I’ve been trying to explain how I write – without formalising a plot (I think this makes me what is called a Pantser) – to writers who are more used to devising their plot before they start (Plotters). So here goes.
Bedtime Stories are a good example:
If you sat down with your child – or somebody else’s child – tonight and they asked you to make up a bedtime story, how would you do it? At our house when we do this, there is no plotting, you just make it up as you’re telling it.
For example, “Once upon a time there was…” What? Quickly! A dragon who was afraid to fly? A cat with no friends? A little girl who couldn’t get to sleep? A boy made of jelly?
Once you have come up with that original character-based premise, the rest of your story can quickly take shape on the hoof – the action, the setbacks, the antagonists and the ally and of course the Happily Ever After.
Starting with a premise:
When I’m writing, I work in the same way. I start with a premise. So The Night Rainbow premise was essentially ” Once upon a time there was a little girl who had no-one to take care of her.” And then I started creating the world around her. Where does she live? What would she do when she wakes up in the morning? What does she want? What danger could she be in? How would she spend her days? Why is her mother not looking after her? And so on.
The answers to these questions did not come to me in a logical manner. They bloomed, one by one, and each time they did, they came with their own questions. I wrote it all down.
Writing in Layers:
Of course a novel is much more complex than a bedtime story, but the process of starting at page one and ending at the end is still counter intuitive to me. So when I started writing these things down, I didn’t worry about starting at the beginning, I just captured it all and developed it as fully as I could at that time. It fit everywhere and nowhere in the logical construct of a novel. For example I wrote the bones of the ending quite early on. Once I knew where the girl lived I drew a map, and it became more elaborate as her adventures progressed. I had to go back into the manuscript regularly to weave in the geography.
Throughout the whole process new ideas would come to me that strengthened earlier or later sections of the book and each of those had a knock-on effect on the rest of the novel.
The ‘first draft’ was finished when I seemed to have answered all of my questions – within the narrative or within the notes alongside it. And then I asked myself…
So what would be the best way to tell this story?
The implications of this question are huge – moving whole chunks of the book from one place to another, deleting scenes, adding new scenes, making the character development consistent, ensuring foreshadowing in the right places and so on and so on.
Thank goodness for word processing and thank goodness for Scrivener which helped me stay organised.
This process took a long time and resulted in the second draft, by which time I would say the plot was clear to anyone now reading the manuscript.
Another art metaphor – writing in layers compared to painting in layers:
Another way of explaining this is by comparing the emerging story to a picture.
Rather than the narrative emerging as though from a printer – one line of pixels at a time – for me it works more like an oil painting, one layer created at a time:
In oil painting most artists paint in layers.
The artist often starts by sketching out the composition onto the canvas.
They might then proceed by painting in different colour layers working from darkest to lightest.
Entire layers can be removed if the artist isn’t happy with them.
The borders of the colors are blended together when the “mosaic” is completed.
Details are applied at the end.
This is just how I work and everyone works differently. So here are some interesting links:
A discussion here about Plotters versus Pantsers
The snowflake method by Randy Ingermanson