Plotters vs. Pantsers
The writing world likes to divide itself into two groups: “plotters” and “pantsers.” Plotters are writers who plan their creative work in great detail before they write. They prepare and revise plot outlines, character sketches, locations, etc. to the Nth degree, it is said, before writing a single word.
Pantsers, by contrast, write “by the seat of their pants,” without an outline or even an inkling of what the story is about. They sit at the keyboard and let inspiration lead them to the next great American novel.
In reality, nobody is pure plotter or pantser; it’s more of a continuum, with many flavors of each along the spectrum.
That said, I’d like to propose a third option: The Painter.
The Painter is the type of writer (and I consider myself one) who neither outlines nor “just types.” We start with a pretty strong idea of what our story is about, and we think hard about who our protagonists and antagonists are and what puts them in conflict. We don’t create detailed, or perhaps even broad, outlines of the plot in advance, but we create a strong picture of what the story is about, using broad brush strokes to paint that picture, before we begin.
(See what I did there? I almost didn’t even mean to do that.)
Like the plotter, creating the basic picture means that the “painter” does SOME planning in advance of writing. But the painter doesn’t drive plots through outlines. Like the pantser, the painter lets the “feel” of the book drive the plot and individual scenes. But the painter has a strong feel – even a documented sketch – of each character: their motivations, obstacles, key elements of their past, and their dark secrets. By making these decisions in advance, the writer puts characters in conflict with each other–and then the action begins.
How it Works
How does this look in action? As in the world of visual arts, every painter has their own method. Here’s one that I use to great effect, borrowing from many writing workshops I’ve participated in over the past several years.
First, I create a character sketch. The character sketch consists of a series of decisions, including some or all of the following:
- Role in Story (protagonist, antagonist, mentor, ally, etc.)
- Character’s Internal Goal – what drives them from within
- External Goal – what they hope to achieve with respect to one or more external elements in the story
- Obstacles to each goal
- The character’s Achilles Heel – what will trip them up, every time, until they learn to overcome this deep-seated flaw
- Physical Description
- Basic Personality, habits, mannerisms
- What he/she loves and hates
- Backstory (childhood, recent past, education, family/relationships)
- Description of their car, home, etc.
- Voice: how they speak
Themes are the key words that summarize what the story is about – the “big picture” or “big ideas” being addressed, either on the surface or in subtext throughout the story. There can be anywhere from one to six or eight major themes in a story, depending on how complex your story will be. Each gets associated with one or more plot line.
Rather than outline plots, I construct plot lines – very broad-brush strokes that address one or more change arcs swirling around the main character(s). For a novel or a full-length play, I usually create two or three main plot lines, each focused on its own unique story conflict.
The plotlines address the following questions:
- Protagonist: Who drives this plotline? Whose goal is being pursued and undergoes change over the course of this part of the story arc? The story’s overall protagonist should drive your primary plot line, but may not drive all of your plot lines.
- Protagonist’s objective(s) (from the character sketch)
- Obstacles to achieving those objectives
- The Protagonist’s Achilles Heel
- All of that again, this time for your plot line’s Antagonist
- Primary themes addressed by this plotline
- Frontside dramatic question*: This is the summary statement of your plot line’s central conflict. It is helpful to state it in the form of this template:
How can [protagonist] [overcome obstacles] so he/she can [overcome Achilles heel] and [solve the problem] while [addressing themes]?
- Backside dramatic question*: This is a generalized, “universal,” thematic expression of your frontside conflict. Basically you replace the specifics of your frontside dramatic question
How can we [achieve thematic goals and overcome obstacles] so that we can [avoid being defeated by our Achilles heel] while [addressing broad themes]?
- Solution: Here we answer the Frontside Dramatic Question. This provides a general “road map” for the story without rising to the level of an outline. It is useful to phrase it in a form like this:
[Protagonist] embraces [symbolic thematic element] and learns to [overcome obstacle], enabling him/her to [exploit Antagonist’s weakness] and [set him/herself up for victory]
Is it worth “painting”?
As you can probably surmise, addressing each of the above sets of questions for each major character and for each of two or three plot lines requires the writer to do a fair amount of thinking about their story before they write. I won’t lie; it’s a lot of work.
Pantsers will complain that it’s too much work, and too much like planning. And for them, it might be. But thinking about these broad-brush questions in advance will give a lot of struggling pantsers a little bit of structure to guide their free-wheeling writing technique, and help them from getting sidetracked in telling their story.
Plotters might object that it doesn’t provide enough of a framework in advance of scene development. And for them, it doesn’t. But it can help speed up the planning process and provide a thematic flow to their outline, freeing them up to write sooner.
Painting isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve struggled with plotting and pantsing and haven’t found comfort with either approach, it might be worth giving painting a try.
* Credit for this idea and this phraseology goes to Ciji Guerin of the Northwest Theatre Workshop.