Originally posted at by Sammee at I Want to Read That, I had fun writing this post. Perhaps even more though, re-reading it, I'm finding that the three act structure is something I seem to teach a lot now. Funny to see what was just a line or two here has become a whole lecture.
Letting Your Characters Drive
The hot question in my life as of late seems to be: “Are you a panster or planner?” And I’ve decided, after much thought, that I hate that question. It’s like trying to vote for president: are those my only two options? Really?
The dichotomy implies that the author is either sitting back and controlling the characters like puppets or is sitting down and furiously hitting keys, hoping that a story will take shape.
Campaign Against Planners
Let’s say my protagonist is name Sheila. If I were a planner, I would map out where she would go, do an in-depth outline, construct settings, flow charts, figure out the timing, put everything on a calendar and then, and only then, would the Sheila get to do anything, or say anything. Poor Sheila! She doesn’t get to do anything on her own. She has no choice, no ability to have an insight you haven’t figured out, and most of all, no voice.
And for all that planning, I won’t have a compelling plot because nothing anyone can do on the page will surprise me. And if Sheila can’t surprise me, she won’t be able to surprise my readers.
But what if, instead, I put her in scenes and see what she would do?
Action reveals character. Let your character – her desires, her decisions – be revealed to you through what she wants and what she does to get it, revealed through the writing.
Campaign Against Pansters (and it’s not because I might get pantsed.)
A friend once told me: “I’ve written 16 pages today describing the drive from the ocean house to the coast.” I was stunned into silence. 16 pages of description. That’s an entire short story.
You can’t sacrifice forward movement of the book to writerly indulgences. Not in terms of your readers’ attention and not in terms of your own time. But even more concerning, what if nothing ever happens? What if your characters wander around being nice all the time?
As I said, action reveals character – not what the side of the road looks like.
Now poor Shelia is on a road to nowhere, driving forever with nothing but an endless supply of the gas (i.e. the author’s imagination) and coffee and chocolate bars (what the author is mainlining) and she is still doing nothing.
While I believe that characters should drive, you’d better give them a road map.
Reject the Pantser v. Planner dichotomy. Vote for a Plantser!
Now, I hope I’m not treading on anyone’s process because process is golden and must be respected. However, here’s option three: Be a plantser.
Think of your novel as a three act play. At the end of each act, you hit what is known as a plot point. Plot points are where Sheila’s world changes because her desire changes: it gets remarkable clearer, changes, or refocuses. Now Sheila has the key piece of evidence that will help her solve the case, or something along those lines.
Give your character plot points as if they are destinations that they need to hit on their road trip. (“Shelia, head south. I’ll meet you in Albuquerque in 3 days. How you get there is up to you.”) And when you get to the climax, rip Sheila’s map right out of her hands. What will she do? Where will she go? That’s up to her. Give her a choice and give her a voice.
You’ve taken her far enough. Let her drive the rest of the way.