Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Sophie Hannah plans her novels before she starts to write

The supposed plotter-pantser distinction is a false dichotomy

This is a very lightly revised copy of something I posted on Google+ in September 2017. I’ve been looking at things I’ve posted on Google+ whose life I might want to extend. This short piece seemed suitable for reposting on the eve of NaNoWriMo 2018.

Sophie Hannah’s crime novels have great plots. I was fascinated to read that she plans out the architecture of each book in detail before she starts to write. That obviously works very well, as the impressive results show. Certainly no one could wish that she did anything differently.

One regularly sees posts about “plotters” as against “pantsers”. I dislike these terms, which I believe are misleading, so instead I’m going to use “planners” (short for “advance planners”) and “plungers” (who plunge right in and make it up as they go along).

But when you think about what they do, it’s clear that the plungers are also usually plotters too. Whatever approach you take, you still have to design your story, form a conception of its overall shape, test elements and replace them when necessary, make discoveries about your characters and their circumstances. The difference between the two is that planners separate the process of creation into two elements and undertake them separately, one after the other. But separate or all mixed up together, the elements are still equally necessary to the writing of a successful book.

The planner/plunger divide has some similarities to the distinction in music between composers and improvisers. The distinction is real, but it’s often exaggerated, to the extent of provoking a backlash among jazz lovers, who insist that improvisation is “composing in real time”. (And, of course, the composer and the improviser often coexist in one person, such as Beethoven or Herbie Hancock.)

The analogy with music composition isn’t exact, though, in that no plunger is required to write a novel live, before an audience, with no opportunity to edit, change a word here or there or go back and take the story in a completely different direction. Planners and plungers have a lot more in common than separates them.