Pantsers, Planners, and Organisms

I’m going to talk about planners and pantsers for a bit. If you just want to discover why stories are organisms, you can skip down to the part where I say ORANGUTANS!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pantsers vs. planners dichotomy in the writing world. It is, admittedly, a playful one, but as a dichotomy it still bothers me. Almost every dichotomy is a spectrum in disguise, and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t take the time to explore the whole spectrum.

When it comes to pantsing (writing “by the seat of your pants”) and planning, I think all writers are somewhere in the middle.

I consider myself a planner, but then, I don’t plan my short stories or blog posts, and I can think of other writers who do far more planning than I do. I’ll do a beat sheet, a character sheet, and aa storyboard of notecards for long projects, but there are other writers who will write out a pile of outlines, diagrams, and research that almost adds up to a book in its own right.

That’s another wrinkle: research. Truth be told, I don’t do very much research up front. If anything, you could say I plot like a planner but research like a pantser. I love to lay out an intricate, interweaving plot, but once I have that I just start writing. I take it on faith that I can fill my knowledge gaps as I find them.

After all, how can you go looking for what you don’t know if you don’t know what you don’t know?

Yet, I know of pantsers who will do years of research for a single project—only they won’t realize until afterwards that they were doing research. Neil Gaiman seems to be part of this group, for example.

So does this mean that pantsers are more deliberate than planners, and planners more exploratory than pantsers? Possibly, but more importantly it shows that the dichotomy doesn’t hold up.

As a compromise, I heard one author this weekend at the LA Book Festival offer this thoughtful alternative: architects and gardeners. In her view, planners are architects and pantsers are gardeners. Certainly, those are more expansive metaphors, but they still seep back into a spectrum.

Let’s be literal for moment: how much gardening can a gardener do if they have no architecture—even something as simple as a picket fence? On the other end, how cold and alienating does architecture become when it has no gardens?

As fun as it is to play around in this spectrum, I think there’s an altogether more useful way of looking at the craft that mostly sidesteps the issue.

See, my real problem with the planners vs. pantsers dichotomy is that both options put far too much focus on the writer and not enough focus on the story. Also, neither option gives me a chance to talk about…


Credit to David Forsman for this image:

Credit to David Forsman for this image:

Stories, just like orangutans, are organisms. They are creatures with a will to survive who manage their survival by adapting to internal and external conditions. This is a running metaphor in Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, which is an illustrated guide to writing stories. True to its name, it is wonderful, and I highly recommend it.

Wonderbook is full of fantastic insights, and the observation that stories are organisms stands out as especially sound. Yes, we writers do exist and we do craft stories, but stories themselves have to do the hard work of living, and that is where our only real responsibility as writers comes in.

We must prepare our stories to survive in a dangerous world. We can be mammalian about it, as pantsers and gardeners are; we can let our stories begin as amorphous lumps and carefully nurture them into maturity before sending them off.

Or, like the planners and architects, we can be insect queens. We can develop a system, one that transcends any individual unit, that quickly and reliably produces new organisms that have everything they will need to know programmed into them right from the start.

Do not think for a moment that one approach is more loving or wiser than the other. They are both successful when the story offspring survive—that’s it.

Boy, I sure have given you a nice big pile of metaphors, haven’t I? I’m sure it will be very frustrating if you try to keep this all in your head.

So go write.