Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Are There Rules for Writing Seat-of-the-Pants?



I'm currently half way through a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Blink.

(If the name sounds familiar, it's because he also wrote the The Tipping Point, a study on why little things can make a big difference. A must read for authors working to bring exposure to their books!)

In Blink, Malcolm discusses the psychology behind the choices we seemingly make in an instant and why some of us are better at it than others. In the book, Malcolm discusses a successful Improv Comedy Team to illustrate The Structure of Spontaneity.

If you've ever seen Whose Line is it Anyway? hosted by Drew Carey, where actors are given a subject and then must improvise a scene on the spot, you know what their work is like. The main difference is that this particular Comedy Team manages to put together a full half-hour play, story arc and all, right before the audience.

It seems random, but as Malcolm explains further, the reader learns that, "[improv] isn't random and chaotic at all." It too follows rules. Like memorized plays, it requires discipline and work. The actors practice for hours and then critique each other. They analyze why something flopped, working to figure out which unspoken rule had been broken.

One of the rules (and fiction writers will instantly recognize it) is to make something happen to the character that the character would dread. Another rule is that "no suggestion can be denied." Basically, if it gets said on-stage, the actors must run with it.

Those two rules combined made me realize that as a seat-of-the-pants writer I adhere to rules, too. My first rule is to always to write my character into an inescapable box. I have no idea how I'm going to get him or her out, nor do I care. I'm far too busy making sure the box is sealed tight with no plausible escape. Then, once my character is trapped, I put all my energy into figuring out how to get them out alive again. My second rule is that I can't make changes to the box. I have to figure out a solution while adhering to the way I wrote it. 

Are there any other seat-of-the-panters who adhere to this rule? Or do you have your own set of rules? 


Jessica Dotta has always been fascinated by the intricacies of society that existed in England from the Regency through the Edwardian era. She writes in a manner that blends past and modern fiction techniques. She lives in the Nashville area and works as a free lance media consultant and publicist. Her first novel Born of Persuasion releases September 2013.  

19 comments:

Geoff Wright said...

I too enjoy the journey of unknown destination, though it is a bit frustrating at times. I can't stand the thought of planning a whole book out in advance. Not scary enough, and too limiting for me. I love the feeling of writing something into the story that i had no idea about an hour earlier. God's peace. Geoff Wright Australia

Jessica Dotta said...

Thanks, Geoff! Have you ever found yourself completely stuck, unable to write around problem you created for your character?

Ane Mulligan said...

I'm fascinated with the way SOTPers write. I can't do it. I have to have some form of a "map" so I know the major points I have to hit. Then and only then, can I put the map in my pocket and let the characters take over. Does that make me a POTP writer?

However, I love the idea of putting my characters in an inescapable box. Hmmmm ...

Karen said...

I love writing SOTP. It's a lot of fun for my cozy mysteries. Once I have the characters and the victim and the method of demise, then I go about finding out who the culprit was. Each time it has turned out to be a surprise to me and I've enjoyed the journey and the detective work. I did get kind of stuck on the latest one but I asked my book club to read what I had and try to figure out the killer. From that I moved ahead with my own discovery from their feedback. Great fun.

Jo Huddleston said...

Thanks for the post. I write SOTP with one exception--I jot down my thoughts for a short synopsis. Even if the synopsis is seldom related to my finished novel, it is where I start.

Bookishqueen said...

I write differently depending on the genre. I found that I tend to do a little outlining for historicals but none for most anything else. The outline is more for adding facts.

When it comes to SOTP, I always come up with a scene further on in the story than I am writing, an important one, first. Then I work towards it. It can change somewhat if need be, but I need somewhere to shoot for.

rachelallord.com said...

Yep. I'm a total seat-of-the-pantser. Love being shocked by the decisions of my own characters. Love your box analogy- great way to explain it.

Jessica Dotta said...

Ane, I think you should try crafting a story where all you worry about at first is putting them in that box!

Jessica Dotta said...

Karen, how fun to not know the culprit when you start off a mystery! No doubt the enthusiasm you feel while you, the author, work to find out who did it, carries over to the reader, too.

Jessica Dotta said...

Jo, isn't funny how we can't predict where the story will go. At least I can't.

Jessica Dotta said...

That's a good way to explain it--come up with a scene further on in the story.

While I don't change the box (the circumstances) I often have to go back and add threads to the novel once I know my solution. It sounds similar.

Jessica Dotta said...

Thanks, Rachel!

Nicole said...

I bet you could guess I make my own rules. There's a big difference in the "dread" factor when writing in different genres. Character studies usually always present choices - even if some of them are filled with dreadful or hopeless options. I think conflict for the sake of conflict can be (not always will be) overdone. For me, it isn't always conflict which moves the story, it's the heart of the characters.

I've taken on a real stretch for me - especially as a SOTP writer: a crime novel/police procedural. I thought I knew the killer more than once, but he keeps turning up not guilty of the crime. I think I've got him now. But even still, this is a character study type of novel. It's what I do.

Jessica Dotta said...

Again, I love that someone is writing the story uncertain of the criminal. I had no idea mystery novelists did such.

Julie Garmon said...

I love this! To me, it's so much easier (until the rewrites begin) to put my characters on stage and let them be themselves than plotting every move ahead of time. Where's the fun in that?

Great article, Jessica. :-)

Ane Mulligan said...

Jewels, it's not a matter of FUN. LOL It's a matter of how our brains work differently. It's still fun to think up the problems they need to face. It's just that some of us do it sooner than y'all do. I love to write a stream of consciousness back story for my MC. That's where I find many of the surprises y'all do when writing the story. However, I don't stick strictly to the "map" since I love to let my characters take side trips. LOL

Jessica Dotta said...

Julie, you hit a great point when you talked about how much more burdensome the rewrite process is when you write seat-of-the-pants. At the end of every novel I've written, I feel like I have to sit down untangle it all now. At times, it's like the biggest ball of tangled Christmas lights you can imagine.

Geoff Wright said...

Hi Jessica, yes I do get stuck sometimes. But I trust in my instincts/imagination to get me out. Also, I pray for God to give my creative juices a kick along. Just yesterday I had to write a synopsis for my latest book. I had brain fog (chronic fatigue) and was feeling a bit overwhelmed. So I prayed about it, and the words just flowed. Thanks. Geoff Wright. Australia.

~sharyn said...

So, if it's kind of like planning a road trip, then seat-of-the-pantsers just get in their car and drive. They might know they want to head east; they may even know they need to end up in California.

The plotter, however, Google Maps the whole trip and takes their GPS with them. But that doesn't mean they mind little side trips if they see a sign for the world's biggest ball of yarn.

Yes?

So, though I think I'm more of a SOTPer, I usually have a specific destination in mind and some definite places where I need - or really want - to stop along the way. Still, most of my favorite characters & plot twists take me completely by surprise. :)