By now, everyone knows that there’s no “right” way to write a book. There are as many different writing styles and approaches as there are people. In some ways, writing styles can be grouped into loose categories. However, I prefer to see them as points along a spectrum– a line stretching between two extremes, with most people somewhere in-between.
Exploring the Spectrum
The spectrum has two extremes. On one side is the Tight Outliner. You don’t want to hit any dead ends, and like to know if the plot will work out before you begin writing. On one hand, there’s a danger in outlining too much. You could potentially stifle the creativity you have right now, or plot yourself into a corner. However, by looking at the book as a whole you can outline subplots, motifs and the theme much better.
On the other extreme is the infamous Pantser. A detailed plot’s too confining– you’d rather take a couple characters you know well and shove them into trouble, deciding the rest later. As usual, there’s positives and negatives. You aren’t shoehorning scenes into a stifling plot, so the novel can feel fresher. On the other hand, without guidance it can lose momentum or divert onto unnecessary tangents.
In the middle of the spectrum is the Framer. These people don’t need an entire outline, merely a framework, a few cross-beams to hold the plot together. Cross-beams are major plot points (e.g. beginning, inciting event, climax, resolution), using whatever plotting system you prefer.
In-between the Pantser and the Framer is the Scene Sewer. These writers are unusual in that they write out of order. Often, they have a generic sense of where the novel is going, but the cross-beams aren’t yet in place. Rather than spend time crafting scenes and sequels, they simply write the scenes that are already in their head– the scenes that, most likely, got them excited enough to write the book in the first place. While this may boost creativity, an emphasis on the individual scenes could also lead to a situation where you refuse to let go of a scene, even if it doesn’t fit with the plot.
In-between the Framer and the Tight Outliner is the Loose Outliner. These three categories are fairly similar, with one difference: the Loose Outliner has the basic scenes filled in between the major plot events, but the scenes aren’t fleshed out. Scene details, including obstacles and sequels, will be written when you get there.
Explaining the Spectrum
As I’ve said, most people fall in-between the two extremes. Few people have every single detail of every scene planned out before starting to write, and few people throw characters into scenes without any thought as to what happens next. Each side of the spectrum has its charms, so, in many ways, a compromise is best.
Oftentimes, you have to change your style for a different project or genre, or even a different schedule, to be more productive. A literary novel, which requires a much stronger character arc and theme to be interesting, will require less plotting than a military thriller ingrained in action. Plots, unlike characters, don’t allow for inconsistency. We’ll let a character slide who has conflicting opinions and idiosyncrasies, but not a gaping plot hole that makes us question all that follows.
It’s important to note that these styles apply largely to outlining, versus writing the book itself. Actual writing has much less method about it. No matter in what order you write, or when, or how, actual writing involves only two things: your butt in a chair and your hands on a keyboard. Outlining is a different beast. Just as there are many ways to arrive at ideas, so there are many ways to develop them.
A Second Spectrum
Another possible way to think about the spectrum is plot vs. character. The outliners are more interested in plot, while the pantsers are more focused on characters (even if the genre they’re writing in isn’t character-driven). In some ways, this isn’t true: characters, both their personality and growth, can often require just as much outlining as the plot. But, in general, it holds up.
I’m no psychiatrist, but I feel that many writing processes are developed out of fear– whether fear of your creativity being stifled, or of the novel becoming a plot-less morass that goes nowhere.
Even if that isn’t the case, experimentation is always a good course. The key is to find which process works for you (or for the particular project you’re working on). If you find a process doesn’t work, slide that bar along the spectrum and try again. And even if you’ve found your style, there’s always room for improvement. Try to implement elements of other styles. Think about how to minimize its drawbacks. There are as many points on the spectrum as there are people. And the possibilities? Endless.
Michael Nellis, Copyright 2017