Advice for Pantsers

Writing longhand with a fountain pen, in a puffy shirt and vintage overalls. If this picture only included a dog and/or a cat, this would be my ideal.

I have recently finally started to unravel the plot of Forgotten Stars V: The Final Frontier (not the actual title), much to my pleasure. This one has been giving me fits, to the point that I’ve been seriously considering making the shift from Pantser to Plotter. This is because the key turns out to have been…plotting.

OK, an aside if you’re not familiar with the terms ‘pantser’ and ‘plotter’. Some writers plot everything out, writing extensive story outlines of varying degrees of complexity from writer to writer, in order to get the story shaped before they ever start drafting. The idea then is that the drafting can go quickly, according to plan.

‘Pantsers’, on the other hand, don’t do this. They write ‘by the seat of their pants’, basically starting at Chapter One with some characters and maybe a situation and charging full speed ahead. Such writers feel constrained or even handcuffed by the use of outlines, preferring to discover organically what happens along the way.

I’ve always been mostly a pantser, with the proviso that I eventually get to a point in many of my novels (OK, all of them) when I’m not able to figure out the story’s development beyond a certain point. This usually comes up sometime between halfway through Act II and the beginning of Act III. At this point…I turn plotter, because by this point I’ve got my story started and revved up to the point where a plot is actually going to help. In the past, when I’ve plotted before drafting, I’ve always run into a much better story idea sometime along the way, so why waste my time plotting a story that I know will deviate wildly from the original plot?

Lately I’ve been plotting the last 2/5, roughly, of Forgotten Stars V, and I’ve really managed to hack open the plot to the point where at last I’m getting it all to work out nicely. In the future I probably need to react a bit more quickly, recognizing faster when I’ve reached the point where I need to step away from Scrivener and instead pick up the pen and paper for plotting. (I plot best using pen and paper; it slows my process down enough that I can think it through.)

But that’s not the only thing I do in these cases. There’s something else, and even though I’ve done it on each thing I’ve written on which I’ve eventually blocked up a bit–including stuff y’all haven’t even read yet!–I never really recognized this step in the process until this time through it. So this is my big advice for pantsers, if they find themselves oddly blocked:

The key probably lies in what you’ve already written, so go back and re-read the book to that point. You very well might have the answer staring you in the face.

If you’ve read any science fiction or fantasy, you’ve probably noticed that those genres can seem like dense piles of almost random stuff mentioned in the beginning chapters, as ancient heroes and cities and empires and wizards and historical figures and other things get mentioned, name-checked, hinted around, and so on. Think of all the name-dropping that happens at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, or even in Star Wars. I do the same kind of thing, sticking all kinds of weird details in my stuff, because weird background stuff that never gets mentioned much again is a great way of making your world seem larger.

But here’s the thing: there may be a detail you’ve tossed in there for no other reason than it sounds cool, that ends up being the key to unlocking your plot and giving it the conclusion it deserves. I call this “The Usual Suspects” syndrome, from the classic story of how Casablanca got one of the great endings of all time.

(Spoilers for Casablanca, by the way.)

Casablanca famously went into production without the script really being quite finished, so as the film got closer and closer to having to shoot the ending, the pressure amped up on Julius and Philip Epstein, the film’s writers. The question was: How can they get Rick off the hook for killing Major Strasser, with Captain Renault just standing there, watching the whole thing? What’s Rick’s “out”? It turns out that they had already given themselves that out in the film’s first minutes, in which they established that in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, Captain Renault didn’t always take his duties very seriously; in response to various Resistance activities, Renault simply orders his men to “round up the usual suspects”. In short, his whole job is largely theater. Renault isn’t anti-Nazi at first, but he’s not particularly for them, either. As he notes, “I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean. I blow with the wind, and for now, the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.”

But the Epsteins still needed a way for Rick to get out of trouble for killing the villainous Major Strasser. The classic story is that they were out for a drive in LA one night when suddenly they both had the same epiphany, looking at each other and saying at the same time, “Round up the usual suspects!” And that’s what happens: Major Strasser is killed, only Rick and Captain Renault are present, tension abides…Renault’s men arrive, and Renault says, “Major Strasser’s been shot!” Looks are exchanged–Rick to Renault and back again–and we wonder what Renault will do. Will he say, “Arrest Rick, he killed the major”? No. He says, “Round up the usual suspects.”

And just like that, the story is resolved. Because the writers remembered a small detail they had thrown into their script early on, probably for character and humor reasons. It turns out to be the key to the film’s satisfying ending.

So go back and re-read your draft if you’re stuck, folks. Because the key to getting yourself unstuck may well be in there. As it was with the current book! Maybe someday when it’s been released I’ll flesh it out a bit in this space….



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