Thursday, July 06, 2017

Are you a plotter or pantser?

Here’s a question writers sometimes get: Are you a plotter or a pantser? Mystery novelists especially. It means, do you take the time to plot out your story beforehand or do you just begin writing and go by the seat of your pants that you’ll find an ending?

There are advantages for both approaches. Plotters will tell you you need a road map, you certainly need to know the ending ahead of time or you very well may find yourself wandering aimlessly through the woods looking for a way out.

Pantsers maintain that by letting the story go where it wants to go you often find twists and endings that are more organic and in many cases you never would of thought of if you had just followed a road map. Many mystery writers believe that this method makes their books more unpredictable. It’s hard to out-guess the author if he himself doesn’t know “who done it.”

The danger of course, is that you could go down a lot of blind alleys or hit a wall. Neil Simon never outlines his plays, but he admits to having a drawer filled with thirty-page beginnings of plays that will never see the light of day. You can save yourself a lot of time if you know in advance what you’ve got.

I’ve always been a plotter. In television you have to be. Half-hour shows are now about 20 minutes and you need a detailed outline to ensure the story fits into the time constraints. And now of course, you have to have outlines approved by everybody at the network including the janitors.

One time on CHEERS, my partner David Isaacs and I tried an experiment. With the blessing of the Charles Brothers, we wrote an episode without an outline. We wanted to take advantage of all the bar talk and see just where that would take us. The premise of the episode was Frasier’s bachelor party, and the only story we had was that he was having second thoughts about the marriage and by the end would decide to go through with it. That’s it. The episode is called “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” if you want to check it out. (Season 6, episode 17) And to this day it’s one of my favorites. But going in we had the characters, had the situation, and knew where we were heading. That’s not the same as just starting a show with the guys at the bar talking and see if a story could somehow emerge.

So I’m a plotter. Very detailed for screenplays and TV episodes, a little less so for pilots, and very loose for stage plays. When writing plays I like the freedom to see the characters come alive but still want to know the ending. I’m anal that way.

Yet, a number of playwrights I respect are pantsers and wouldn’t have it any other way. So I decided to try that approach. I’m still too chicken to do it for a full-length play (although my next one I think I will), but I decided to try that approach with a ten-minute play. I had the beginning and nothing else. It was a little scary. But I think after years of breaking stories I just have an internal clock that won’t let me go too far astray.

As luck would have it I did find an ending, and it did come out of something I just stumbled upon in the writing. Now I’ll have to try it again because on the one hand I’m very proud of myself that it worked out so well, but on the other – was it a fluke?   Meanwhile, it's been accepted into the Hollywood Short + Sweet Festival and will be performed next month.

And another ten-minute one act I wrote was accepted into the Edmonds Driftwood Players One Act Festival this weekend in Seattle and I’ll be going up there to see it.

Ten-minute plays are very popular these days. They’re great fun to do but also a little tricky. You want to make sure you’re writing a real play and not a sketch.

There are a lot of festivals. Playwrights submit their work and months can go by before you hear anything. When you do your first response is “Who is this again? I entered what in this competition?”

But it occurred to me, I have another avenue for getting my ten-minute plays produced. YOU. If you have a theater group and you want a funny ten-minute play -- either the new one, THE FUGITIVE (Hollywood Short + Sweet) or LOVERS LEAP (that’ll be performed in Seattle) -- just email me for details and samples. The laughs are on me.

So now if someone asks me – I say I used to be a plotter but now I’m a pantser on training wheels.


Bill Jones said...

Everybody have fun tonight. Everybody Wang Chung tonight.

Andrew said...

Great post, Ken.

You mention mystery writers. Agatha Christie was notoriously disorganized, yet had a system that worked for her. She would often not know the identity of the murderer when she began a new novel. She would work out multiple possibilities and then intuitively allow the plot to develop as she wrote. Her own surprise would then be mimicked by her readers. So she was both a plotter and a pantser (if I understand your meanings of the words).

There's a great article about her writing style here:

Mitchell McLean said...

Being meticulous in one's work is one of my least unfavorite forms of anal. :-)

Bob Gassel said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: Was just watching the Cheers pilot and midway thru the show, as the bar fills up, a woman in a wheelchair appears at one of the did she get down there?

Mitchell McLean said...

Any chance you could elaborate on the difference(s) between a short play or film, and a sketch? Thanks!

Dave Creek said...

My outlines for both novels and short stories have become more detailed as time goes on, because I find myself going down paths to nowhere if I try to "pants" it. At the same time, I'm aware that the outline is not the story -- as they say, the map is not the territory. If I get an idea for a different development as I write, I consider it and if I think it's better, I incorporate it.

Usually it's additional material that makes the story deeper or demonstrates character more effectively, rather than requiring a drastic change in the wider story.

Wally said...

Have fun and good luck in Seattle!

Wayne K said...

Neil Simon tells small autobiographical stories. So he is already did the planning with his life. Biloxi Blues. Based on his experience in Army basic training Its focus: the colorful characters he was thrown in with. Nothing big happens. The training is of little later consequence. (And he didn't even get a writing partner out of it.)

Peter said...

I got tired of Agatha Christie novels because too often the revelation of the killer's identity relied on something the reader couldn't possibly have worked out. It would usually involve Poirot contacting someone abroad or in some position of power to divulge information at the last minute which had not been seeded earlier in the story precisely because it was pulled out of nowhere near the end of the novel.

Neil Simon's Murder by Death has a brilliant scene where the Truman Capote character ridicules this kind of narrative approach that cheats the reader.

Peter said...

This is the scene in Murder by Death I mentioned above:

"You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters at the end that weren't in the book before! You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it."

LouOCNY said...

Thanks for the script! It's always interesting to read a 'revised final' version of a script, to see how much ended up getting changed anyways. i have a couple of STAR TREK scripts. and it is amazing how much even the so-called 'final' versions get changed. The original tag is pretty dull, replaced by a much funnier one. How last minute was that rewrite? It also makes it obvious you were going to use Tom Sullivan as 'Tom Straw' from the get go.

Thanks again!

Andrew said...

Peter, I'm a Christie fan, but thanks for the laugh! I haven't seen that movie in a long time, and it's worth revisiting.

On the other hand, I disagree with you about your general assessment of Christie. In most cases that I remember, the clues were all there, and there weren't any unfair games being played.

Have you ever read Five Little Pigs, for example? At the very least, watch the Suchet Poirot episode, one of the best in the entire series.

David Russell said...

Friday question:

We have discovered "Life in Pieces" on Netflix. To use their tagline: One Large Family. Four Short Stories. In essence, it's an extended family with Dianne Wiest and James Brolin as the matriarch and patriarch with their extended families and grandkids.

You've talked before about the difficulties of developing a story into ever shrinking number of minutes (from 26 to 24 to 22 to whatever it is now). This sitcom is about 20 minutes long and tells 4 stories in each episode. There is occasional cross over or follow through from one story to the next but generally they're four stories connected loosely by a theme, each one of which could be watched independently of the others.

I wonder what your thoughts are about the show, the writing, what the process might be like and do you find it satisfying as a viewer or would you find it satisfying as a writer.

D. McEwan said...

Well, I mix the approaches. I've written stage farces that were outlined beat-by-bet in advance (which makes the actual writing easier but less fun), and I've written stuff starting with little more than an idea and let it see where it took me. In my novels, I tend to mix the approach. There will be plotlines fully plotted out, and plotlines that are pure improvisation. With my two fake-movie-star-memoirs novels, I first wrote the filmographies that appear at the end of each bookj as an appendix. This gives me the clothesline on which to hang the developments of the characters' lives.

In my novel Tallyho, Tallulah!, I had from the first half hour of having the idea for the book, the premise, the beginning and the climax. There they were. They never changed all the way to publication. It was act 2 that was the challenge, and I did a good deal of making it up as I went along. And one whole major subplot was conceived when I was roughly one-third of the way through writing it.

In My Lush Life, I had a long subplot, involving Tallulah's daughter and her body guard which culminates in a liver transplant chapter. ("Cry Me a Liver.") Now this whole, long subplot was all worked out in advance. When I finished it, I felt like some improvising. I had planned that next would be one chapter of her traveling the world, making some movies for three years, with only the movie titles worked out. I let myself go, and one chapter grew into 7 chapters, an entire new section of the book ("Morehead Around the World") and added 5 new storylines,all just making it up as I typed, trusting my instincts and my long years of improv training. It became great fun to write. One two-chapter storyline in it had Tallulah stalked and terrorized in Paris by a "Phantom." When I got to the unmasking scene, I literally had no conscious knowledge of who was behind the mask. I turned off my conscious mind and typed the unmasking sentence, and learned who the culprit was as I saw myself type the character's name.

And it was the right solution. Of course it was who it was. It had to be! I had to deep-six the loose plans I had for that character later in the book, but what I ended up with was so much better and more fun.

In My Gruesome Life, I started out with an idea for the ending that I ended up dropping entirely. One-quarter of the way into the writing of the book, an event occurred in my life that was painful and bitter, and even in my pain and bitterness, I also saw, "THAT'S how to end the story!" And I came up with the new ending based on what had just happened in my life, and it was absolutely the right choice.

BTW, the filmographies are never set in stone. If I need to add, subtract, rename or re-arrange them in the course of the writing, I do.

Oh, and I ALWAYS write dialogue, even heavily jokey dialogue, seat of the pants. I know what they want to communicate to each other, but I always let the characters talk and just type up what they say. Always.

VincentS said...

I think I'm a combination of the two. I never write down my plot outlines but I always have at least the ending in my head before I start.

VP81955 said...

Best wishes with the festival, Ken, and remember to say nice (but sincere) things about Anna Faris while you're there. (She's from Edmonds.)

Frank Beans said...

Oh lord, what a can of worms, Ken...

And just to mix metaphors even more, I'll say that most brilliant comedy writing is a sausage-making combination of both. That is, the exposition and middle parts tend to be tightly written, but the ending is often improvised and conceived in a last-ditch effort to pad out the story, and come to some kind of sensible conclusion.

I submit THE PRODUCERS as an example of this, which is impeccable comedy until it sort of goes off the rails in terms of plot...yet it manages to recover at the end, purely out of dogged determination to keep the story arc going.

DBenson said...

MAD Magazine did a satire of "Murder on the Orient Express". I assumed the solution they offered was a joke, and a pretty funny one. When I finally caught up with the the movie, it turned out that was the REAL ending. Unspoiled, because I didn't believe it in MAD.

DBenson said...

I'm an amateur writer. Back in the day I'd write Sherlockian pastiches to pass out on closing night of community theater shows I was in (at least when I could hit on a plot that intersected with the play we were doing). I'd start with a pretty clear idea of where it was going, but because I was typing it up late at night after rehearsals and performances, I'd end up improvising an early ending or whipping out the last several pages in near-summary form to finish it in time.

Now I'm writing a novel, still decidedly amateur. Went in with a very clear idea of events and character developments, but once it got rolling discovered plot mechanics and plausible human behavior forced the addition of whole chapters between various points A and points B. And constant valid reasons Why The Bad Guys Don't Just Shoot 'Em. Resolved not to do one of my quick wrap up endings, thus the sucker is edging 190,000 words as the characters move into position for their destined climax. And all for a plot I originally figured as a 75-minute comic screenplay.

Yes, I've been tempted down side roads by colorful expositional characters and such. But some unexpectedly paid off by solving mechanical problems, usually points where I had penciled in Outrageous Coincidences.

Earl Boebert said...

Classic puzzle mysteries are tricky because you have to devise three plots: what really happened, what the perp wants everybody to think happened, and how the perp is exposed.

The mystery writer who most brilliantly combined plotter and pantser was Rex Stout, who wrote all his stuff in one pass. Erle Stanley Gardner was all plotter, Raymond Chandler was all pantser (ref. his celebrated response to Leigh Brackett's question about who killed the chauffeur in "The Big Sleep:" "I don't know.")

Liggie said...

Short stories would logically be the best place for pantsing, I woukd think. If you can write a great novel or screenplay through pantsing, well done.

That said, weren't a lot of the French "New Wave" films improvised? Godard, "Breathless", etc.? I'd like to hear a film scholar explain how those were made into acclaimed films, as I don't think we'll see their likes again under the current business model of filmmaking.

cd1515 said...

Friday question: why do so many movies and TV shows have the very predictable 'No Way in Hell!' moment, where the main character declares there's No Way in Hell he or she will do whatever the plot has them doing, which of course they always wind up doing in the end?
Seems like script filler to me.
Why not get right into having the person do it?

Cap'n Bob said...

I know my ending and a few stops along the way, but I wing it the rest of the time.

Unknown said...

Ken, I'm one of the actors in the Edmonds Shorts Festival (Spare Change) and I want to say I love your play and now I'm a fan of your blogs ��

By Ken Levine said...


You were FANTASTIC. Truly. Congratulations.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

"TO All the Girls I've loved before" has a couple of lines I use all the time:
1) Mocha Finland
2) My first time was right after I got married...actually the following week.