Writing: Plotters and pantsers in other walks of life, and Commedia dell’Arte

Standard

To plot, or not to plot?

You know about the eternal feud friendly debates between plotters and pantsers, right?  Plotters make a plot outline or at least know how a story will end before they write it.  (Seat-of-the)-pantsers don’t, saying they need the spontaneity to make characters come to life.

I have a book on management called Maestro: A surprising story about leading by listening.  It’s a story of an executive learning how to manage from a great orchestra conductor.  Partly, it’s about how the leader communicates a grand vision without micro-managing and in a way that allows the input of the players to influence the vision.

I just saw the title of another book, Organizational Jazz: Extraordinary performance through extraordinary leadership.  Presumably this is about an executive learning how to manage from a jazz band.  Presumably, this executive will not learn how to communicate a grand vision to his team, but how to train his team to work improvisationally.

It struck me that symphony orchestras are plotters, and jazz bands are pantsers.  (And, apparently, executives can be plotters or pantsers, too.)

This is a significant clue–that an entire genre of music may lend itself to either plotting or pantsing.

Computer programmers can also be plotters or pantsers.  A plotter makes a complete requirements specification, then does a top-down design.  Now, a coding pantser doesn’t just sit down and start writing code at the beginning, stop when she reaches the end, and try to compile it.  (Well, I started out writing code that way, and now I’ve written enough code that sometimes I can do it that way, but only to show off.)  A code pantser might not write down a list of requirements, but might instead start coding up little object classes that he’s pretty sure he’s going to need, in a bottom-up approach.  A code-pantser will probably use an incremental design, first developing the simplest version of the program that can run, maybe with lots of functionality dummied or stubbed.

People in other occupations can also probably be plotters or pantsers.  Parents, military leaders, and pickup artists can all plan what they’re going to do in detail, or wing it.  I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that not only are different people more inclined toward one approach or the other, but also one approach or the other is better for different kinds of kids, battles, and women.

 

Commedia dell’Arte

For an example closer to writing, consider live theater.  A performance can rely on plotting or pantsing actors.  Shakespeare wrote down every word for every actor.  At the same time, the most-popular performances on the continent were Italian Commedia dell’Arte. These were improvisational plays (usually comedies) in which the actors would, without the aide of a writer, construct by mere permutation one variation on a standard plot structure using a standard cast of characters, maybe rehearse it once, then jump on stage and improvise.

In a basic commedia scenario, there is an initial conflict between the older generation and the younger generation about the choice of a marital partner.  Through machinations of the old and the young, carried out by their servants, the conflict is eliminated, predominantly through the actions of the servants.  Additional complications occur through the middle of the plot, but all is eventually settled, ends happily, and the young people get married.

–Dina Ternullo,  Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’Arte (2016, The Compleat Anachronist #172), p. 33

Typically, the story would involve two noble houses, and at least one young man and young woman from opposite houses who fall in love over the objections of both houses’ patriarchs (C&SoECdA p. 38).  (The story would not involve love between people of the same gender or of different social classes.)

CdA operated in a time when the Italian Church and state were simultaneously weak and at odds with each other, and could be played off each other to avoid censorship and control.  The Church still forbade women to perform on stage, but the commedians just did it anyway, and this–having beautiful women perform in public–was one of their main appeals.  The improvisation was partly to evade censorship. The authorities couldn’t censor a script that didn’t exist.

The character of these two types of plays are radically different.  A Shakespeare play is tightly controlled; the actors, even in a farce, walk naturally and act somewhat like real people.  CdA, on the other hand, resembles a Keystone Kops show: rapid, out-of-control farce.  The pace is faster.  The actors exaggerate every line and every action wildly, stomping about on stage, shouting and being as emotional as possible.  The stomping and shouting of Commedia actors was one of the regular background noises at Pennsic.

The reason Shakespeare comedies are so bad is that Shakespeare was trying to adapt the Commedia for the English stage, as shown by the fact that many (most?) of his comedies are commedia scenarios using commedia characters, often set in an Italian city-state.  Commedia troupes were very popular, but weren’t allowed to perform in England because they used female actors.

According to Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’ArteTwelfth Night, which I think I’ve mentioned two or five times is a terrible play, was based on a 1532 commedia erudita (early Commedia dell’Arte) named Gli inganniti.  But the plot of a Commedia is farcical, and only goes over right with a farcical, pantser performance, not with naturalistic acting and Shakespearian elevated speech.  Shakespeare was possibly the worst possible playwright to try to adapt the Commedia.

On the other hand, changing a Commedia plot into a tragedy gave him Romeo and Juliet.

So a big part of the answer to “Plot or pants?” is probably, “Depends what you want to write.” I mean, obviously you want to plot a mystery novel. But some styles of story probably benefit from coming off the cuff. Say, a wacky absurdist comedy like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which Douglas Adams wrote like a fanfiction, writing each episode after broadcasting the previous one.

(Okay, that’s a lame and obvious conclusion. Mostly I wanted to tell you about Commedia dell’Arte.)

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