Saturday, February 23, 2013

Plotting, Pantsing, and the Old Cut-Up Gimmick

Well, I guess I'm going to go back in and change the shape of the highlight in the Colonel's eye to make him seem more friendly, and then the coloring of the lettering on my name should probably be a nice medium-dark blue, and...

So after years of study and contemplation, after consulting with experts at the highest levels of achievement, I seem to have developed the most complicated and arduous method of long-form storytelling possible. I'm writing it down so I don't forget it again -- I could have saved myself a month of mopey obsession if I'd remembered one of the basic rules.

The traditional rift in approaching plot and story in fiction has been between those who like to sit down and write and see what comes, and those who figure it all out ahead of time and then go in and fill in the blanks. Those who fly by the seat of their pants are called 'pantsers' and those who plan in advance are called 'plotters.'

(These are the kinds of things writers call themselves, so you shouldn't be surprised at what they call you.)

The virtues associated with pantsing are originality, an inspirational connection between language and story, and the excitement delivered by an ongoing sense of discovery on the part of the writer. Pantsing fails when it fails to deliver a story, or when the story it delivers is a half-baked cliche unconsciously stolen by the writer from TV or the movies. And so on.

The virtues associated with plotting are coherence, narrative drive, and a sense of control. The failings of plotted fiction are predictability and mundanity, and so on.

The division between the two might be regarded as the difference between art and craft, but my critical perspective holds that there is no great art without great craft, and that craft pursued with sufficient diligence can transform itself to art. So of course I have to combine the most laborious parts of both methods. Because that is the kind of lever monkey the world has made me.

I wrote my first novel this way, swore I would never work in that fashion again, and immediately fell backwards into the same fucking trap with Helping Henry. So here is my magic recipe for instant storytelling.

1. Write a stand-alone story that doesn't quite satisfy.

2. Extend it. Add crap. See how events lead into one another, find out what the characters are doing, where they're going. Get them there. Think in terms of consequences, of thought to action to reaction to response.

3. Look at the pile with dismay. Realize that you're dealing with a novelistic structure, and that you have an obligation to bring it to proper fruition.

4. Panic.

5. Inspect the manuscript until you find a beginning and an end that have a meaningful relationship with one another.

6. At this point, the manuscript is comparable to the block of marble in the old joke about the sculptor. "How do you do it?" "I just knock off everything that doesn't look like a donkey."

At this step, you're looking for the donkey. You cannot regard the current manuscript as anything but raw material. Everything is disposable.

Look at your beginning, and look at your ending. If you are trying to write conventional dramatic narrative -- by which I mean a story where things happen that people can understand, a story that may be read by someone who is not a fiction specialist of some kind -- the beginning and the end have to be connected by an UNBROKEN CHAIN OF CONSEQUENCE, where each event leads to the next.

7. This is the hard part. This hurts. It is also the most important part. This is where the creature lives or dies.

Knock off everything that doesn't look like a donkey.

This is what makes this a terrible method. I wrote easily five or six times as much manuscript as I used for my first novel, and a lot of it I rewrote repeatedly. In Helping Henry, this is less painful, since it's constructed of stories that stand alone to some degree. But I had forgotten I could do this, and I devoted a lot of thought to keeping material I'd written in place. Because it was good material.

This is a dead end. That is how you kill your story.

So take your manuscript, and write down a brief description of each scene on a file card or Post-It note. Get yourself some wall space or a corkboard or  something, and start laying the cards out in order. Put your beginning at one end, your ending at the other, and connect the two. Don't put a scene in unless it fills a specific, necessary function. Ask yourself if any scenes -- or characters -- can be combined to save space. If there is a gap in the chain of consequence, fill it in.

And if there is a string of cards to  one side, and they are full of terrific material, and the plot just doesn't seem to CONNECT? Those cards get left out.

This isn't actually like working with marble, folks. It's more like a lost-wax process, and you're working with wax at this point. It is infinitely malleable, but it will be cast in bronze later.

Then take your cards or Post-It notes, and gather them together in order. I use file cards, and I punch holes in them and bind them with a ring.

The thing is? You'll probably have some file cards left over. And some of those file cards will represent the very best writing you've ever done.

Just grin and cut, my friend. Grin and cut. Going to great labor to keep something that could easily go is fool's work.

8. And then go back over your manuscript, and make it conform to your outline. This is where I am with Helping Henry. Moving conversations around, adding points of connection between sub-plots, all that good stuff. To me, this doesn't feel so much like revision as like the real first draft.

9.  And then you're down to line edits. I'm aiming for next week on this.

I swear, though, next time I'm starting with an outline.

1 comment:

Rob Pierce - 2 Verbs said...

I'm especially good at steps 3 and 4.