Holding up words

R.L. Smith

by R.L. Smith

Writers are often described as one of two types—plotters or “pantsers.” It’s curious that one of the things most talked about when discussing how writers write involves a word that doesn’t actually exist. “Pantsing” (commonly known as “dakking” if you’re Australian) is a word—the action of pulling down a person’s trousers, but “pantser” does not exist in the English dictionary, and it sends the spellcheck into meltdown.

Plotters (also known as architects or planners) outline the plot points of their story before they sit down to write. Their tales are pre-planned to varying levels of detail and they know what’s going to happen before they put pen to paper. Pantsers (sometimes called gardeners) fly by the seat of their pants when they write. Their approach gives them the freedom to take their novel in any direction, not knowing where they are going or how the story ends. It’s a road trip without a map.

There’s about a 50-50 split in published writers—half plotters, half pantsers. Regardless of which approach is taken, writers who are successful end up in the same place—with a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end—a structure in other words. I think successful pantsers must have an innate sense for how the plot needs to be structured as their story unfolds.

“Pantser” does not exist in the English dictionary, and it sends the spellcheck into meltdown.

I confess to being a bit of a geeky nerd and learning about the structural possibilities has become something of a fascination of late. Story structure is the scaffold that supports your words and moves the reader through your story. It creates flow and helps to keep readers engaged. Regardless of whether you write organically, plot your story before writing or use a hybrid of these methods (me) you still need to understand the basic structural elements of a story as without it your story is likely to flop soon after take-off or require endless re-writing to turn it into something that will engage readers.

The W-plot structure (made accessible by Mary Carroll Moore on YouTube) provides a great overview of story flow. This is a simple representation of the three act play, though it can have more than three acts of course.

The quest or idea story is a classic for adventure/crime/mystery/speculative fiction stories (think Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Don Quixote). A question is raised or a problem needs to be solved early on and the novel sets out to find the answer. The mystery novel I am currently working uses a variation on the quest structure and involves seven turning points that each align with an archetype.

An idea for another novel bubbling away in the back of my mind will most likely use a blend of the core event structure and the place structure. For core event think The Lord of the Rings or The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas were a pivotal dramatic incident (the slap) unleashes a turbulent sequence of events that propel the story forward.

In the place (or milieu) structure (think The Firm, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or Lord of the Flies) the arrival at a place and the impact it has on its characters is what drives the story. Writers who love world building (e.g. science fiction and fantasy) often use this structure. The plot follows a character who explores the world created and is transformed by it. The story starts when the character enters the world and ends when they leave.

Whether you think of yourself as a plotter or a pantser, a solid understanding of structure is a must. Holding the framework on which you want to build your story in your mind will help you drive your adventure where it needs to go.

R.L. Smith is a writer of short stories and poetry, and is currently working on her first mystery novel. You can read some of her work at her website, and be sure to follow her blog so you can be updated when she adds fresh content.

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