The Mutable OR

As a writer, one often gets the question, “Are you an Plotter or a Pantser?” Do you write from an outline or just go ahead and let the plot and characters come to life as they flow onto the page?

The question usually gets presented that way—as a binary choice—in the many books and articles on the subject, and the author goes on to explain the advantages and pitfalls of each approach. The Plotter approach can get detailed and complex … I have a book called Story Engineering that has spawned dozens of downloadable spreadsheets (see illustration). On the other hand, as a Pantser, one can end up pretty deeply in the plot weeds. I wrote my first book, Fatal Score, as a Pantser and published the thirteenth rewrite.

A Pantser at work

The whole damn issue is the definition of OR. If I’d remembered my symbolic logic, I’d have become comfortable with my natural writing mode a lot sooner. To most people, OR means alternatives. One or the other. You go downtown this way or that way. Not both, right? That’s the Exclusive Or in logic. The Inclusive Or says one or both alternatives are okay, more like ‘either/or.’ We most frequently use ‘or’ in the exclusive sense.

Is all this going somewhere, Rogers?

In a Sisters in Crime webinar, the pantser/plotter question was raised to Walter Mosley, the author of the Easy Rawlins mystery series and plenty of other stories. He got the weary look that denotes a person who is about to explain the obvious for the nth time. He said, “Both.” There was a short pause while the interlocutor figured out that he should ask the next question. Always the gentleman, Mosley explained that if you’re writing commercial fiction, you need something like a broad outline or you’re going to have to do a lot of fixing (see thirteenth draft, above). But characters have lives of their own. They grow. They develop. As an author, you had better let that happen or your book will be boring.

So here I am, nearly a decade into the craft that I love, learning an essential truth that should have been obvious all along.


Pantser … or not

There are two approaches to writing fiction.  A Pantser writes from the seat of the pants. The writer lets the characters pull the story along. An Outliner (maybe we should say ‘Engineer’) lays out the story … the plot line … then begins writing.  So far, I’ve been a Pantser.

My third novel has a complicated plot, and my pants are hanging around my ankles as I crow-hop through the plot.

Pantsers speak proudly but often vaguely of letting the story write itself, but I’m beginning to understand that it just might be a good idea to have a notion of what’s going to happen.  After all, Aristotle, the first author of a book (well, treatise) on how to write, tells us right up front:  the plot is the most important element of the story.

“Aristotle identifies six aspects, or “parts,” of tragedy: PLOT (mythos), CHARACTER  (ēthos), LANGUAGE (lexis), THOUGHT (dianoia), SPECTACLE (opsis), and MUSICAL  composition (melopoiia).  The most important aspect of tragedy, to which all the others are subordinated, is the plot.” (Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy, Margarlit Finkelberg.)

My friend Karl is the plot whisperer in my writing groups.  He suggested Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, which makes a book-length project out of suggesting that the structure of modern fiction is always the same.

Brooks has continued the tradition of adding complexity to structure advice.  We have moved from Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end structure through the Middle Ages playwrights (five is the correct number of acts) to Freytag’s Pyramid (exposition—rising action—climax—falling action—denouement) to Brooks, who suggests nine steps.

1 Opening scene
2 A hooking moment (in first 20 pages)
3 A Setup inciting incident (can be the first plot point)
4 First plot point (20-25% through story)
5 First Pinch Point (3/8)
6 Context-shifting Midpoint
7 Second Pinch Point (5/8) middle of part 3
8 Second plot point (75%)
9 Final Resolution

Brooks promises a much shorter development cycle if I am mindful of the steps.    I could use the help.