The Peaks and Perils of Pantsing: The Witness and I Shall Believe

Note: If you have not read either I Shall Believe or The Witness (see Complete: History), reading this page is going to give you some spoilers for both.

 

How’s that for alliteration my friends?

So first, what is pantsing? It’s the term writers use when we sit down and write without plotting. We just let the story go where it’s going to go. Fanfiction is known for that — the chapter by chapter nature of posting, the instant feedback from readers shaping the writing.  I began as a pantser, though just once very early in my career as a writer, I wrote out a story sketch, broke it down scene by scene, wrote key scenes, and then filled in the linking material. That was Jaded, which is probably why, of all my early 2002 stories, feels different. At least, it does to me.

I’d hate to pretend that there aren’t good things about pantsing, because it totally works and one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written was written in that fashion: The Witness. But another story of mine that is relatively popular, I Shall Believe, has some definite pitfalls from having been unplotted.

So, I’ll talk about how each developed as a concept and then break down what worked and what didn’t.

Concept: I Shall Believe

I Shall Believe began as a reaction to the Sonny shooting Carly in the head story. I was so angry he was going to get away with it, like it never happened. I think the reasoning was: He shot Lorenzo in self-defense, because he thought Lorenzo was hurting Carly, and Carly was an accident. Anyway, I wanted to work with that.

Of course I added in Jason/Elizabeth because that’s what I do, and you can’t tell a Sonny/Carly story without Jason. I’ve ranted before about the way GH writers often take the easier way out when it comes to developing conflict. Rebecca Herbst’s real life pregnancy in 2003 would have been so much more interesting if Zander were not the father. They had barely written for the character of Zander, and what they had written wasn’t that great.  I would have preferred the baby’s father be Ric, but since I’m a Liason fan, I went with Jason.

Which of course drew in Courtney, her new marriage to Jason and the relationship she was developing with Brian Beck (and what a travesty that turned into). I decided to try to really develop her as a main character. A lot of Liason fanfiction at that point kept making her the annoying, stupid, ditzy idiot or the straight villain. (I did this sometimes, too, guilty!) But I wanted to see if I could something more with her, the way I’m doing in The Best Thing.

Sage was added almost as an afterthought when I realized I was going to pair Carly and Lorenzo. If I could rewrite ISB (and I promise, I’m not going to), I would shift the earlier chapters to better deal with her character. But, ah, c’est la vie.

So that where I was before I sat down to write ISB. I knew nothing except the following things: Elizabeth was going to get knocked by up Jason, Courtney was going find out and divorce Jason, and Carly was going to get some damn spark back.

The Witness as a Concept

So The Witness was a challenge story — I was given a title by IsisIzabel and had to write a story based on that. Looking back, I can’t remember if  I thought much about it before I started to write the first chapter.  I think I’d had a vague concept of having Lucky go after Patrick and Elizabeth due to an affair, and then shooting Robin by accident. I just…wrote and somehow that story came out.

So yeah, it’s not much of a concept I just…wrote and wrote and wrote, haha. And it kept growing and getting out of hand in some ways. But as a concept, it was very simple. For the longest time, I didn’t even know if I would be able to use the title correctly. I knew nothing about the story until it appeared on screen. In fact, (spoiler alert!) for about eight chapters or so, I really intended Lucky to be the shooter.

Perils and Peaks

So why do I think The Witness turned out better than I Shall Believe, despite having a similar method of writing? Mostly the story structure, which I can point to in two ways.

1. The Use of Central Event and/or Theme

They are, of course, very different stories. ISB is a story driven by emotions and characters at crossroads, making choices. The Witness is a two-day action story with twists, cliffhangers, and red herrings. However, they both deal with a large cast of characters interacting with one another, with subplots and diverging points of view..

In ISB, I deal with the following stories:

– Jason and Courtney’s marriages collapses because she’s learned she wants different things
– Elizabeth is pregnant with Jason’s child.
– Carly, by not remembering her emotions, finds herself drifting towards Lorenzo.
– The fallout of Sonny shooting Carly and Lorenzo affects most of the cast
– Lorenzo’s niece Sage bonds with Carly and settles into Port Charles and the other teens.

Not a lot right? But it’s so muddled–I should have tied the story to the fallout of the shooting, rather having it as a side story. With the fallout being the main aspect, I could have explored Jason’s character more. Why did he agree to marry Courtney despite a one-night stand with Elizabeth? What does it mean for his loyalty to Sonny to take Carly’s side initially and to take over the business?  His marriage to Courtney? How does Carly deal with losing her emotions, but still knowing the history. There should have been more tug and pull over Sonny. Sonny should have been a larger part of the story.

With a central theme, the affected characters become more clear and interactions feel much less forced. (And God, the more I think about it, the more I want to rewrite it. Bad, Lissie, bad!)

With The Witness, while I deal with Robin’s shooting, the following stories are also addressed:

– Patrick and Robin’s relationship
– Carly and Robin’s rivalry
– The Spencer/Cassadine feud
– Dillon/Georgie/Lulu
– Maxie knowing the paternity of the baby
– Elizabeth and Lucky’s marriage collapses; his drug addiction
– Sam’s recovery after the surgery

And that’s just off the top of my head. I think there are several smaller things addressed: Sonny’s concerned for Robin as a callback to their history, Jason and Elizabeth’s friendship, the remnants of Sonny and Carly’s relationship, the old Jax/Sonny rivalry, Brenda and Robin, etc.

So there’s a ton going on in The Witness, but (at least in my opinion) at no point does it ever overwhelm the story because they all come back to this main event: How does Robin’s shooting affect the people in her life? Since Robin is a central character in PC because of her history, I could pull in most of the cast in one aspect or another and make their ongoing stories part of the larger picture. This was not possible with ISB, so some of the interaction feels forced (particularly in the Jason/Elizabeth section of the story)

2. No Inciting Incident Weakens Story Opening

What do I mean by structure? I generally write my stories using a Three Act Structure with an inciting incident, two turning points, a midpoint, a climax and a resolution. It ensures that a story is relatively well-paced.

The Witness

Act One, Inciting Incident:  Robin is shot. (Prologue-Chapter 1)

Act One, Turning Point One: Elizabeth learns that Lucky picked up Cameron hours ago. (Chapter 3)

Act Two, Midpoint: Carly is shot (Chapter 6)

Act Two, Turning Point Two: Luke confronts Stefan at Wyndemere (Chapter 10)

Act Three, Climax: Luke confronts Helena and Stefan with Dillon and Lulu in tow (Chapter 14)

Resolution: The epilogue in which Robin leaves the hospital and Lulu realizes they’ve left something unsolved.

 

I’m not even sure I can do the same thing for ISB because when I try to determine an inciting incident, it doesn’t really work. Why? It goes back to the definition of that term. An inciting incident is supposed to kick off the story–something that sets everything into motion. That’s not what happens in ISB.

Possible inciting incidents: Elizabeth discovers she’s pregnant. Why doesn’t this work? Let’s forget the fact that I wrote in the possibility of the kid being fathered by Ric, Zander, or Jason (yes, Virginia, I made my girl a Carly) and then promptly wrote it out in about five seconds.

The real reason this sucks as inciting incident is because it does nothing to affect Carly’s story. Yes, it does effect the Jason/Courtney arc, but it’s barely a blip on Carly’s radar.

What about Carly starting therapy with Cameron Lewis?  Does that work? It’s her inciting incident, so that’s why they’re both in the prologue. But it only affects one of characters

So the problems with story structure go back to point one. I had no central event to tie it together, so without that as an inciting event, the rest of the story falls apart.

ISB has pacing problems — entire characters disappear for some time, storylines stall for several chapters. I could go into a chapter-by-chapter, scene by scene break down on why it doesn’t work. I’m not going to do that here, but you can certainly see some of the points in the story where I’m just meandering.

3. Fanfiction in the Soap Opera Fandom

This is less about the pantsing aspect and more about the overal fandom and conept of fanfiction. I’m sure some people think: Well, you’re overthinking this. Soap operas don’t have general themes. There are always unrelated storylines happening, why does it matter if ISB doesn’t have a central arc?

This is the major difference between watching a soap opera on television and writing fanfiction for it. The written page has to capture your interest in a way the visuals don’t. You’ll watch day after day because of the performances.

The written word doesn’t have the advantage of Jason Thompson’s gorgeous dimples or Rebecca Herbst’s flawless delivery. I have to get your interest in the first chapter and keep it until the final words. You do that by writing a tightly-structured, well-paced story that doesn’t make you feel like you’re wasting your time.

We’ve all read books or fanfictions that meander, that drift from the point, that don’t hold our attention. Fanfiction has to be different than a soap opera, so you either write a concentrated story about one set of characters (A Few Words Too Many is a decent example of this) or you write an ensemble story that’s based around a central theme or event. If it doesn’t start that way, you have to have it emerge within the first few chapters.

Think GH’s large sweeps stories during November and February–the ones that really worked. The February 2006 virus storyline is a particular favorite of mine. They were able to kill off characters, deepen relationships, continue the introduction of new characters, provide jump off points for future stories, and it worked because they had one story to wrap it all around. Ensemble fanfictions should take the format of a sweeps story: a major event that effects a big group of characters.

Conclusion

So what can you learn about writing without a plan by looking at The Witness and I Shall Believe?

(1) Keep story structure in mind. You have to have something happen every few chapters to keep the story moving forward.

(2) You either have to have one major story and one set of characters or a large ensemble cast tied to a central theme/event.

A Few Words is an example of the first type. The main story is Ric as a threat to Elizabeth and her child. Because Sonny is Ric’s brother and Jason is Elizabeth’s love interest, you can draw in the characters related to them, particularly Carly, Emily, Audrey, Courtney, and Nadine (whom I added in this).  Though Ric’s threat is the main story, the use of these characters allows for subplots that all tie into the major story.  One main throughline with subplots, all of which affect a small set of characters. The Best Thing also falls into this category. Jason has custody of Sam and Sonny’s daughter. How does this affect the people around him? 

Daughters is a close approximation of the second type, though it’s certainly not perfect. It has both an inciting incident (Robin returns to Port Charles after years of radio silence) and a central theme of family and relationships. I have four women: Robin, Elizabeth, Emily and Lulu, who are all intimately involved in one another’s lives. Even though they each have their own tragedy and story, they link together through their relationship to one another and their family.

So this is turned out to be less about pantsing, ha, because when you really break down the process of writing these two stories, their successes and pitfalls have nothing to do with the fact I didn’t know what the hell I was writing about from chapter to chapter, but that I forgot the cardinal rule of writing with ISB: Story Structure is king.

It’s also important to note that ISB was written in 2003-04, and The Witness in 2006-07, so that’s anothe factor in why the latter is better than the former. I had learned–from writing Mad World and ISB badly–to avoid similar mistakes.

Future Articles

With all my emphasis on story structure here, I suppose that would be a natural next story topic, probably with A Few Words Too Many as my case study. I was also considering some more on characterization. How to utilize a character’s history and biography to inform their actions, some resouces to do so. Thoughts? Requests?

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Comments

  • Pantsing = writing [flying] by the seat of one’s pants?

    According to Jane Hughes on December 2, 2014
  • Basically, yes 🙂

    According to Melissa on December 2, 2014
  • Great descriptive term for it. It’s usually pretty obvious to the reader when a story’s written that way.

    That smile emoticon look fiendish.

    According to Jane Hughes on December 3, 2014
  • looks

    According to Jane Hughes on December 3, 2014