There are a lot of heated opinions about whether plotting or pantsing is the best way to write a story. As an avid plotter myself, I was curious to hear about Dario Ciriello’s process, which contains a little of both. If you find yourself stuck on either end of the spectrum, today’s post might be just what you need to hear.
The subject of plotting vs. pantsing is one which, for reasons I don’t fully understand, generates a lot of heat in writing circles. I’ve seen discussions on the topic explode into flame wars in authors’ forums as experienced writers who really ought to know better try to browbeat others into seeing that their way is the right way.
I believe the only right method is the one that works for you. Anyone who tells you their way is the way is more invested in being correct than in helping you to write.
I’ve always been a pantser. And yet I’ve written two novels that, on the surface, appear extremely tightly plotted. One author I admire enormously told me he wished he could plot like me. We had a good laugh about that, because I don’t plot at all.
Let me be very clear: I think plotting is great if it works for you; if, on the other hand, the notion of outlining scenes and structure in advance makes you break out in a cold sweat, there’s another, and equally valid approach.
Let’s take a moment to define what plot is. Multiple award-winning science fiction and fantasy author C.J. Cherryh has a particularly luminous sentence on plot in her blog: “I think of [plot] not as anything like a sequence of events, but as a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one—and one yank moves several characters. It’s not events. It’s tensions.”
So what creates these tensions? Characters do; characters and setup. For me, plot develops organically as the writer’s living, breathing characters set out to win or lose their battle against each other, themselves, or nature as they try to reverse that flaw in the universe which is the story’s central conflict. Plot, to me, is not a verb but a noun which describes a story whose events are linked by causality.
Still, it’s wise to begin work with at least a rough idea of what you’re about. I speak from hard experience: having more than once written myself into a corner, I now make sure I have a few things down on paper before I embark on a long work such as a novel. These include:
- Detailed bios and backstory of my main characters
- A good setup and a rough outline of the first two or three scenes to serve as a launch ramp
- An understanding of the “flaw in the universe,” the core conflict that drives the plot
- A vague notion of the development of the story; though I don’t know where the story will lead, I think in terms of having guide rails to bounce off, a vague direction I’m aiming for
- An idea of the possible ending (this can, and very likely will, change)
Here’s how I proceed; I stress this is only one way to write, the one that works for me. As with critique, take what resonates and ditch the rest.
I begin with a setup, the sort of one-sentence thing that Hollywood likes to hear in an elevator pitch. Something like, the captain of a whaling ship becomes obsessed by his quest for revenge on the white whale that bit off his leg. Or perhaps, a proud young musician tempted by the devil gambles his soul to win a golden fiddle. The best setups are often the simplest.
Next, I think long and hard—for weeks—about my characters, taking notes as I go. I write bios and backstory for them; most important of all, I work at understanding their conscious and subconscious goals and motivations, their hopes and fears, and the relationships between them.
Finally, I jot down not an outline but a very loose framework of the first few scenes, with a hazy notion of one or two waypoints and where the story might end up. And then I turn everyone loose.
One benefit of this technique—and Stephen King describes a very similar process in his wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—is that you tend not to telegraph your intentions to the reader. If you’ve built your characters well enough, they’ll act spontaneously and surprise you with their resourcefulness and ingenuity. Of course, they’ll develop as the story progresses, and this will probably require some adjustments to early chapters during the rewrite, but if you’ve done your work well, that’s no big deal—you’re going to do several revision passes anyway.
Working this way is, for me, wonderfully liberating. Sometimes a subplot or secondary character may need reining in, but I’ve never had any problems with the stars getting out of control. If I’ve built my characters to be real, living people, they’re going to do a better job of working themselves free of whatever mess they’re in than I could ever plan for them as an outsider. By working this way, it’s possible to craft novels as complex and textured as any plotter can.
There’s one simple tool I do find useful in the process of writing: an Excel spreadsheet that helps me track where my characters are at any time and keep things in sync. With rows for each character and columns for dates, it’s much easier to make sure things don’t get out of step. Not being a plotter, I fill this in as I write, but of course you can use it any way you like, even colour-coding for each character or good/bad events.
The headings in the date/time column will depend on the pacing of the story. In a book taking place over a span of just a few days, the date/time columns might be labeled by the day. If things get really complex near the climax, the columns can labeled by the hour or less (e.g., 2:30AM). Using a spreadsheet this way helps me know who’s where in the timeline—it’s really helpful to track everyone visually, especially in a novel with a lot of moving parts.
As regards structure, I don’t think about character arcs or plot or beats or scene goals at all. I trust my characters and setup to see to all that. But when I’m done with the first draft, I make a few notes—a sentence or two—about what happens in each scene so I can have an overview of the whole and make sure each scene is in its right place and has a point. So far, the process has worked beautifully for me, and I believe it can work for others, too.
To conclude then, I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong way to write—there’s only what works for you, and that may be very different than what works for me.
Ultimately, I suspect our choice of process comes down to personality types: I’m at core a feeling, intuitive sort (I repeatedly test as INFJ); plotters probably have a more analytical, rational, ENTJ bent. Both personality types are equally necessary to the human family, and both approaches are equally valid in our craft.
Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing. His fiction includes Sutherland’s Rules, Black Easter, and Free Verse and Other Stories. Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.
In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors. You can find him online at his blog.