Are You a Planner…or a “Pantser?”
by Mary Ellen Stepanich
Earlier this month, I attended the Southwestern Writers Conference in Avondale, Arizona, and heard a couple of local writer celebrities discussing how to write fiction successfully. I was gratified to hear each of them advocate some sort of planning or structure in the writing process.
A writer friend of mine prefers to allow the plot to emerge from the personalities and actions of the characters. She says that the characters actually dictate the story as she writes. I agree that this method, often termed “pantsing” (i.e., writing by the seat of your pants), works for many writers. So far, however, pantsing hasn’t worked for me. I keep asking the characters what they want to do next, and they simply ignore me.
In my former life, I was a professor of Organizational Behavior, often termed, “the applied psychology of management.” One of the topics I taught in my classes (and in my consulting work with corporations) was the importance of planning so as to accomplish corporate, and personal, objectives. I would use the following little story from the plot of Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, to illustrate my point:
Alice had just escaped from a series of harrowing adventures, and finally emerged from a deep, dark forest. At the edge of the woods, she paused, unsure of how to proceed. The path she was on suddenly branched and headed off in three different directions. She looked up and saw the Cheshire Cat lying on a branch of one of the trees. You remember the Cheshire Cat – he was a creature that could appear and disappear at will, leaving behind only the ghost of his evil grin. (I always told my classes he reminded me of my second husband.)
Confused, Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, “Can you help me? The path goes in three different directions and I don’t know which one to choose. Which road should I take?”
The Cat grinned and replied, “Yes, I can help you. But first, tell me where you want to end up?”
Alice shrugged. “I don’t know, I guess it doesn’t really matter.”
“Then,” the Cat said, “it doesn’t matter which road you take.”
The lesson for writers implied by the fairytale is this: If you don’t know where you want your story to end up, any path you take is quite likely to take you somewhere that you, and the story, don’t really want to be. Possibly, this is the cause of some of the so-called “writers block” we hear so much about. Some “pantsers” don’t have any idea of where they want the story to end up.
Here’s another example of the “planning versus pantsing” issue: Six of my friends and I are group-writing a book, each of us writing a chapter, one following another. In my opinion, we have written ourselves into the black hole of Calcutta because we do not have a plan. Therefore, the plot simply meanders like the Pigeon Creek near my hometown in southern Indiana.
Nevertheless, I have to believe that, at some point, pantsers DO know the direction they want the plot to go. Otherwise, they’d have to apply for a writing job on a soap opera. They never end.
Dr. Mary Ellen Stepanich is a retired professor of organizational behavior who always told her students at Purdue, “I’m very organized, but my behavior is a bit wonky.” She has published articles in academic journals (boring), show scripts for barbershop choruses and quartets (funny), and an award-winning radio play, “Voices from the Front,” for Sun Sounds of Arizona (heartrending). Mary Ellen lives in Peoria, Arizona, with her cat, Cookie, and blogs on her website, MaryEllenStepanich.com.