Last week I read a great article on Alan Baxter’s blog titled There are two types of writer…. In the article, he discusses the differences between ‘planners’ and ‘pantsers’ when it comes to writing a novel. Although I agree with him in saying that most people fall somewhere in the shades of grey between the two extremes, I would definitely describe myself as a ‘pantser’.
When I start writing a novel, I really only know where I want it to start, what the initial motivation of the main protagonist is, and how I want it to finish. (Although the finish is quite mutable.) Every single time that I’ve started by trying to write an outline, I’ve either immediately lost inspiration for actually writing the damn thing (I already know where all the twists and turns of the plot are, and I know how it all works out, so why would I want to go through the adventure all over again, bleeding words on to a page as I go?), or I’ve got 4 chapters in, and realised that my characters are trying to take me in a different direction, and I will either need to throw the outline out the window, or substantially change my character’s personalities.
All of these thoughts were going through my mind when I saw an episode of the new Bananas in Pyjamas on ABC2 the other day. (I have a 4-year-old – I have an excuse.) And that’s when I realised that, while some people may prefer to start with an outline, good old B1 and B2 are on my side.
The episode in question is Bananas in Pyjamas – The Bushwalk, and goes something like this:
The Bananas in Pyjamas decide that it’s a perfect day for a bushwalk, so they get into their bushwalking gear and set off, feeling full of enthusiasm.
When you know it’s the perfect time to write, sit down and get started. At that point, you’re usually excited and enthusiastic.
They haven’t gone far before they’re stopped by Rat in a Hat, who tells them that if they want to go bushwalking, they’ll need to visit his shop first.
Rat: You can’t go bushwalking without a hat to keep the sun off.
B1&2: Rat, we’ve already got hats.
Rat: Oh, so you do… Ah! Here’s what you need!
B1&2: Rat, we’ve already got boots, too.
Rat: Oh, cheese and whiskers…
B1&2: It’s alright, Rat. It’s just, we already have everything we need. Bye.
Rat: Wait, Bananas. There’s one more thing you need. A very important thing.
B1&2: What is it Rat?
Rat: It’s a map. You’ll need a map.
There’s always someone who “knows” what you need in order to write “properly”. Maybe you need a better office space, or a better computer, or a better writing program, or books on how to write. And when you assure that them that you have everything you need, they will tell you that you can’t start writing until you have a map; a plan; an outline of your prospective novel.
The Bananas buy a map that is supposed to take them to a Secret Waterfall, and off they go. Instead of enjoying their bushwalk, however, they spend all their time trying to follow the map.
B2: The map says turn left here, B1.
B1: Then left turn it is, B2.
B2: That’s funny. There’s no fence on the map.
B1: There’s no fence at all.
B2: Maybe we were supposed to turn right, B1.
B1&2: Let’s try that instead.
B1: There’s no pond on the map, either.
B2: No pond at all.
Once you have your outline, and you begin to write, it’s easy to get so fixated on following your outline that you don’t even notice what’s going on in your story. And when your characters start wanting to do things that you haven’t planned, you react by trying to force them back into the outline you’ve prepared.
When the Bananas can’t find the secret waterfall, they return, dejected, to Rat’s shop.
B1&2: We’re back, Rat.
Rat: Hello, Bananas. How was the waterfall?
B1&2: We couldn’t find the waterfall, Rat. All we found was Pedro the Pig. So we’ve come to return your map.
Rat: There’s nothing wrong with the map! You just didn’t follow it correctly.
B1&2: But we tried so hard, Rat.
Rat: Don’t worry. Luckily, I have another map.
B1&2: Another map?
Rat: And this map is easy to follow.
If you persevere your way through writing your whole story, following your outline when it doesn’t even make sense anymore, you will eventually reach the end. But instead of a beautiful waterfall, you may find yourself confronted by a pig rolling in the mud. So to speak. Those people who claim that you can’t write without an outline will than tell you that the problem wasn’t that you should have “gone with the flow”; the problem was that you didn’t use your outline correctly. So you should clearly go back to the drawing board and start again. With a new outline. An easier one, this time.
When the second map leads them to the teddies’ back yard instead of a secret lake, the Bananas go back to Rat and tell him that his maps aren’t working and they want their money back. Rat assures them that there’s nothing wrong with his maps, and he has a better idea.
B1: Why are you dressed like that, Rat?
Rat: Because I am your new bushwalking tour guide.
B1&2: Bushwalking tour guide?
Rat: That’s right. I’m taking you to see the secret waterfall and the secret lake.
Rather than accept that the outlining process didn’t work for you, these people may even offer to show you how to “fix” your novel so that it matches your outline.
When Rat leads the Bananas to the promised places, they aren’t quite what he promised. The secret waterfall is just a hose blasting water into a pig-trough. The secret lake is an inflatable wading-pool filled with water. And Rat is forced to swim around aforementioned wading-pool pretending to be a turtle, so that his promises are all fulfilled.
So, all in all, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to your pre-planned outline, no matter what. As long as you think that a giant rat in a swimming costume is just as impressive as a sea turtle. Your choice, really.