But if pantser authors don’t know where they’re going (i.e., where the story will end up) how do they get there? I use before-the-fact and after-the-fact techniques to manage this process. Before I know whether I’ll need them or not, I drop in potential clues early on (and make a note of them in the unanswered questions list). It can be anything potentially, but not certainly, important. Then I just keep going. In the early pages of Architect of Courage, the first murder victim has long vertical scars on her wrists, evidence of a serious suicide attempt. I didn’t know whether that would make sense or not as I got to know her better, but hundreds of pages later, it fit the evolving story meaningfully. I credit my subconscious mind for working that one out!
After the fact, when I find a story has worked out a particular way, I may realize that I haven’t laid sufficient ground work. I haven’t described the characters or situation in a way that makes the conclusion, as they’ve said since Aristotle, “both surprising and inevitable.” At that point, I have to go back and find the best places to weave in the necessary missing bits.
Plotters too sometimes find the story escapes the structure they’ve built for it. At the Book Festival where I gave this presentation last weekend, my colleague Jeff Markowitz and I had a long conversation with an author who says she’s a confirmed plotter. She told us she’d been writing a story in which the main character was an injured soldier. All planned out. Very neat. One day she burst out of her office yelling, “The nurses have taken over the story!”
All this discussion about plotting versus pantsing reflects a basic difference not as much in how people write, but why. Plotters have a particular story in mind for their novel and are working to produce the best vehicles for that story. For me, the joy in writing is the joy of discovery. I like to discover what happened, how the pieces fit, in much the same way a reader will.
This takes me back to my opening point from yesterday’s post: what do I want people to get out of my novel? I’ve come to believe, as a lot of other writers before me have, that when I write “The End” at the close of a story, it isn’t truly the end. It’s the beginning. The story will come to its full potential and fruition when readers—working as my unseen collaborators—read it, add to it their own experiences and world views, and find elements there that are meaningful or entertaining for them.