Story Structure: To Plot or Not?

Story Structure - To Plot or NotAre you a lefty or a righty? An innie or an outie? We love to classify things, including people. We create groups, or camps, and then see where people fit. I’ve become interested in one particular dichotomy about story structure that has been bandied about in writing workshops and books I’ve been reading about the craft of writing.

Are you are plotter or a pantser?

On one side of the fence we have the plotters, who outline, map, plan or otherwise lay out the whole of their story before they begin writing. On the other side of the fence are those who fly by the seat of their pants (hence pantsers), and let the story develop as they write.

“I hit a point where I realised I had no idea what was going to happen next. None at all.”

I know people who write both ways. Meticulous outliners who have every scene written down on an index card, waiting for its turn to be fleshed out in the manuscript. Organic writers who start with a premise and a character and a vague idea of where they think the book will end up. And I can track my own progress as a writer, during which I’ve gradually moved from being a total pantser to being a far more organised planner.

When I first decided I wanted to write, I had an idea for a few characters and a premise, and a couple of big scenes in mind. I sat down and started writing, and stuff came to me as I went along. Some of it was good, a lot of it was terrible, but I kept ploughing through. Until I hit a point where I realised I had no idea what was going to happen next. None at all. I knew how I wanted the story to end, but I had no clue what path would get me from the mid-point to the climax. And I still don’t. Needless to say, that manuscript remains unfinished.

“I’ve gradually moved from being a total pantser to being a far more organised planner.”

For my next story I sat down and wrote an outline. It took me a couple of days and spanned several pages. When I started writing the manuscript I had a good idea of where the story would end up, and all the twists and turns it would take to get there. But when I began writing I found an interesting thing — the story changed as my fingers danced over the keyboard. When I reached the end of the manuscript I discovered that I had actually drifted away from the outline in several key areas as inspiration took me in new directions. But on the whole, the story was there, as I’d laid it out.

Plot & StructureThen I began reading about the mechanics of writing. I’ve already mentioned Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell, but more recently I read Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. His take on the whole panters versus planners debate is that planners use common story architectural elements (the three act structure, the mid-point reversal) to construct a story that works. In his view, pantsers basically re-draft and re-draft until these architectural elements emerge organically, if they emerge at all. Story Engineering(And if they don’t emerge, according to Brooks, your story is doomed.) I consciously wrote my last story in three acts, and I think it helped me tremendously. I had also discovered the fabulous Scrivener by that stage, which meant I could do scene by scene planning with ease, switching between a corkboard layout and the text of my scenes at whim.

Last night I finished reading Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, by Alexandra Sokoloff. I had thought that I was fairly well progressed along the path to being a full-on plotter, but I now know that this was hubris. Compared to the level of planning that goes into writing a screenplay, I am still playing fast and loose with my story structure. Screenwriting TricksIf you want an idea of the kind of precise engineering involved in crafting a well-balanced story for the screen, check out the Story Elements Checklist in this blog post.  In fact, I highly recommend you have a look at Sokoloff’s website, which has an excellent section for writers, much of which formed the core of her book.

I’m currently revising a manuscript to balance some of the architectural elements more evenly through the story, and in doing so I’ve noticed that often the scene synopsis I wrote in my planning phase bears little or no resemblance to the scene I ended up writing. As in many things, I think that the pantser versus planner divide is a false dichotomy. It’s more of a continuum, were each of us falls in our own spot, somewhere between rigid planning and unfettered creativity.