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Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide – Plot

I’m still focused on that test conference (a week to go – eek!) so it’s a good thing I’m reposting the Pantser’s Guide for y’all to enjoy or whatever.

The next installment from the past is all about plotting – and avoiding kudzu subplots. This is a challenge for me, and I suspect I’m not the only pantser to have issues with it, so without further ado, here’s the repost.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Plot – or keeping the kudzu out of your pants

Okay, so discussing plot seems out of place in a series about pantsing, but trust me, it’s needed. Without it, you’ll get kudzu subplots (get me tired and ask me about the Epic with Everything one day), main characters who suddenly take a left turn to Neverland mid-book, or worse. As someone who’s managed to do practically everything you can do wrong plot-wise, all in the same book (with the exception of not actually having a plot), I have a good idea of what happens when the pants take you down the wrong trouser leg. And these are strange pants. They have an infinite number of trouser legs, some of them interconnecting, and not all of them will get you to the right ending (by which I mean the ending which feels like it’s the only way the book could have ended).

To stretch the pantser metaphor even further, your journey through the pants can have results you really don’t want to talk about.

So, how do you deal with this?

You study. You read well-plotted books (Terry Pratchett is a pantser, and his plotting is damn near flawless, especially in the later books), and good books about plotting. You also get to know the major plot structures and work out which ones apply to your vague notion of where you’re going. This builds up the ability to see the evolving plot as the pants permit, and make sure that external events keep your plot more or less on a viable leg of the pants.

The judgment of whether a clue-bat from left field is a good thing or a bad one is something that pantsers tend to learn by doing rather than from external sources. I find that if something belongs, once it hits me I literally can’t see the story working any other way. If I’m in doubt, chances are I’m wandering into a dangerous leg of the pants, one of the ones with the little signs that say “Here be dragons”.

Handling that judgment also means being willing to throw out a whole lot of wordage to get yourself back on a good leg.

My method – derived from my days scribbling in anything that came to hand and stealing time from everything I could – is to obsessively narrate the piece in my head, usually starting from where I currently am although I do get previews of later scenes. Each time I do this, it’s slightly different, and sometimes takes me into dangerous pants legs, but by the time I’ve sat down to write it I’ve got a fair idea what should be happening for that section.

In short, I micro-plot. I work out what should be happening in the scene I’m currently writing and maybe the scene after that, but no further. I still know the general shape of where I’m going and sometimes know what the basic plot type is (the current piece falls into a rather perverse hero’s journey, more or less. Possibly a subverted hero’s journey).

Looking for this kind of structure helps to deal with the kudzu subplots – which will otherwise infest and possibly strangle your story. If you can’t tell which of your characters is the protagonist, you’ve got this problem. Even cast-of-thousands novels have exactly one character who is the core of the piece. At least, if they’re written by someone capable of plotting, they do. Someone who can’t carry a plot in a bucket (not naming names here, but some quite prominent Names suffer from this) will have multiple character threads that don’t support each other and don’t focus around a single core.

I’ve found that there’s actually a sneaky way to work around this, and even better, so long as you’re not trapped in the damp crotch of the pants, it can happen at any point including after you’ve finished the draft.

First, ask yourself what the big problem that’s biting your characters actually is. This is important, because it might not be what it looks like on the surface, and you need to identify the big problem (this, incidentally, is probably pretty close to what your book is about – and you might not know what it is until you’ve got a fair way into the piece, because you’ve been busy working with the surface manifestations of the big problem).

Now, once you’ve got that, the next part is a bit easier. Who is the single person the problem bites hardest? It may not – read Snuff for a good example – be the person most hurt by it, but will often be the one person whose personal ethics are so utterly incompatible with the big problem they can’t do anything except try their hardest to kill the problem. It can also be the person who stands to lose most if the problem isn’t resolved. Found them? Good. That’s your protagonist.

With your big problem and your protagonist identified, you can prune any kudzu that doesn’t do anything to either move the story or shed light on your protagonist. Or you can tweak it so that it does do something in that direction.

What often happens with pantsers is that once you recognize the need for this and know what you need to do for it, the hooks are already there. They just need to be polished a bit and have the appropriate bit of window dressing hung on them. Occasionally, you’ll need to add in the big arrows pointing to the clue, and the flashing neon lights saying “Here! This is important!”

After you’ve been at this for a while, you’ll find that something you didn’t foresee fits perfectly with the odd bit you added in ten chapters back because it felt right even though you had no idea why it should be there. This, fellow pantsers, is a Good Thing. It’s a sign that you’ve internalized plot structure enough that your subconscious is guiding you through the pants in a way that won’t get you stranded anywhere.

26 Comments
  1. paladin3001 #

    Yeah, the whole micro-plotting in the head thing. I tend to do that at lot. Going over certain things, outcomes to situations, and so forth. By the time I sit down to write I will have a clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t work.
    As to random pant legs, I got struck by this the other day. One of my secondary characters demanded that I give him proper motivation and in order for me to do that I needed to explain WHY he was where he was. Needless to say, one short story later….
    Plus side, it has fleshed out thoughts for the main story. Will it be used ever? Maybe. For the meantime I now know what happened recently before the main story began.
    Now excuse me, have to get back to moving things forward and today is not a good day.

    November 2, 2017
  2. Mike Houst #

    “an infinite number of trouser legs” reminded me of Sleipnir, Odin’s “horse”. Although he didn’t have infinite legs, he did have 8. But how you get trousers on a horse with 4 legs, much less twice that number, is beyond my engineering or haberdashery skills.

    November 2, 2017
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      First, define an eight legged horse. Second, define what would count as pants. (Where’s the belt line? I assume here it goes from below the neck in front to above the tail in back. Note my regular horse anatomy is LOL.) Make it in nine pieces, ten if you count the belt*. One wrapping around the body of the horse, with flaps that close at the bottom, with holes for the legs. Eight that wrap around the legs and fasten to the upper piece.

      *My vague notions of horse anatomy are telling me that the belt probably needs three or four pieces. A rigid collar that goes around the neck from above. Two straps that go along the sides through the belt loops to fasten in back above the tail. Perhaps a strap to hold the the collar on, that goes around the bottom front.

      November 2, 2017
      • Bah. Just cut the surplus legs off the horse.

        November 2, 2017
      • Terry Sanders #

        Read a story once about one of the last traditional tailors in London. Her Majesty’s government commissioned him to prepare a wardrobe for a foreign ambassador who was to be presented at court. Said ambassador was an alien from a centauroid species.

        D***ed near killed him, working it out. But he did it, by God!

        November 2, 2017
    • “But how you get trousers on a horse…”
      Belt -and- suspenders. 🙂

      November 2, 2017
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        The real trick may be designing them well enough that the horse doesn’t break it’s fool leg tripping over the things. Or am I the only one who sometimes has trouble operating pants?

        November 3, 2017
        • Laurie #

          Still better than a skirt. I always thought crinolines were stupid things until I read that women of the time loved them because they could walk without tripping over the skirts + multiple petticoats they wore. Of course, it did get a tad more drafty, but that’s when bloomers began to get popular.

          November 4, 2017
    • Eight is an odd number of legs for a horse to have, though eight is an even number. The only number both odd and even is infinity—therefore Sleipnir did have infinite legs.

      November 5, 2017
      • Mike Houst #

        And a lazy 8 is the infinity symbol too. /chuckle

        November 5, 2017
  3. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    For all I seem to absolutely need the outline to implement things, my notion of plotting does seem to be rather pants like, and I could stand to reflect on this further.

    November 2, 2017
  4. “Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”
    — Ray Bradbury

    This is basically how I pants. I discover the plot after the fact: it’s whatever happened while my characters were busy.

    November 2, 2017
  5. And then you get through pantsing your way to the wonderful, glorious conclusion and a character taps you on the shoulder and says, “Ahem, you forgot to introduce the Big Bad.” Wrong leg? Heck, I wrote myself into a pocket and then dang near sewed it shut behind me. *headdesk*

    November 2, 2017
    • Kitty, is that you over there in the pocket with me? ~:D

      November 2, 2017
  6. Plot. Hmm. It seems to be this thing you notice that happens when characters aren’t making out or joking around. Or talking about cars. Or geeking out because somebody made something awesome.

    I am in a trouser pocket.

    November 2, 2017
    • I’m in the back pocket.

      November 2, 2017
      • paladin3001 #

        I thought I was in a pant leg, turns out it was a shirt sleeve. Who knew?

        November 2, 2017
      • I found pocket lint just now:

        “The spiders and decoys came along too, so it was an exciting few seconds for the lone crewman of a tugboat moored near the locks. Carbon fiber tadpoles the size of station wagons leaping out of the water and roaring across the locks. On the other side they dove under the surface again and continued up the canal. After half a mile or so they all surfaced and put on speed, bobbing and weaving among the freighters and small craft. From the shore they didn’t look like anything that interesting, just a group of boats out for a lark in the afternoon.”

        November 2, 2017
  7. C4c

    November 2, 2017
  8. “Your subconscious is guiding you through the pants…”

    And now Dr. Morpheus’ monstrous id from
    “The Forbidden Planet” is acting as docent in the Levi’s of Shelob’s grandmother Ungoliant.
    What a way to spend La Dia des Muertes.

    November 2, 2017
  9. =Even cast-of-thousands novels have exactly one character who is the core of the piece.=

    Is this always so? I am thinking of by Herman Wouk’s Winds of War or Harry Turledove Lizard invasion saga where lots is going on in the far corners of the globe and galaxy which comes together but seldom all in one place.

    November 3, 2017
  10. Turtledove writes these tapestry novels. We see lots of threads. These can be traced back to the highly innovative novel A Torrent of Faces (though that had fewer characters) and the literarily original novelization of Forbidden Planet, in which each chapter was the name of a character..the PoV of the chapter, usually.

    I confess that I have envisioned a scene from the Forbidden Planet sequel. Forst Taps, a military funeral. The Captain of the Spaceship, having reached old age, has passed away. His aging widow disappears to their private estate…she invested well, starting with several tens of pounds of seemingly natural jewels. “Robby, are matters in place?” “Yes Mistress” “Then we proceed with our plans…and someday if not soon, the glories of the Krell civilization will rise again.” Altaira emerges from shower..She is now seen to be little older than when she was last seen on the first film, thanks to Krell medical technology. “I still can’t believe that no one suspected that my poor martyred father would include me in his experiments with the neural enhancer.” “Mistress, you have been very clever, and very patient; for someone of oyur 357 IQ, dealing with normal humans must have been extrmely tedious. However, all oft he necessary parts have been completed, and sot he Krell Total Library cube is now being read fully. There is one minor matter that seems computationally incomprehensible, though.”

    “Yes, Robby?”

    “Why did that Krell laboratory come with a “destroy planet” button? It seems like an odd safety device.”

    “It didn’t, Robby. At the very end, once and only once, my father achieved mind over matter, and summoned the planetary destructor into existence.”

    November 3, 2017

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