The Sandman’s “Calliope”: A Cautionary Tale for Pantser Writers

In the battle between “Plotters” and “Pantsers” I am definitely on the side of the “Plotters”. I just can’t think of starting to write without a structure or a goal for that specific writing period. The thought of staring at the blank page is so scary for me I have to start by having a clear idea, structure and goal in front of me before even sitting to write the poetic part of the writing.

For those who are unfamiliar with these terms, a “Pantser” is a writer who writes without a clear plan or outline, allowing the story to unfold organically. Stephan King is a huge supporter of that tribe. On the other hand, a “Plotter” is a writer who meticulously plans out the story before starting to write, outlining the plot, character arcs, and key events. JK Rowlings is a fantastic example of this school of writing discipline.

No one can say what is a better way to stick to. As you can see you can become a hugely successful writer with both methods, it all depends on what works best for YOU. However, there is a danger in sticking to the “Pantser” mode. 

Though I read many articles about these two methods of writing the best example I saw of the danger of the “Pantser” way came in the last episode of The Sandman. In that episode, they brought to life the story of “Calliope” which appears in issue 17 of the Sandman comic series.

In Greek mythology, Calliope is the muse of poetry and is considered the chief of all muses. Neil Gaiman’s story is captured by a writer who believes he lost his ability to write and prisons Calliope and demands she would be his muse and develop his stories. As his success grows, he becomes increasingly dependent on her to the point that he loses his grip on reality and believes that without her he could never write again.

This cautionary tale demonstrates how ideas are not the only important element in creating a story. The “Pantser” approach of writing “at the seat of their pants” (thus the name) can lead to a fragmented and disjointed story, lacking clarity and focus. 

In contrast, the “Plotter” approach, with its careful planning and structure, can lead to a well-crafted and engaging story that holds the reader’s attention and satisfies their expectations. This can happen even if the idea is just a common one.

But why this specific story? The answer lies in Calliope, the Muse. She is the source of all inspiration for writers. “Pantsers” become victims of the muse, as they wait for their muse to strike them. They write only when their “muse” is there. And even when it happens, they cannot move forward beyond what she gives them.

“Plotters” on the other hand, only need a seed of it to develop into a full artistic project. 

In “The Sandman,” Calliope serves as a metaphor for the creative process, representing the infinite possibilities of the imagination. For “Plotters”, Calliope provides a roadmap to bring their vision to life, while “Pantsers” are left at the mercy of the muse, with nothing to hang onto.

The obsessed writer in “Calliope” serves as a reminder that the “Pantser” approach can lead to a lack of control and direction in one’s writing. Without a clear plan or outline, the writer is left with a jumbled mess of ideas, unable to bring their vision to life in a satisfying way.

On the other hand, the “Plotter” approach allows for a level of control and structure, enabling the writer to bring their vision to life in a clear and concise manner.

However, it’s important to note that both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, and the key to successful writing is finding what works best for you as an individual writer. Some writers may prefer the freedom and flexibility of “Pantsing”, while others may thrive in the structure and planning of plotting.

In conclusion, “Calliope” serves as a powerful reminder of the dangers of being a “Pantser” writer and the benefits of being a “Plotter”. Through the lens of Calliope, Gaiman masterfully demonstrates the importance of having a clear plan and structure in one’s writing.

Whether you’re a “Plotter” or a “Pantser”, the most important thing is to always strive for clarity and focus in your writing, ensuring that your story is engaging and satisfying for your readers.

One last note before I leave you to make up your decision on your writing style, Gaiman himself has described himself not as a “Plotter” or a “Pantser” but rather a “Gardner” than an “Architect” stressing that he like knowing things before he starts.

Now it’s YOUR turn – Are you more of a “Plotter” or a “Pantser”?

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6 thoughts on “The Sandman’s “Calliope”: A Cautionary Tale for Pantser Writers”

  1. A panster by nature but an emerging plotster by necessity! If I let my characters run wild I end up with ninety minute TV pilots. If I wrote features they would talk me into a running time that would make Gone With The Wind seem like a Tik Tok video. 😅 Thank you for the great article! I had never heard the term panster before! But it fits and I will wear it with a few alterations!!

  2. I always use a hiking analogy. You can throw on your walking boots and go for a hike with no plan and you might find some amazing stuff or you can plan a really great hike and know everywhere you plan to go or you can just know lunch stop and overnight camp and end destination.

    All are valid forms of hiking. But if you have deadlines and people waiting on you on the other end it’s probably better to know where your going. Likewise if you don’t have a lot of experience hiking. And also if you’re planning a really long or complex hike.

    So for me it depends on what sort of writing I’m doing. I love to free flow write from time to time just to feel the wind in my hair, but I have found it to be MUCH more productive for me to plan out a fair bit of my route and then explore detours when I have space to do that.

    You still get to things you didn’t expect and you still get to enjoy the walk and the view. If I don’t plan I wander around in the woods a lot, which can be fun but frustrating. If you stuck with me this long thanks!

    1. That’s a fantastic analogy Lucy. As someone who loves hiking, it really resonates with me. Thanks for this great input.

  3. I’ve started goofing around with a story. I’ve no idea what I’m doing. I wrote with the aim of dialog-only and finished the ninth chapter before I figured out where I might be going with it. The primary character had been mentioned but did not appear in the story so far. Ideas for a second, third, or fifth book have turned into 3-5 chapter ideas, some which I find excellent, some which I think should be omitted or rewritten. A grand story arc has emerged with lots of subplots. But the plan might have started with the goal of publishing, and there’s only one publisher that could do that – they own the characters. It’s not likely that they’d want to since most of the story is a departure from what they have currently.

    It could be a breath of fresh air. When I’ve talked to people about it, they’ve gotten worried and excited about my solutions to long-standing problems in the genre. Anyway, this is a single point of failure, and at this point requires sales skills I may not have. I’m starting to collect pitch ideas. I expect the future is fleshing it out with a novelization to possibly self-publish has fan fiction, then starting a different story, stealing some of the ideas, but having a publishing plan early on. I view the work so far as having value even if no one sees it. In the 90s, i wrote six chapters of a technical book which i did not publish, and credit the exercise for about $150k in income anyway.

    1. Thanks for your wonderful input, Stephen. I’ve always found out that when you first start outlining and breaking down your story, you’ll have a much easier time writing it and certainly selling your story to agents and publishers. Remember, at the end of the day, publishing is a BUSINESS. They need to see proof that your idea would work and sell before investing in it.

      Another thing I’ve found out is that it’s better to spend a few months fleshing out your story arc, character development and clarifying your theme than spending it on writing. When you do that the writing just flows when you sit to write.

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