draft, you’ll realize those scenes don’t belong. If you don’t think about consistency in your characters right up front, when you go back you’ll find them doing a lot of things contrary to their nature. And if you really need your characters to do those things to advance the plot, fixing it is going to take major surgery.

You can deconstruct writing into separate topics, but that doesn’t mean you should. Whatever you learn, keep the end game in mind while you learn it. Focus on how each topic relates to the finished product. Break yourself early of the habit of writing for character, and then going back and fixing the plot, and then going back and fixing the tone, and then going back and fixing the pacing. Eventually, you will need to keep all those things in mind at once.  It’ll be hard, but the sooner you start trying, the sooner you’ll be able.

Don’t focus so much on your process. That will emerge and evolve on its own. Instead, focus on consistent and distinct characters, fluid and concise plots. Learn about tone, pacing, dialog, rhetoric. Brush up on the basics like description, word choice, showing vs. telling, grammar.  All these things (and others) must come together to make one complete picture, and if you don’t know what that picture is, no process will get you there.