Pantsersare writers who find their way through a story by writing it—writing it, essentially, by the seat of their pants. They may begin with no more than an incident and a character or several characters. They may have some initial idea of where the story will lead them: a climax or an “aha” moment that they can’t wait to get to. (This form of plotting being what it is, they may never get to it.) I personally just finished writing a book,The Fame Thief, that began with an image: 1950s Hollywood at night and a pair of crossed spotlights in the night sky, the spotlight beams held together where they crossed by a pair of handcuffs. That was all I had. (I’m obviously a pantser.) Pantsers grab that basic idea and begin to write, following their imagination and/or their characters into the story.
One approach is definitely not intrinsically superior to the other. The one that works best is the one that suits the writer’s temperament and mental processes. I defy anyone to look at a good book and tell me whether its writer was a plotter or a pantser. A good book that was exhaustively plotted in advance can feel just as spontaneous and just as unpredictable as a book that was made up on the spur of moment after moment after moment. And a good book that was pulled out of the clouds by someone who had virtually no idea, from one day to the next, where he or she was going, can feel just as tightly structured as the most thoroughly outlined story.
But it’s possible sometimes to tell howbad books were plotted. To make a dangerous simplification, books that seem to be story-driven—sometimes at the cost of their characters—and a bit mechanical, were probably plotted in advance. And books that wander aimlessly all over the place with no more structure than a bowl of pasta, in which characters self-indulgently reveal much more about themselves than the reader needs (or wants) to know—well, odds are that the writer was a pantser. Good books, though, are indistinguishable.
We live in a time that values spontaneity, and many people probably secretly prefer the somewhat Byronic image of the writer staring pensively out the window as an entire world effortlessly unscrolls itself before him or her, as opposed to the outliner bent over a stack of index cards or a spreadsheet pinned to the wall. But the exact same creative process comes into play whether a story is plotted or pantsed. A world comes into being, people move through it, hopes arise, longings are fulfilled or frustrated. Whichever plotting approach the writer chooses, when the book is finished, he or she has brought something into the world that simply did not exist before; where there was nothing, now there is something.
The greatest privilege of being a writer—an artist of any kind, I suppose—is that day after day we get to be present at the moment of creation. We’re allowed every day to make the first footprints in the snow. We get to ransack our lives and ourselves for anything that might work, whether they’re fragments of our better angels or the scraps and leftovers of our failures and frustrations, and build a magical realm, motley as a crow’s nest, from all of it. We get to experience the moment when a character we create chews through her leash and sets off in her own direction.
And, of course, we get to plot it.
The writers who share their thoughts about making story in this book have gone through all of this, and more. They’ve ventured, armed with an outline or not, into the unpredictable world of the imagination, and returned with a book under their arm.