Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Moving Blindly Forward

I decided to write this post because of what Scott wrote yesterday about his narrative proofs, which I found quite fascinating. His strategy (and the other writers who also mentioned working the same way) seems totally logical to me, and at the same time it's so completely counterintuitive from what I do. So, as a fun contrast, I thought I'd describe how I go about developing my stories.

I start with a premise. I'll use the example Scott used:

Red is walking to her grandmother's.

At this point, I actually try very hard NOT to think about how I want the story to end. For me, knowing where I want the story to go makes me suddenly manipulate my characters in unnatural ways. If I decide I want Red to end up with a woodsman, I'll suddenly have her stumble upon the National Woodsmen Convention, where she's ushered into the main hall and forced to listen to some boring lecture by her soon-to-be lover. For me, that won't work.

Instead, I look at what I have started with, and try to carefully take the next step forward. Who is Red? Why is she walking to her grandmother's? These are clues for how the story should move forward. I inch my way forward, collecting data, not knowing where it will go. I try to take logical and interesting steps based on what I have before.

Red is walking to her grandmother's. She gets there and knocks on the door, and her hairy, long-fanged grandmother invites her in.

If I were writing this story, the woodsman probably wouldn't occur to me until very near the end, if at all.

I actually think of this approach as sort of setting up some game pieces that will eventually control themselves based on the rules of the game. What I can manipulate is the beginning, and what I try not to manipulate is the end. So, I guess for me, it's that middle section that is the most important and the most fun. I'm past the hard work of set up, and now I just get to sit back and watch. (The scene where Red is asking the wolf all of her questions is the most memorable scene for me.)

Along with this, I've found that when I love a book, I don't want it to end. And, the way I interpreted that was that the ending shouldn't be the best part. For me, this approach was the most true to my own life experiences. Living in the present always felt like being in the middle of the book, and it was always this middle that felt the most important.

As a result of this approach, I think my stories usually have vague or open endings. Again, for me, this is acceptable because it feels true to life--not that all stories must be true to life. I hope that it's the middle of the stories that people enjoy.

So, there you have it. The panster's approach.

Do you all think it matters how a writer approaches their story? What other effects can approach have on the final product?


  1. Yep, that's more like me: a complete pantzer. Its the opposite of how I am in the rest of my life: totally organized, list-and-schedule-maker.

    I think it may be why I enjoy writing so much because for once, I totally let go.

  2. Susie, That's really interesting that the way you write is so different from the rest of your life. My writing is, unfortunately, pretty consistent. Even though I'm a scientist, I'm a disorganized one, progressing much as I do in my writing!

  3. I'm also like susiej: a pantzer who's more organized in the rest of her life. (At least, I try to be!)

    I like the point you made about the middle being the most important. Middles are often the parts writers muddle through.

  4. Sandra, Middles fascinate me. I do find that they are often more functional than they are fun. I feel like that's more traditional anyway. I just realized that I personally tend to life the middles of stories the best.

  5. I think it matters how a writer approaches the story in the sense that it affects the story itself; but I don't think any one approach is better or worse than another.

    I usually write with some form of conclusion in mind, but not always. When the ending is ambiguous, it is harder to determine if the story is actually over. This is a challenge for the writer (and editor), but it doesn't make it bad. I like the times when I get to ponder what happened after the story ended (THE ROAD is an excellent example of such a story).

    That being said, I also like a nice tidy ending with a plausible twist that I could have seen coming, but did not.

  6. Rick,
    I always have trouble with endings, and knowing when I've reached the ending, like you say. I think that's why Scott's post intrigued me, because it was a very different way of looking at this.

  7. This is another interesting approach. While I tend to lean more in this direction, there are things here you mention that I should probably be doing (like asking why this person is doing X). I'm not really asking these questions, which would probably improve my writing as well.

    As far as the ending goes, I usually have a very vague idea of what the end will probably be. This (lately) has become a source of irritation because now I'm having trouble connecting the final dots.

    Great post, Davin.

  8. Eric, I have a really hard time when I have to connect the dots. I think that's why I avoid knowing the ending. Life's easier for me without having that dot there. Having said that, I think Scott and I would both agree that sometimes you have to move the dot.

  9. Davin, this is fascinating! And now that I've read your work, I can see this as true of how you write and approach stories. The middle of Rooster is the most interesting and satisfying part of the book, for me.

    I have a feeling that this is what I will be writing about on Thursday. I'm not sure what my method is. I'll have to ponder on how I've done both my books that both feel like a mess right now. Not sure if I've found a good method yet!

  10. Well, Davin, history is full of scientific "accidents" where something unexpected was discovered in the search for...whatever they were searching for.

    When I let my characters go, they often introduce me to characters I hadn't meant to meet. It's interesting, but the challenge as you mentioned is staying on track or moving the end. That's why I sometimes envy the organized writer, its so hard to edit out a great/fun scene once its been created.

    I suppose it's a matter of balancing the sidetrips. Was Tom Bombadil necessary to LOTR? He was entirely absent from the movie and I didn't even notice until it was over. Yet, I know people who say that's their favorite, most memorable part of the whole series.

    I got really annoyed with what I saw as two time wasting scenes in Outlander- they were the only parts my husband found interesting. LOL!

  11. SO interesting to hear both Scott's and your way to building a story about Red. Very cool indeed.

    Glam: now I want to know how you'd deal with Red. :)

  12. Just read his post. And I uh, tried NOT to sleep in math class, I really did. =)

    Davin, I love how you say "living in the present always felt like being in the middle of the book, and it was always this middle that felt the most important." This is how I feel.

    Both of these posts are great and will help me to see my writing the way I should see it. Uh, I hope I explained myself clearly just now. In other words, now I can clearly identify the was I approach my writing. Thanks to both of you. =)

  13. I meant, clearly identify the WAY I approach my writing.

  14. I’ve always written more along the lines of what you’ve outlined here, which is, not having much of an outline at all. I start with a situation or scene that intrigues me, with a couple of characters interacting. I have a general idea of who they are and where they’ll go, but I’m always amazed at the twists and turns of the plot.

    Perhaps this approach works best for character driven stories, and the “proof” approach, for the plot driven—or maybe it’s just that I suck at math, and formulas scare me—I even shy away from recipes…

  15. I plot in broad strokes, I guess. I think of the scenes I need to write to get to the end of my story, and almost always thus far I've known what the ending needed to be.

    I don't outline, and don't create character histories, but I do keep a short list of possible events and scenes in a Word doc to refer to if I get stuck. But my favorite thing of all is when writing the scenes, little details spontaneously occur to me that make it new and fascinating, despite my knowing where it has to go.

    This may all change as the novel progresses, but right now, that's my story and I'm sticking to it...

  16. Very interesting. It'd be fun to do a study where people read novels and guess the author's plotting method.

  17. Having written mysteries where I had no clue who the victim was, why he was dead, or who killed him until well into the book, this is how I write.

    The thing is to keep asked "Why?".

    But it's scary since I've been asked to do a workshop on my "plotting" technique.

    I'd call myself a "Plantser" because I plan each scene, but that's about it.

    **Handout on my website

    (I did OK in math until calculus)

  18. Michelle, I hope you do write about your process tomorrow! I know we've talked about it before, though, but only in chats.

    Yat-Yee, I just built on top of Scott's idea. I do like the way he talks about his process because I admire his writing.

    Robyn, This is the kind of stuff I think about a lot. The process of making art is interesting to me. And, somehow, I feel like it's useful, even if I can't come up with concrete reasons why right away.

    jbchicoine, I also wonder if this has more to do with the way painting works. Because that very much is an iterative process, where we can built up on the layers of paint we have before it. We make adjustments on the canvas.

    Simon, I also really like those "happy accidents" that can happen. Most of my stories are built on that, and I think it just interests me more. Whenever I try to write about myself I get bored quickly because I already know the outcomes.

    Livia, I actually do that all the time. I try to guess how the author come about making a particular story. I always think I'm right, but likely I'm not!

    Terry, thanks for the insight into how you work, and the link. I've never ever dared to write a mystery because I think I'd be very bad at it. It's really surprising to learn that a mystery writer doesn't know the outcome when she starts!

  19. Nice analogy to painting, Davin.

  20. "I think Scott and I would both agree that sometimes you have to move the dot."

    I agree, Big D. I just move all the lines and dots around a lot earlier than you do!


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