Writing Lessons 7

It is a very odd thing, that writers will often miss whole weeks of life. When you are writing from a specific point of view, you become so utterly immersed in that person’s life, that you cannot exist in the real world at the same time. Your partner will get used to grumbles and muttered conversations; they will get used to the writer being in a foul temper, because he/she has just written a dramatic scene including a shouting match, a murder, or just their character being fired and distraught. Writers live many lives, and that does distract. 

Now, I am going to digress a little.

This is something I have written about elsewhere, but it’s so important that I’ll mention it again here.

It is often said that there are two main types of writers: planners/plotters and seat-of-the-pants types. 

Planners/plotters tend to write out finely detailed synopses, with multiple coloured pens to indicate every aspect of a story. In effect, they are writing in the same way that a good programmer will work: analyze the flow of the story, plot around it, insert characters who can live it, and write. A planner/plotter will find it easy to sell an idea to a publisher, because they tend to have a detailed understanding of the story.

The second group tend not to have the foggiest idea of where the story is going before they set pen to paper. It is a serious issue if they are going to try to sell their work before writing it. A synopsis is cobbled together, loosely stitched together to make sense of some aspects of the plot, but beyond a general rough outline, and perhaps a kind of atmosphere about the story, they will often have no idea whatsoever. 

From my first attempts, I knew that I would be a planner. When I tried writing my very first novels, it soon became obvious that I could not progress because I had little idea where the  story was going. So when I sat down to write my first novel, the first thing I did was sit down with several A1 sheets of heavy paper, and plan the story in a fair amount of detail. It did look like a programming flow chart, I have to admit, and it made writing the book a doddle. 

Except, I was writing a crime thriller, and I suddenly realised, when I was about halfway through, that I was so clear in my own mind who was guilty, that it would be blatantly obvious to even the most blinkered idiot who I was writing about.

It was a salutary lesson. I tore up and threw away all my flow charts, and began thinking about who else could have been guilty. Since then I have tended always to fly by the seat of my pants. I will have an initial scene (not the first scene in the story, but a jumping-off point for my first character – it will never be the first scene the reader sees, and often won’t even appear in the book), which will give me an emotional reaction which I hope will be transmitted to the reader. From that, I then start to build up the plot and storyline, adding new scenes and characters as needed. Very often, in fact almost invariably, the main thrust of the book will change. The theme may remain the same, but the direction the book takes will almost always be a total surprise to me. 

This may sound appalling to you – it does to most people. However, it has significant advantages. First: if you, the writer, have a brilliant, detailed, twisting plot that is tuned precisely and finely, what happens when you put your protagonists in the line of fire? The first temptation is, to change their personality or motivations to suit your perfect plot. And the simple fact is, as soon as you start writing, and feel your characters develop, you soon realise that they would not respond in that manner. If you change them, they become wooden and unrealistic. If you don’t have a definite plot direction in mind, only a general flow of the story, you can allow your characters to react more realistically. It also allows you to spot a sudden new direction, and to allow your participants to wander off down that new route and discover aspects of their characters that you would not have guessed at before.

There are many people who are very scathing about this approach to writing, but it is the most common method, I have discovered, among almost all authors. 

For example, Stephen King and JRR Tolkien did not plan massively. Tolkien, in his diary, noted how frustrated he was one evening, because while writing a perfectly pleasant scene set in a pub, some fellow appeared and started engaging the hobbits in conversation. And Tolkien had no idea where this fellow had come from, what he was doing in that scene, or what he would be doing in the future. The man’s name was “Strider”, who was to become Aragorn, one of the most important characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

There is, of course, nothing wrong with planning and setting out a detailed synopsis, but if you do decide to work that way, be prepared for your characters to try to demand that you alter your plot to suit them!

Which are you going to be? A planner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?

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Comments
6 Responses to “Writing Lessons 7”
  1. Natalia says:

    I found out that a lot of the fun comes with discovering that the character you meant to go from A to B refuses to do it, and with figuring out how to make it all work.

    Like

  2. Lindsey Russell says:

    What a relief to hear a successful author admit to being a pantser! I’ve found every time I write a plot down in more than the briefest outline (idea, opening and a few points that need to be included) it kills the story stone dead for me because knowing what happens robs the muse of the incentive to carry on as there is noting to discover.

    Like

  3. I’m a planner. But when you write interactive adventure gamebooks, the reader is the protagonist, and the choices they make influence the flow of the story.

    Like

  4. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Quiet class – sit up straight! Here is your seventh writing lesson from Michael. :)

    Like

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