Showing and Telling
Style and Voice

Jigsaws, pantsers and doing your prep

One of the perennial questions asked of writers - and among writers - is, "Are you a planner or a pantser?" Pantser as in "flying by the seat of your pants": the kind of writer who dives straight into the first draft, and sees what happens. And the opposite seems to be the planner: the ones who don't start until they know a good deal about where they're going. The planners are afraid of getting lost or stalling or going wrong if they don't have at least some kind of map in their hand; the pansters are afraid of being shackled or bored or going wrong if they do. And yes, both can go wrong, and I've seen the results: the planned novel where everything fits together as neatly as a jigsaw, and is just about as interesting and believable an evocation of real life; the pantsed novel whose open-ended exploration of characters' lives and experience seems... well, endless.

And then a friend, let's call her Nicola, who's just done her first writing course, said that she had a story she wanted to write: first person, and very much the story of that single character. "But I don't know the other characters well enough yet," she said. "I'm going to have to write it from their point of view, too. I don't want to, but I know that I need to." I asked why she didn't want to. "Just because it's boring to do,' she said. "It's like doing the preparation before you can start painting the room. Sanding, and washing-down and things. But you have to do it. And if you don't, the result won't be nearly as good."

Having squashed down a twinge of teacherly smugness, because I think it was me who first suggested this trick to her, I suddenly realised what's missing from the binary planner/pantser conversation (is anything in writing binary? I doubt it.) Whether you think of it as a grid, or a synopsis, or a real or virtual cork-board of index cards, the conversation is all about planning as a roadmap, the kind of strip-map that they used in the 18th Century and is still used for the detail of motorways and canals: junctions, locks, mileages and directions. The only information is what clusters about the road, and the indications of the main routes off it. You follow it straight, down (or up) page after page, till you reach the end.

But what if you don't think of what you do before you start Chapter One as planning, but as preparation? The kind of mapping that the Beagle and all those other expeditions were doing: not planning out a route, but exploring and describing whatever they found in a new land. Not a channelling - some would say a narrowing - of possibilities, but a widening of them: an exploration of the terrain, of the kind I was discussing in "Making The Skeleton Dance"? That of course, is what we're doing with research, and in writing historical fiction I spend much of my working life in L P Hartley's foreign country. So maybe we should think of planning as research too, just research not about the real world we need to get "right" if our readers are going to trust in their contract with us, but about the imagined world that's in our heads: the people and their stories that seem to exist as if they're real.

Nicola's going to research the other characters' ideas and feelings and pasts, even though most of that will never appear in the story, not by making lists but in the same way that we find out what any story's about: by imagining, then writing, then using the writing to coax the imagining wider and deeper. It'll help to capture their voices in dialogue, and help her decide how they'd behave but, above all, it should help to inform what her real viewpoint character sees and understands about them, or doesn't understand but the reader must. Of course, she may discover that she can't, or won't, do what she originally intended with them; that's an occupational hazard of writing fiction. But, like an explorer who understands the geology and topography of the whole country and so can cope with changing route to avoid (or reach) rebel territory, because Nicola's researched these people's minds and lives all around the route of the main character's story, she should be able to adapt her story, or adapt her characters, to make it work.