If I had to define my writing style, I’d have to say that I’m a “pantser.” If you’ve never heard that term before, it means to write by the seat of your pants. If you’re still confused, it means to typically write without having things planned out. A “plotter” is someone that typically writes only after fully plotting the story out. While there’s nothing wrong with either types of writing style, I have to wonder about the significance of story and plot when considering the “pantser” and “plotter” writing styles. If a “pantser” writes by the seat of his/her pants, then where does the plot factor in? Is there even a plot?
Well, duh, plot still exists within your work regardless if you detail every little thing. While moving around some things in my office, I came upon some of my old college text books. When I was in college, I would sell back the books that weren’t in my major and would keep all the text books that were associated with English and writing. One book in particular, “Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft” written by Janet Burroway, had me opening it to this definition:
“Humphry House, in his commentaries on Aristotle, defines story as everything the reader needs to know to make coherent sense of the plot, and plot as the particular portion of the story the author chooses to present – the “present tense” of the narrative.”
Look, I know what you’re thinking. Who is Humphry House? Believe me, I was wondering that myself. After searching the reputable site Wikipedia for a while, I found absolutely nothing. How disappointing. After googling the name, I found that he was a “pioneer of modern literary-historical scholarship of Dickens, a popular teacher at both Oxford and Cambridge, and frequent presenter of talks on the BBC.” He sounds like a cool dude. But what does Burroway and House mean?
Simply put, the plot is absolutely everything you wish to present in your book. Your main character might be left handed (shout out to those that are) or maybe has a restriction to only one cup of coffee a day. However, it’s your decision as the author whether to allow the reader to see those details.
I know that’s hard to understand. Frankly, I think it’s sort of weird too. I mean… how do you just have one cup of coffee a day? There are people out there that do… you know who you are.
So what is the use of story if we know plot is what is presented to the reader? Going back to House and Burroway, we know that story is everything the reader needs to understand the plot. If your main character’s coffee restriction doesn’t play into the events of your book, is that detail something that should be presented to the reader? Maybe yes, maybe not. The detail could be served to create more character depth. Quirky behaviors and other details like coffee restrictions serve to create a fleshed-out character. People that have similar coffee restrictions might feel connected to the character. However, if you do write in that quirky detail, then make sure to either have it connected into the story or not play into it too much.
Now that I’ve explained just a tiny bit about what House and Burroway say about story and plot, how does that effect the writing styles of “pantsing” and “plotting?” Obviously, if you’re one that plots every little detail in your work then it doesn’t really affect you. If you’re like me and don’t do a lot of planning, does it really effect you?
I’ve always looked to Stephen King when I needed author advise. I mean, not personally because he doesn’t know we’re really good friends. We are though, he just won’t acknowledge it in public. Or in all my emails to him. King says “come to a book as you would come to an unexplored land. Come without a map. Explore it, and draw your own map… a book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it.”
When I first began to write, I would interpret this as King being a pantser with no plot. Having matured as an author, I’ve come to realize that the unexplored land is the entire world inside of the book. The parts of the land that are explored is the plot, the parts that are presented to the reader. The story would be the tools that are used to explore that land.
I used to abhor plotting my work and relished in the fact that I plotted nothing. Now I understand that plot and story go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. Next week I plan to continue the idea of how story and plot are woven together to form a cohesive story.
At least, that’s what I’m plotting.
Categories: Mastering the Craft