Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Plotting by the Seat of Your Pants

To celebrate the release of my new book, Advanced Plotting, here’s an excerpt from one of the guest author essays.

Plotting by the Seat of Your Pants
by Susanne Alleyn

They say there are two types of fiction writers: plotters and pantsers.

Plotters are blessed with the ability to create complex plots from beginning to end; they write down a complete outline, whether in a loose synopsis, a tightly structured timeline, a series of index cards, or whatever, before they write Word One of the actual novel. Pantsers, on the other hand, can’t possibly think that far ahead, and take an idea, a situation, a setting, a character or two, with a rough idea of where the story is going, and just plunge onward, writing “by the seat of their pants.”

There are advantages to both of these methods, and which method works for you depends on what kind of writer (and basic personality) you are. I, for one, am a pantser. I write mysteries, among other things, and I couldn’t come up with the entire outline of a novel, particularly a mystery novel, even if you held a gun to my head. But if I begin with a basic idea, if I know how my story begins (who got murdered) and how it ends (whodunnit and why), then I trust my subconscious to come up with the dreaded middle of the story as I move... OK, feel my way blindly... forward.

By starting my novel at Point A, without much knowledge of how I’ll get past Points B through Y before successfully arriving at the end (Point Z), somehow the plot manages to create itself without too much goading from me. The situation or character I might suddenly come up with for Point E in the story eventually creates an idea for Point J or K, which leads to Points L and M, and so on.

An example of how the sneaky old subconscious can work? Three years ago, I was writing the first draft of The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, a historical mystery set in prerevolutionary Paris. All I had, at the start, was an idea that the murder would be connected somehow to the famous (real-life) Diamond Necklace Affair of 1785-86, and to the (now two-century-old) conspiracy theory that the Freemasons were involved in the scandal, with the goal of bringing down the French monarchy.

While toiling my way through the first quarter of the novel (not yet knowing how the heck I was going to unmask my killer), I sent my sleuth, Aristide Ravel, with the dead man’s waistcoat to a fashionable tailor, in hopes of identifying the corpse. The tailor gave him half a dozen names of customers who had had identical waistcoats made; the dead man was sure to be one of them. I already knew which one he was, and where he lived, and how the next scene would play out when, after a dead end or two, Ravel interviewed his family.

And at this point (perhaps I’d reached Point F or G), I still didn’t have the faintest idea how the story was going to play itself out, or how I was going to keep the solution to the mystery from being ridiculously obvious, although I thought I knew who’d committed the murder. And I’d also begun to realize that, unless I wanted it to be a very short novel, something else (anything!) had to happen under mysterious circumstances to complicate things.

But (spoilers ahead) for some reason, one of the names on the tailor’s list suddenly became a fully-fleshed character, a Freemason with fishy connections, and very quickly developed a personality. He walked into the story, took over, stole the corpse, and dragged the plot off in another direction entirely.

Where did he come from? I haven’t the slightest idea, beyond “somewhere in the back of my subconscious mind.” Then, because he existed, another character also had to appear, and he rapidly became one of the major characters in the novel. At last it became suddenly quite obvious to me that this second character was actually the murderer, and since he was a great improvement over my original choice of killer, I let him have the role. And when I went back to (minimally) revise all the chapters I’d already completed, in order to accommodate him, the clues I’d laid out worked much, much better for the new killer than for the old.


[So] if someone has told you that you should outline, synopsize, or otherwise rigidly structure your novel before starting to write it, and you just don’t feel comfortable or happy doing that (or if trying to come up with the next damn plot point in your synopsis feels like having all your teeth pulled out, one by one, without Novocain), then ignore the advice. You’re probably a pantser.

Take your basic starter idea and run with it. Start at Point A, with an idea of Point B, go there, write a scene, create a new character, and discover to what sort of Point C your Point B may lead you. Throw in extra stuff in the course of dialogues or descriptions or minor characters (you can always edit out the excess — the padding and the bits that don’t lead you anywhere — later). The smallest detail in a scene you write may suddenly, as your subconscious works, turn into something that drives your plot.

Susanne Alleyn is the author of the Aristide Ravel French Revolution mystery series (The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, Palace of Justice, Game of Patience, and A Treasury of Regrets), and of A Far Better Rest, a re-imagining of A Tale of Two Cities. She is the granddaughter of children’s author Lillie V. Albrecht, who penned the classic Deborah Remembers (1959) and four other historical children’s books, all soon to reappear as e-books.

Buy Advanced Plotting for $9.99 in paperback on Amazon. Through September 1, get Advanced Plotting as a $.99 e-book on Amazon or Smashwords.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, am definitely a pantser. Whenever I try to be a good little girl and plot, draw detailed characters sketches -- all I hear are crickets chirping and the whippoorwills going nuts. BUT, if I sit at the computer; a face, a character, a situation comes up and I simply write around that. Writing this way takes trust -- in your experiences, sub-conscious and the beauty and complexity of the human brain. We're smarter than we know. Getting the story out is key for me, then later that's what rewriting, deleting, adding and editing comes in!