Discovery Writing (or Pantsing) World Building – How it Informs your Plot and your Characters

Otherwise known to me as gardening. Bizarre gardening, but gardening none-the-less.

Imagine, for a moment, a plot of land. Nothing growing, nothing there but fresh, fertile soil. The sort of soil that smells of cows and sweet rotting things.

You pick a particular corner, and you start building a path. As you build this path, you scatter seeds around you, plant trees, roses, place streams and rocks down. But you only really create the garden around the path. You sort of make it up as you go along. The things you just planted inform what you next plant, but if you decide to just go ahead and whack a gum tree in the middle of a bunch of roses, no-one will stop you. You decide to maybe plant the roses in a nice circle, framing the gum tree, so it makes sense.

Your path will have offshoots, and you’ll set up the garden around those offshoots, and then come back to the main path. When you finally finish the path, you’ll look back, adjust some things, plant some things in the gaps that are visible from the main path.

Your first visitor comes along, and you take them through the path, down all the little offshoots. You notice they’re getting tired about halfway through, so you resolve not to take your next visitor down the little offshoots. The plants are still there. You can still point them out to the next visitor if they want to know.

And maybe some of the other visitors ask about the bits beyond the garden they can see. So you think about it, look what else you’ve done, then plant some more stuff.

This is essentially what my world building looks like. The path is my story and plot, the offshoots are little plot bunnies I chase that don’t really come to fruition, and the friends I’m showing through are my alpha and beta readers. I make up the world that informs the plot first, then fill in the rest later. I make it make sense by looking at what else I’ve created, and fitting new information into that. If something seems totally out of left field, but I love it, I’ll just go and make the world building around it fit.

Notice the offshoots. There are many many times when I’m writing something and it makes no sense at all on the read through. So I change it, or get rid of it, or rebuild my plot. But that offshoot had value because I learnt more about my world and my characters while writing it.

Another important thing to realise is that your characters reflect their world. When your character does something, think about why they do it, and that might give you your next clue for what to plant next. If you get stuck, take a step back and look at where you’ve come from. Maybe build a stream in the middle of everything so when you show people around this garden of yours, they have to jump over it. World building can cause complications for your characters just as much as anything.

And if something random pops up, justify it. Sometimes you’ll just be coming up with bullshit. And sometimes it will present new character motivations, political manoeuvres, and plot points. Discovery writing is literally about that – making shit up and seeing if it works. If it doesn’t work, then that’s fine – you’ve learnt something about the story you’re writing, trust me. You’ve learnt something about your characters, about how they react to the other people and places around them.

The trick in pantsing and discovery writing isn’t finding a plot. It’s recognising what is plot, and what isn’t. It’s figuring out which part of the garden you’ve created to show to people, and which part to keep in your own files, for your amusement and joy. Because while pantsing can be frustrating, you can’t get closer to that joy of creation, because you’re literally creating everything, all at once.

Happy Holidays  All,

Sian

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