Friday, February 8, 2013

The Ever-Changing Story

So, way back when—July 2012, to be precise—I wrote a blog post called “Pantser Learns to Plot, Courtesy of Storyist.” Pantsers, in novel-writing lingo, are writers who put together a story “by the seat of their pants”—meaning that they jump in and follow the Muse wherever she takes them. Plotters, in contrast, don’t move a muscle until they have a scene by scene outline, clear settings, and well-defined characters. People tend to favor one style over the other, although most authors operate not at the extremes of the continuum but somewhere in the middle. There are other ways of characterizing writers, but for the moment, let’s stick with this one.

Each style has its advantages. Pantsers revel in the joy of watching their story unfold but may follow an appealing digression right into a maze, necessitating extensive rewriting. Plotters stay on track better and generally need to do less structural overhaul, sometimes at the expense of serendipity and naturalness.

The interesting point to me is how ingrained writing style is. Back in July 2012, I structured an entire outline, just like a plotter. I drew up goal, motivation, and conflict charts for each significant character. I assigned traits to my hero and heroine, deciding she should write poetry and he should have enough interest in poetic forms and expressions to appreciate her skill. To determine the hero’s fate, I outlined a series of culturally appropriate challenges: a wrestling match, a poetry contest, and a racing game called “Kiss the Girl.” I decided the character of the antagonist, gave him a history and a clear motive, complex enough to keep him from being an irredeemable bad guy.

I’m really glad I did all that work, because as a result, I know that I have a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has character growth. It has structure.

Except that I am halfway through the rough draft, and I can see that at most one-third of the original outline will ever make it into the finished novel. The poetry fell by the wayside first, and the heroine seems fine without it (good thing—I never quite figured out how I would master the forms of 16th-century Tatar poetry). The wrestling match turned into a single punch to the jaw, the race into a squabble between lovers not yet ready to admit how they feel about each other (although if my characters give me half a chance, I’m determined to bring “Kiss the Girl” back in—it’s much too good a custom to toss aside). Even the antagonist has shifted as I’ve made his acquaintance and decided that I have long-term plans for him. I’m going to have to build up someone else, who has been lurking in the background waiting for the right moment, and complicate his character—or hers. Because the hero needs someone to defeat, and if he defeats the original antagonist as thoroughly as the plot requires, there go the long-term plans.

This happens, I’ve concluded—and if you write by the seat of your pants, you’ll know exactly what I mean—because I discover my characters by watching them in action. I can set out things for them to do and reasons why they should do them, but until I see them in motion, I don’t fully grasp what kind of people they are, how they will react to this opportunity or that obstacle. They constantly surprise me.

Writing The Winged Horse
(Not exactly me, but the horse is perfect)
Clipart no. 9744072

My critique group constantly surprises me, too (and believe me, I’m grateful), forcing me to rethink by asking, “Why would X do/say that?” Then I stop to wonder, and in wondering I uncover new facets of the characters’ lives. Sometimes I find out why X did or said whatever I wrote down. Other times, I realize X never could say or do that under the circumstances in which I have placed him or her, and I have to figure out what X would say or do. Even then, I have to write it down and see if it fits. If not, I throw the scene out and try again. Through such fits and starts, I gradually discern who the character is.

This post is not a manifesto on how to write. I love reading about the craft of writing, but in the end what works, works. Different people have different styles. And as I mentioned above, I’m glad I learned to plot. I’ll do it again for my next novel, and for every novel after that. It gets me over blank-page syndrome and reassures me that this book will end up somewhere other than a blind alley. If less than 50 percent of the details make it into the story—well, extra plot points and character traits always come in handy.

But however much I may appreciate plotting as a skill, I have to accept that in my heart I’m a pantser, and I probably always will be. For me the fun of writing lies in the discovery of a world I didn’t suspect existed, one populated by fictional people with lives and ways of thinking that I cannot always predict, because they emerge from my subconscious mind, a trove of magic and mystery. And I’m not just okay with that, I’m happy with it.

What about you? Do your fictional people ever go their own way?

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