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Is Fantasy for Gardeners?

The Garden by MinnhagenAt some convention in the distant past on some panel about something or other, someone once asked me whether I was an architect or a gardener. I had really no idea what they were talking about but replied that, as a physicist and an engineer, I was probably more of an architect with everything laid out just so. As best I can tell, the question goes back to something George RR Martin once said (lifted off Goodreads):

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

I dare say the notion of such a distinction existed before, but let’s let George take the credit. Someone else asked the same question and got a similar but slightly different answer.

“I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener. In my Hollywood years when everyone does work on outlines, I had to put on my architect’s clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.

That being said, I do know where I’m going. I do have the broad outlines of the story worked out in my head, but that’s not to say I know all the small details and every twist and turn in the road that will get me there.”

It’s less black and white when put that way. I’ve met writers who claim they have no idea where their stories are going when they start to write and I just can’t get my head around that. On the other hand, I’ve yet to find an out and out architect, and while I can understand how that works in principle, I can’t get my head around how that works in practice either. During last year’s NaNoWriMo, though, I found myself working on a historical mystery story and found myself working in a very different way, and that led me to wonder how much the nature of the story itself influences the way it needs to be attacked.

Sacrificial Teacher by dangercookConsider the Game of Thrones type of narrative. Events are seen through the eyes of multiple characters and there is no one character who carries the narrative and owns the story. The world is your oyster. You can, as the author, choose to look at any part of your world through any pair of eyes and observe any event. It’s impractical to design the blueprints for an entire world and everything that’s happening. Some scenes are chosen because they reveal the developing plots but others are chosen to reveal character or for atmosphere or simply because. Once a few characters have been established and begin to do things and to interact, there’s a desire to follow up on the consequences of those actions and interactions. There’s no reason not to go with a moment of inspiration and see those consequences through the eyes of some previously unimagined character; and then it’s nice to let your secondary characters develop a little rather than show up, act out their strict narrative purpose and then leave like good little cardboard cut-outs.

This is a natural story narrative for a gardener as it has very little structure. Seeds grow and bloom and drop more seeds, some entirely unexpected, and the author prunes and trims or not, with more or less of an eye on the direction of the original plot which is perfectly at liberty to fall by the wayside when a more interesting plot starts to develop all on its own. I suspect it’s extremely difficult to architect a story like A Game of Thrones because there are so many unknowns and so many possibilities that in order to write an outline you’d almost have to write a full first draft story

[As an aside, here’s a thought: is ensemble fantasy with no clear central character a relatively new thing (although Lord of the Rings arguably splits the lead between Frodo and Aragorn)? Does the rise of this type of story owe anything to table-top roleplaying games, the goal of most of which is to tell a story using an ensemble cast of roughly equal status? Has Dungeons and Dragons trained a good swathe of modern fantasy authors towards a certain kind of storytelling?

“My natural inclination … is to give my characters the head and to follow them … I do have the broad outlines of the story worked out in my head, but that’s not to say I know all the small details and every twist and turn in the road that will get me there.” Sounds to me like a fairly precise description of the best table-top RPGs. I’ve played with out-and-out gardeners who left our characters to get on with it and as a result very little happened and I’ve seen plenty of architects go mental with frustration trying to railroad a gaming party along a particular line of plot. The best all ran with a plot that was well-defined in its most general sense but whose details were defined on the fly either by or in response to the actions of the participating characters.]

Dandelion by haryartiNow consider an older school of more mythic fantasy but still with an ensemble cast (Magician, Belgariad, Star Wars, I’m looking at you now). The difference here is that one character is special, the one taking the mythic journey, and the others, however well developed, are supporting cast. There is a little more architecture involved but not much – the stories are simple with only a few key turning points. The main difference is that the gardening side of the narrative will likely require more ruthless pruning. It’s more like formal landscape gardening where a particular overall design must still remain. Still more suited to a gardener than an architect though.

Then you have the old-school sword and sorcery style of narrative, the action driven adventure story heavily revolving around a single hero or heroine – Conan, a lot of Gemmell (although not Legend) and such like, but also Bond, Indiana Jones and most other action heroes. Again, simple plots, which probably suits the gardener but also with fewer characters and interactions to suit the architect (I say this purely from first-hand experience that it’s always how characters relate to other characters which breaks my early outlines). Maybe this type of story goes either way.

2014 MAR Gardener - Jace Beleren deciphers the Implicit Maze by Jaime JonesPolice procedurals, thrillers, mysteries, any narratives that rely on investigative tension and suspense are, I suggest, where the architects come into their own. Here the plot is necessarily a carefully choreographed sequence of many steps and revelations which must occur in a particular order. Information has to come to the central character in order to provoke an action that results in revelation that results in more information and so on; even if there are several separate mysteries to be unravelled and numerous red herrings on the way, a good mystery requires a palpable and continuous sense of progress while at the same time the tension of not knowing what’s waiting at the end. This demands a careful attention to both pacing and the sequence of events and doesn’t tolerate much noodling about by the main character and certainly not by the secondary characters; although again there are counter-examples.

It leaves me wondering whether the balance of gardening vs. architecture is defined more by the writer or more by the story, whether “gardening and architecture” is another way of saying “character and plot,” and whether, since fantasy seems generally to eschew this type of narrative (with some wonderful exceptions) while SF and Horror seem much more at home with it, why is fantasy mostly for gardeners?

This article was originally posted on March 6, 2014.

Title image by Minnhagen.



  1. Avatar Likaiar says:

    I wonder if Fantasy is for gardeners because it’s an escape from the real world in one way or another. I write and read fantasy because it’s new, because I can figure out a new world that is better, more fantastical, then my own.
    If I would be an architect then I would confine myself to a new world, while a gardener can figure out their own world, changing it as they want.
    Does this make any sense?

  2. Very interesting way of looking at things. I think that it would be really hard to say whether the creative process is author or genre dependant because those two things are linked. In other words, I think the gardeners are the types of people naturally drawn to fantasy stories where anything goes. There’s more freedom for thought and unexpected growth. Since that’s what they like, they cause the genre to continue in that direction. Those who are more mathematical and analytical are intrigued more by the logical flow of a mystery story. They write what they like.
    Perhaps if more architects read fantasy stories they would begin to turn out content that would change the whole genre.

  3. Avatar HJP says:

    I think that there is certainly something to this, but having seen how a lot of writers describe themselves, the consensus on what constitutes an architect is “someone who outlines just a bit more than I do.”

  4. […] Deas writes in his Fantasy Faction article, “Is Fantasy for Gardeners?”: “At some convention in the distant past on some panel about something or other, someone once […]

  5. Avatar John Cowell says:

    Interesting theory. Genre, author or story. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, or on a sliding scale. But saying that, the impression I always got was that process depends on the author, no matter the genre–literary, crime fiction, or whatever. Atleast for me, whether I write stories or articles, the process stays the same. It took frikin ages for me to realise I’m a gardener. Part of the problem was I so good at planning. I could plan the shit out of something, until it awesome, but then I’d find myself unable to write it, or if I did, I’d find the writing stilted or lifeless, or plain unsatisfying because it barely resembled the awesome I had in mind. Still, love to see some research 🙂

  6. Of course, literal gardeners – the good ones, anyway – generally have a plan for laying out their gardens and a very good idea of how particular plants grow and where they will flourish best.

    I believe (based on things I’ve heard him say on the Writing Excuses podcast) that Brandon Sanderson is very much a plotter, who works backwards from the ending, and yet gives his characters room to surprise him from time to time. I think he’s said something to the effect that he plans the plots but not the characters.

    On the other hand, Agatha Christie is on record as saying that she sometimes didn’t decide until the end who the murderer was, and would then go back and plant clues to point to them earlier in the book.

    In short, generalisations are more useful the less rigidly you apply them.

  7. Avatar Lucy Hounsom says:

    Speaking as writer, I can’t get my head around Brandon Sanderson’s technique. Giving his characters room to surprise him is not compatible with planning the plots but not the characters. The way I perceive it, characters ARE the plots. The narrative is led by their issues and conflicting relationships with others. Personally, I do tend to have a general sense of the ending, but the only way to discover how to get there is by listening to my characters and letting them point me.

    Still, each to their own. Architects and gardeners are totally distinct types of people and they – as has already been said – approach life and writing from different mindsets.

  8. Avatar Dan J. says:

    Architect/gardener, plotter/pantser, outliner/discovery writer. There are all sorts of names for the distinction.

    Personally, I’d have made the opposite assumption as you did. To me, something like GoT most definitely benefits from pre-planning. There are way too many threads and events going on at the same time but at different locations to keep them all straight without some sort of planning. I’d be constantly painting myself into a corner and spending more time going backwards to correct things than forwards. In fact, there have been strong hints that something along those lines is what delayed Martin’s books so much:

    “For me, I’m more worried about the Meereenese Knot. I believe the lateness of A Dance With Dragons has very little to do with George’s time away from the keyboard and his extra-curricular activities—time he was taking before Feast when the books were coming out more timely—and more to do with writing himself into a possible corner. For years George has wrestled with the Knot and it has defeated him at almost every turn.”

    A more linear story is much easier to pants from my perspective. You jump on the lead character and just start riding him to see where he goes. If he runs into a dead end, worse case is usually that you back up a chapter or two and force him off in a different direction.

  9. Avatar Jeff Seymour says:

    Great article! And great comments, which I always seem to be late to ;-). I’m absolutely a gardener. My outlines look like a long list of the following:

    “Chapter One: In which we meet Litnig and Cole, Litnig has his first dream, and the first of the heart dragons is broken.”

    From that, a book develops.

    I do think that wandering stories with no one main character are as old as stories themselves though. It’s been a while since I read the Iliad, but my recollection of it is that it wandered all over the place and let many characters share the spotlight. It is, after all, the Iliad. It’s about Troy, not about Achilles or Agamemnon or Paris or Hector or Helen alone. Shakespeare (not a novelist, but what fantasy writer isn’t familiar with Midsummer Night’s Dream?) certainly didn’t confine his plots to one main character. And while Dickens (not a fantasist, but for my money as much a contributor to steampunk as Jules Verne) did at some times, at others he wrote pretty broadly. I’d have a tough time saying that Tale of Two Cities was about one character over the others.

    I always feel a bit weird mentioning authors who are a part of The Literary Canon(tm) when I talk about fantasy, but I do think they count too. Also worth mentioning: I read a quote from China Mieville a while back that indicated he’s much more on the architect side of things, so if you want architectural fantasy, you might have a stab at him.

    And one brief thought about why fantasy might be a good place for gardening: a great fantasy, for my money, gives a reader moments of wonder. As a writer, I can’t plan those moments. They happen serendipitously, when opportunities present themselves during quiet moments in the narrative, and leaving open space means more chances for that to happen.

  10. […] read a really great article the other day about Architects and Gardeners in the writing world.  Simply put, Architects plan out the whole story and every detail before […]

  11. […] an article posted on Fantasy Faction, there was an interesting point about how the two types of writers tend to stick to different […]

  12. Avatar Shadowkat says:

    I honestly don’t know what I am at this point. I’ve never been an architect before this new story, so I might agree that it changes with the story as much as the person.

  13. “Architect” looks broadly consistent with “plotter” and “gardener” seems more consistent with “pantser”.

    I write fantasy, but I’m an architect through and through. I used to be a gardener, but as I grew, I switched to architect. I’m not going to say you can’t “grow” a story–you can. But there’s usually more clean-up work required at the editing stage.

    Robert Jordan described himself as a “discovery writer”. I heard Brandon Sanderson tell a story about Robert Jordan and how he pitched the Wheel of Time as 3 books. his publisher, knowing how he wrote, said let’s make the contract six. Fourteen books later…. So he knew what his story was, he “built” it, but he was willing to “grow” it in unexpected directions. Jordan was an extreme example, but Brandon Sanderson said he aspires to be the same, and so do I. I believe it’s the best of both worlds–it gives you structure you need to iron out most inconsistencies, but the flexibility to incorporate new ideas as they occur to you. This is probably what was meant by most writers being partly architects and gardeners, though I think Jordan and Sanderson both tended more to architect.

    I don’t believe it’s genre specific at all. More likely, it’s driven by the personality of the writer. All the writers I’ve ever spoken to who identify as gardeners are horrified by the idea of being restricted by a plot outline. They think it will stifle their creativity. They can’t work within limitations, even self-imposed ones. The architects are those people who like structure. This being the case, it would be interesting to see if the architect versus gardener preference aligns with any of the MBTI traits.

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