Three Dirty Birds Talk About Story Trumps Structure: Chapter 7


The Three Dirty Birds are back again, pecking away at Stroy Trumps Structure, by Steven James. This episode is the first one to touch on the pantser vs. the outliner.

Zoe: I think we should take a moment to make a distinction up front that I’m not sure James himself clearly makes (because if he had, I might not have been so cranky through this chapter). When he says “plotter” or “outliner,” what he means (I eventually sussed out) is, specifically, someone who uses a rigid template—like Joseph Campbells’s The Hero’s Journey—and asks no questions about the story outside of the parameters of that template, and then writes their book according to that “outline.” That’s one way to plot, one way to outline, but it doesn’t necessarily describe all plotters or outliners. In fact, while reading this chapter, I kept going, “What you’re describing is how I plot.” (And then in chapter seven he actually devotes a paragraph to why you can’t simply plot this way, which explains why the spine on my copy has a little wall-shaped dent in it.)

I found myself wishing that James had not chosen to frame his book as an anti-plotting book, or as an “organic writers” versus plotters book, because it contains valuable information of use to both plotters and “organic writers” (despite James’s thoughts otherwise), but the blatant disdain for plotting (and plotters) can be hard to get past for someone who has nothing against plotting. (As can the occasional blatant self-congratulatory bits. I have a Post-It Note on page 87 that says, “You brave pioneer you.”) If I had not been reading this book for our discussions, this is the chapter where I would have walked away from it—despite the useful information it contains. So in this week’s discussion, you can refer to me as Ms. Crankybird.

Kate: So I guess that means that Zoe is a pantser after all. I found he described my process to a T, and I, in no way, am a plotter. It’s like writing from inside a straitjacket for me. The likelihood of me finishing a story if I write out the whole thing before I start is almost nil, because in my head, I’ve already written it.

Ana: I had a bit of a problem with him saying that plotters always end up with these artificial stories because once they’ve made an outline they stick to it and don’t dare to deviate or explore other possibilities anymore. That’s simply not true for any of the plotters I know. I’m not a plotter myself.. well, not all the time, but most people who do plot tell me they end up having to make changes to their outlines and such.

Zoe: I got the impression that he imagined plotters sat down for an afternoon, banged the outline out, and done. It takes me weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years to plan a story out.

Ana: What, only a year? Where do you find the time to get to know your characters?

Zoe: What characters?

Kate: Lol. He did seem to have a very one-sided view of plotters.

Ana: It’s kind of funny because I’m used to getting this sort of one-sided view on pantsing from plotters.

Kate: It is funny, because I don’t think a pantser is any more or less likely to have to cut words or scenes out of a story than a plotter is. If anything, plotters run a greater risk of having to shred things simply to get past suspension of disbelief, because as their characters grew, the plot became less plausible.

Zoe: In the film Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin tells the sales team to Always Be Closing. I think the best writers follow Always Be Plotting—you’re doing it through the whole process, always evaluating and reevaluating and adjusting.

Kate: If you give a hoot, you should always be doing that. If your current plotline requires a bit of Author Ex Machina to make it even semi-believable, then you’re doing something wrong and you need to go back and put in the work to fix it.

Ana: True. It felt to me in this chapter, and some other parts of the book, that James was fed up with people saying that writers needed to be plotters, and then he went the other extreme. To be honest, I always get annoyed when someone tries to tell me about the ONE TRUE WAY of writing. ‘Cause we’re all the same, you know.

Zoe: Five pages into the chapter, we finally get past the (first) wave of plotters vs. outliners and get to the good stuff. Here he says that your characters need to act in contextually believable ways, all the time. Everything that happens in the story will be caused by the thing that precedes it—causality, which I think leads to his next point: inevitability: the end of every scene must not only be logical but, in retrospect, the only possible conclusion to that scene. (But, at the same time, the scene has to end in an unexpected way: if readers figure out what’s going to happen before it happens, they get bored, so scenes must be inevitable mostly in retrospect). If your characters solve something without a setback, he says, you don’t have a story. Tension must continue to escalate, scene by scene, until it reaches a climax, after which nothing is the same again.

Ana: I was wondering if I can end every scene in an unexpected way. Sometimes it feels like the only way to do something completely unexpected would be to throw in tentacles. (Then again, everyone who’s read our talk would expect them.)

Zoe: Let it be noted that Ana brought up the tentacles this time. But yes, I was thinking that too, that it could almost seem gimmicky if you try too hard to put a surprise in each scene.

Kate: I think if you try too hard to have a surprise at the end of each scene, it reduces the impact of the important surprises.

Ana: Reminds me of a certain writer with a love for cliffhangers. Like, every chapter.

Zoe: I think in some cases you can think of it more as asking yourself, “How will the reader want this scene to end,” and seeing if you can dodge that, at least a little.

Kate: Your own twist on the expected result, determined by the characters, not by your need to be amazing and different.

Zoe: Right, and leave the reader not completely satisfied, so they want to read on to get the resolution they’re looking for.

Kate: I generally try to lay a hook, or the beginning of the next nervous tension thread, just before I resolve something for the reader at the end of a scene.

Sounds like a good way to handle it. I also (again) wasn’t completely happy with his take on the romance genre.

Kate: Hahaha! My sticky note! How would the MC handle his woman being disrespected? Aaaargh! Maybe she just o-goshi’s the dude herself.

Zoe: So we agree again that romance is not his genre. (But he thinks he knows enough about it to stick in poorly thought out suggestions.)

Ana: Of course. Romance isn’t so complicated a genre that you’d have to actually study, or, you know, read it.

Kate: *twirls hair around finger and giggles*

Zoe: Section 6—”Reevaluate where you’re going”—kind of exhausted me. He prints out ten or fifty or a hundred pages and rereads them before he starts writing them, he’s prepared to go back and rework earlier sections of the manuscript, and when he’s done for the day, he prints out what he worked on, reads it (again) in context, marks up changes, and enters them in. I can’t work like that. I get a draft done, then I edit.

Ana: I shudder at the thought of reading my writing that often, to be honest. I’m more like you. I might make small edits or notes while writing draft, but I basically try to get to the finish line before starting the massive rewrites. Because I get a better sense of my story, my characters and my ending then.

Kate: Now, this is where I’m different from you guys. I’m back and forth in my manuscript all the time. I have my signposts that I’m aiming for, and those will often be the scenes that are written first. Then I write forward and back from them, jumping around in the manuscript until everything meets up. So, to be honest, while he seems to do a lot more re-reading than I do while in first draft, his process isn’t terribly different from mine. There will be massive editing once I’m done, but a lot of it gets fixed as I figure out what scenes are happening where and making changes as I go.

Zoe: I’m back and forth in my “outline” a lot, but only a little bit in the manuscript (usually to double-check something or make a quick change.) (My “outline” looks nothing like an outline though. It’s more a synopsis.)

Ana: I’m not convinced that I’ve found the best way for me to handle things yet. There’s still a lot of flailing and running in circles, but somehow, after a while I end up with a finished product. Somehow.

Zoe: I’ve only found the best way for me to do things this month. Check back next month for a whole new system. 🙂

Kate: I think that’s, in part, a function of being fairly new writers. But also, the demands of each story are different. You start them with different amounts of understanding, different influences, each time. Of course it’s going to affect your workflow.

Ana: I also find it kind of funny that he tells us he doesn’t know how his story is going to end until he gets there, while I think in another part of the book he tells us how important it is to know your ending so you can write an effective beginning.

Zoe: Yes, and he does it again in chapter 8. I HAVE STICKY NOTES.

Ana: I can only guess that the evening before he writes his ending (when he’s got it in his head) he rewrites the rest of the manuscript to make it fit.

Zoe: Probably. He spends seven pages in the chapter showing us his writing process by talking about an actual scene he wrote, scrapped, and reworked around. (And my sticky note says, “I do this too! Back in the planning phase, when I’m only scrapping sentences and short paragraphs instead of an afternoon’s worth of writing.”)

Kate: Honestly, I don’t know that I actually learned anything in this chapter, since it’s so close to my own style of writing (although he doesn’t mention the flailing and running in circles and sending letters to my editor that essentially say, “This sucks! I suck! I’m going to go jump off a cliff!”). It was nice as an affirmation that I’m not the only weirdo in the world. But I really would have liked even a tiny magic pill that would let me write something with less of the flailing and running in circles, instead of what essentially comes down to “This is how it is.”

Zoe: I learned that if I write a writing book, it will probably be Plotting: More Fun Than You Think! (I think I could actually save a lot of time writing it, too, if I just take all the anti-plotter screed out of this book and repackage it. Because it’s got a lot of great advice for developing your plot and characters.)

Ana: I feel slightly better now for not really knowing my ending, lol. I also felt a little guilty because I’m currently writing the second draft of a story and find myself trying to think of ways to make certain things happen more or less the same way they happened in the first draft so I have to do fewer rewrites. Guess I should stop doing that.

Kate: I don’t know. If you’re paying attention when you put together the first draft, things should flow naturally. You shouldn’t have to change much, it’s just a matter of tweaking to be sure tension is rising and that the choices your characters are making are adequately supported by their established personalities and the events up to that point in the story. It might be why I’m so slow a writer.

Ana: That’s mostly editing for me. I write a new draft, or often end up doing that, because I change the premise of the story and/or add new characters / change the MC’s motivation… things like that. My first drafts are generally written pretty quickly and the second draft takes a bit longer.

Kate: I’m ridiculously slow, but I very rarely ever have to change major things like that. My usual issue is having to go back and add in lines that make things seem like logical progression.

Zoe: I’m fairly fast, but then I have a virtual note card for every chapter, so I know what I’m writing when I sit down to write it, and I know how it’s going to fit in. My second drafts only take as long as they do because I retype them from scratch.

Ana: I’ve tried plotting out stories start to finish so I wouldn’t have to do the major rewrites. So, I had outlines I liked, that I thought were GOOD. Then I near the end of the first draft and think of something BETTER. (Something that obviously requires major rewrites.) I don’t know why this always happens. It’s nice to get these flashes of inspiration, but also a bit frustrating to be honest. There’s just nothing I can do about it.

Zoe: Always Be Plotting. 🙂 I’ve made major changes to drafts after I’ve finished them too.

Kate: Hahaha! that’s my life for the next month, as I go into Bite Me to fill in all the stuff that makes the ending work. ‘Cause right now, I’m getting the editorial beating with a wet noodle.

Ana: Poor Kitty.

Kate: It will make it better in the end. So I don’t mind. Mostly. But there shall be wine. Or Sambuca.

Zoe: Or Frangelico milkshakes. (Which, by the way, are tasty but a little too smooth, so when I made them a second (and third) time, I added rum as well.)

About the author: Kate Lowell

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