Structure Series #2: Plotting for the Pantser

Well, maybe no plotting can be a fit for you if you’re a die-hard pantser. But if you’re like me, flying along on the wings of your whimsy, and you reach that terrifying point of realization that you’re spinning your wheels, you’ll probably find yourself searching out some advice of the plotting type – anything to help you fit your story into a framework that might give it shape and life. I wrote blindly and happily for almost a year, but it did happen, where things started falling apart. My muse was confused, my focus became muddied, and my death-grip on the ideal organic writing experience had me grasping at straws, even though I knew I was heading in directions I didn’t want to go. It was time to reassess my process.

I still hold organic writing up on a pedestal, and know that it is the only way I will ever get anything churning in my mind. But I have also come to recognize my own limitations. We all have our strengths – those things that we can never comprehend being taught in a workshop. For us, they are as natural as breathing and chocolate. But we also have our weaknesses – those aspects of the craft that elude us, ducking behind trees every time we think we’re gaining on them. Whether it be structure, point-of-view, flow, character development, or punctuation, it matters not. We all have some things that come as naturally as juggling chainsaws on a unicycle. So once again, as in everything, the key is in recognizing your own strong and weak suits and learning to balance the two artfully, playing to the strong, and knowing when and how to supplement the weak. For me, plotting was somewhere on the natural talent scale next to singing – I could pull off a few notes as long as they were within my very narrow sweet spot, but anything beyond that would need some serious help.

Not long ago I set out on my search for structure. I was determined to find some help for my novel, though I had no idea where. I read a lot. I took a slew of notes. I compared and contrasted, tried each idea on for fit, and came up with nothing that seemed like it would work. I found some methods that matched my heart, but offered nothing for my pages, and I also found some seemingly sound templates that threatened to kill every ounce of creativity I owned. I did, however, begin to understand the big picture, the common threads of successful structure, and eventually I started complementing ideas with ideals.

The cream that rose to the top, that which is currently pulling me through my structural struggles, is an amalgamation that owes a lot to many people, not the least of whom are Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering, and Christopher Vogler, author of the screenwriters’ bible, The Writer’s Journey.

Story Engineering came first. Unfortunately, Larry has very little nice to say about the organic writing process and sometimes appears to believe that an ape could write a blockbuster, as long as he is an ape willing to put his story elements in the correct boxes. Story Engineering is an apt name… not too terribly much room for art. I felt like he downplayed every other aspect of writing a little too much, but I may have been sensitive. In the end, I did find that he had something worth paying some serious attention to, though. He challenged me to find any great story – book, movie, or otherwise – that did not adhere to his guidelines with a fair degree of accuracy, and I was astounded to see that he had done his homework. And he offered a fairly straight-forward method of utilizing the model in my own writing. Interesting.

The Writer’s Journey, next in the lineup, had a much better (read: more creatively palatable) philosophy behind it, but the structure itself, at a barebones level, jived almost exactly with the copious notes I had already taken on Brooks’ work. The skeletons were the same, but the flesh hung in varying degrees of artsiness.

Vogler’s mythological approach to story is slightly less straight-forward, but feels to me like a better fit for heartfelt storytelling. It boils down, at every step, to using metaphor to get across your take on things. Even the structure model itself is metaphorical; you are presented with a generic story skeleton of epic proportions, and your job is to identify its bones with the bones of your own story. Who is my hero? Who is my mentor? What is my call to adventure? It all likens to the artistic processes of learning from the masters.

While both Brooks’ and Vogler’s models arrive at roughly the same destination, their approaches are different enough that they both deserve full-on attention, so I will present both. First we’ll take a stroll through the Story Engineering approach, and when we’re all done there, and feel like it finally makes sense, we’ll jump tracks over to the Writer’s Journey approach and get lost all over again. As far as combining the two, that will be an individual task, as only you know which aspects of which model will jive best with your writing style.

I don’t think that writing to a formula is how the greats became great, necessarily, but I do (now)  recognize that great storytelling happens to have an impressive golden thread running through its heart. It may very well be that the greats became great because this golden thread was something that they wove into their stories naturally, without even a thought, and this golden thread is the very thing that draws us into a story to hail it as ‘good.’ Whether intentional or instinctual, it does seem that stories well-told follow a fairly regimented pattern, one that Brooks and Vogler both did a great job of recognizing and articulating.

Next time we tackle the four-part story model of Story Engineering. See you then!

To view a chronological listing of the posts in this series, continue below:

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