Footprints in the Snow

Plotter or Pantster?

“Are you a plotter or a pantster?”

This question bothers me. Taken at its most literal, it reduces writing either to rigidly designed plots or to route-free streams of consciousness. Neither model of the writing process is true or helpful.

Most writers waffle. “In some ways, I’m a plotter,” they often answer. “In others, a pantster.” A lukewarm response seldom satisfies, and a more definitive one doesn’t either.

“I’m a plotter.”

“I’m a pantster.”

A plotter who presages every twist of every scene, who never finds gratifying surprises in their own words? A pantster who never knows where the story will head next? In either extreme, there seems to be some a priori illogic, a struggle around the very idea of plot.

Yet what are we to make of plot? And how else can we write plot except to either plot the hell out of it (plotter), throw caution to the wind (pantster), or mix the approaches in some arbitrary and obtuse way?

Grade-school taught us the basic elements of story:

  • Plot
  • Character
  • Setting

(If we were lucky, we also learned theme, voice, and style, but those we’ll explore another day.) For now, consider this possibility:

Writing foremost for plot is, in fact, a dangerously counterproductive, misleading approach to fiction writing.

Footprints in the Snow

In the sense most schools teach it, plot does not exist. It’s an illusion in the way that Sol going round the Earth is an illusion. Using plot, as a theoretical approach to writing, is incorrect in the way the theory of phlogiston was incorrect.

Plot is supposed to provide the scaffolding by which a story makes sense. Event A follows event B, the princess infiltrates the castle before saving the knight, or the spy steals the secret list after crossing the Iron Curtain into the U.S.S.R. A plot, in this view, is “just one damn thing happening after another,” something into which we install settings, characters, and themes.

This is nonsensical. Why does the princess want to save the knight? Why does the spy need to steal the secret list? Why must A follow B? Events exist only in relation to characters, never the other way around.

Said another way, plots don’t generate characters. Never ever.

Ray Bradbury wrote:

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.

Zen in the Art of Writing (1973)

In other words, plot is no tool for writers. At best, plot is a tool for analysis after the fact. Plot is for rewrites, for the writer to analyze whether the characters’ behaviors make sense. In the same way, plot is for editors. Plot is, more than anything, for critics professional and armchair.

Character and Agency

Let’s cogitate over several related ideas:

  • In literature, characters possess agency.
  • In literature, agency is not only the power to act but the desire to act.
  • In literature, everything which can act is a character.
  • In literature, everything can act.
  • In literature, everything can be a character. Everything.

The most important question about any character, more so than any other quality, is this: What does the character want? Without an answer, nothing happens. Consider:

Robert sits on a couch.

Our character, like any actor in a play, is begging for some motivation, some agency. Now:

Robert sits on a couch and, as he soaks in the afternoon sunlight through the living-room window, his tastebuds cry out for a beer.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Robert desires something, even if prosaic, a simple beer. He has motivation. So:

Robert sits on a couch and, as he soaks in the afternoon sunlight through the living-room window, his tastebuds cry out for a beer.

Remembering the cold ones he’d spied in the fridge, he stands, crosses into the kitchen, and reaches for the icebox door.

Action makes story possible, but it isn’t conflict. The conflict arises from tension between one character’s desire and another’s:

Robert sits on a couch and, as he soaks in the afternoon sunlight through the living-room window, his tastebuds cry out for a beer.

Remembering the cold ones he’d spied in the fridge, he stands, crosses into the kitchen, and reaches for the icebox door.

“Not so fast,” says Robert’s roommate, the man entering through the back door, his beard bristling, his body as hairy as a Sasquatch’s. “I’m not letting you nab another of my brews.”

“Oh, yeah?” says Robert. “How’re you going to stop me? I’m closer to the fridge than you are.”

“I’m closer to the knives.” The Sasquatch reaches for the butcher’s block, wraps his fist around the largest handle in the kitchen set, and draws the blade. The steel rings free.

This is story. No matter how complex a story becomes, it emerges naturally from character. All stories are proverbially the story of Robert and his hairy roommate, whether stories of violence or unrequited love, stories of class struggle, stories of dueling magicians, stories of green eggs and ham, stories of lusty gods, or even stories of humans vs. objects:

Robert sits on a couch and, as he soaks in the afternoon sunlight through the living-room window, his tastebuds cry out for a beer.

Remembering the cold ones he’d spied in the fridge, he stands, crosses into the kitchen, and reaches for the icebox door.

Stuck. Frozen shut.

The door taunts him.

He tries with one hand, then with two, and finally he presses his foot against the adjacent countertop, heaving with every thewy limb. He strains until his knee pops, and with a scream he drops to the linoleum floor.

After a minute’s cursing, Robert stands, winces, and limps toward the garage. “I’m getting the damned blowtorch, you sonuvabitch. Don’t go anywhere.”

Notice how the door verbs. It taunts him. Especially in prose, objects may exercise the same agency as any other character. Objects, in this fashion, are characters, pursuing their own desires. In the same way a roommate might wish to deprive Robert of a beer, so might the malfunctioning refrigerator.

The concept of objects with agency extends, too, to environments — thus to settings. Try:

Robert sits on a couch, gauging the ferocity of the blizzard which rages beyond the living-room window. Good thing he stocked up for the weekend, because who’d want to go out in that weather? A good weekend for staying in. A good weekend for a drinking binge.

His tastebuds cry out for a beer.

Remembering the cold ones he’d packed in the fridge, he stands, crosses into the kitchen, and opens the icebox door.

Empty.

Not entirely empty. There’s plenty of food. Condiments beyond counting. But no beer.

Carl! That drunkard of a roommate, that Sasquatch, he’d already sucked down the last of the brewskis!

After marching to the front door, Robert wraps himself in layers, bundles up his coat, and ties a woolen scarf around his neck. Outside, the storm howls. It batters the trees and hammers every surface into frozen white. It taunts him.

Fear me, it seems to say.

Beer before fear, thinks Robert, and Mario’s Liquors should still be open. Bracing himself for the bludgeoning cold, Robert opens the front door.

As he trudges down his street, a street become an icy wasteland, he leaves behind him only footprints in the snow. Footprints quickly erased, gone, lost forever.

The storm howls, batters, hammers, and taunts. This is a storm with which to battle. Absent Robert’s desire for beer, he’d still be sitting comfortably, warmly, and safely on his couch. Now he’s heading into below-freezing temperatures, heat-stealing winds, and blinding snow, making for a liquor store which should be open.

As the storyteller, all I need do now is decide how difficult this trek will be, and it could be brutal.

Beware pre-baked plots: the monomyth, the wagon wheel, the snowflake, the touchstone. Story organization is to story as musical arrangement is to music. Bach arranged for flute or kazoo, played forward or backward, is still Bach.

A Footnote on Structure

Does this mean that the Hero’s Journey, or any other number of storytelling structures, aren’t worth learning? As you develop your chops as a writer, can you skip the analysis of others’ structures, of historical structures and popular structures?

Hell, no.

But neither should the ordained structures tie you into a straitjacket. In the Hero’s Journey, does the Ordinary World make sense as a beginning for who your characters are, for the setting in which they find themselves? Does your protagonist endure one overwhelming Ordeal, or three or six or twelve or some other number? Does a Threshold Guardian, as such, stand between the Ordinary World and the Special World for your characters?

Ditto for every romance-novel or mystery plot you’ve ever encountered. Do those structures inform the travails of your characters uniquely? If not, discard them.

Same for the Old and Middle English structures of Beowulf or Chaucer. (Many have attempted to stuff Beowulf into the Hero’s Journey. It doesn’t work, though many older stories, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, match the Hero’s Journey perfectly.)

These are your choices to make, as a writer. Thoroughly well-trodden structures are not immutable laws which you must follow. But how to choose? Allow your characters—their desires, needs, quirks, and motivations—to choose for you. Characters are story.

Learn the classical structures, and learn all the new ones you wish, but know what you’re looking at is the footprints left by someone else’s characters over some other setting at some other time.

Copy and paste them, as you please, but don’t be surprised when your dissatisfaction follows you around like a beaten puppy.

Conclusion and Review

As a concept, plot is a tool for analysis after the fact. To begin with plot, at some core level, is an error.

Many writers will disagree, insisting how they’re “plotters.” I’d encourage them to reconsider, to meditate on Bradbury’s footprints in the snow.

The longer I write, the more finished words I complete, and the more I reflect on my writerly journey, the more I believe this:

When we set the words onto the page, there is only character. In fiction prose, there is only character. Begin with character, get character right, and the rest follows.

2 replies on “Footprints in the Snow”

  1. Honestly, I don’t know what the hell I am. Stories just show up. The ending comes first, then the rest. I just fill in the details as I write it. I’ve always done that. Even in college when writing essays and reports. I don’t know, guess I’m wired weird.

    1. Not weird at all, Robert. (Unless you want to be weird.)

      I suspect that you’re a “pantster,” but what this really means is this: You intuit the relationship between character and story, and you allow that to unroll as you write. How much you develop your characters, or how deeply you understand them on an intuitive level, will determine how well your “plot” turns out.

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