No matter what you thought about the end of the HBO version of Game of Thrones, it’s worth considering George R.R. Martin’s framing of writers as ‘Architects or Gardeners’, and extending that metaphor to your life and work.
George R.R. Martin’s Architects vs Gardners describes two possible approaches to writing that can be extended to apply more broadly. Architects design everything upfront before implementing their plan, while Gardeners plant seeds and are open to how their garden might grow and develop through ongoing cycles of discovery.
LESSONS FROM WRITERS
In the context of writing the Architects versus Gardeners frame is also known as 'Plotters versus Pantsers', the latter referring to ‘writing by the seat of your pants’. Here are some examples of where well-known writers land on this spectrum:
LEAN TOWARDS ARCHITECTS
LEAN TOWARDS GARDENERS
"I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write."
"Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters' theses."
“I do a lot of upfront work on my outline and worldbuilding. I do less upfront work on my characters. Once I know the setting and the general story, then I basically cast people in roles and write scenes from their perspective.”
“What comes first is an image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I've already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn't write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers."
"If you do enough planning before you start to write, there's no way you can have writer's block. I do a complete chapter by chapter outline."
“I’m much more a gardener than architect.”
As Rowling and Sanderson point out, Architects still discover ideas within their outlines. Similarly, Martin notes that when you plant seeds you have an idea of what you’re planting, however, you're not exactly sure how it’s going to turn out. The consistent theme here is that rather than a binary view of these options, it’s more useful to think of them as shifting choices on a spectrum.
APPLIED TO LIFE, WORK & LEADERSHIP.
Like all mental models and concepts that we share at ModelThinkers, it's worth exploring how this idea can be best applied to a variety of contexts. In many ways, this metaphor is simple and personal way of representing the tension between Waterfall vs Agile approaches. With that in mind, here are some prompts to help you consider leaning more one way or the other on the Architect vs Gardener spectrum.
When to lean towards Architect.
Identify more predictable areas of your life or work that you have greater control over and where being an Architect with stronger planning might return greater results.
Establish areas where you want to take the thinking and creative effort out of execution, this relates to R.L. Stein’s advice on outlining to avoid writer's block and might involve planning out your work week and scheduling each block with clear intention when your work is relatively predictable.
When to lean towards Gardener.
Identify where your life or work is more ambiguous or out of your direct control. In such situations, it's likely advantageous to 'plant seeds', still with intention, but with greater flexibility and openness about how things might turn out. For example, if you can't predict your team's roadmap then you might hire generalists and multi-skilled people who can better adapt to future needs.
Determine where you want to provide greater engagement and creativity in the journey. Martin compares this to the difference between catching a plane where the journey is defined and controlled, to taking a road trip where the trip is still an adventure. This might involve providing team members with more freedom to define and innovate their approach within some guidelines rather than making them stick to your detailed plan.
How to better combine the two approaches.
Be more conscious about what plans you are creating versus which seeds you are planting, and how they might better combine. This is similar to Sanderson who defines plot and setting but gives more freedom to see where how the characters develop. For you, it might involve mapping out a clear business strategy but allowing specific products to have 'free reign' in how they develop.
Martin's metaphor is ultimately a simplistic frame to help bring awareness to your options. For a deeper understanding of where and when to apply various techniques, be sure to dive into the Cynefin Framework, which identifies appropriate courses of action based on various domains.
IN YOUR LATTICEWORK.
In addition to using Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework to choose appropriate techniques depending on your domain, it's worth exploring Covey's Circle of Concern & Control to identify and work with your level of agency in any particular context.
Beyond that, one might argue that leaning Gardener provides greater opportunities to incorporate Feedback Loops through ambiguous situations. While Architects might argue that they can more consistently apply tested approaches and solutions, in writing terms this might include executing a version of the Hero’s Journey.
- Understand your preference and strengths.
Do you naturally lean towards being an Architect, where you want to plan upfront and execute? Or a Gardener, where you are willing to plant seeds and see where they take things? Where does your comfort zone lie and what will be your bias when faced with a choice?
Know when and where to be an Architect.
Determine where in your life and work it might work better to be an architect. This is likely about identifying areas that are more predictable and where might greater upfront planning and definition of outcomes help you to achieve your goals. This is also a decision to do much of the creative heavy lifting at the beginning of a process.
Know when and where to be a Gardener.
Identify what areas of your life and work have greater levels of ambiguity and might simply be out of your control to impact in a predictable fashion. This is the space where a Gardener approach will likely be more impactful, as it leaves you more open to opportunities rather than fixed to a plan. Other reasons for prioritising a Gardner approach might include wanting to maintain engagement and creativity throughout the implementation stage.
Ultimately ask - What plans are you making and what seeds are you planting?
In practice your life will involve a combination of these approaches, so be intentional about the plans you are defining versus the seeds you are planting, and be prepared to shift between the two methods.
The main limitation of this model is when it is applied as a binary choice when in reality there is an interplay and overlap between the approaches. In addition, some might argue that even though some people appear to be Gardeners, they actually have an implicit sense of planning that is not being stated or so consciously surfaced.
George R.R. Martin as a Gardener.
Martin points out that he leans more towards being a gardener, and describes how he started writing Game of Thrones having imagined a scene of a family finding wolves. He had a broad idea of the setting but effectively had to define it as he wrote, only creating the map when he was quite far into the story.
This fascinating Twitter thread by academic Daniel Silvermint argues that the failure of the final season of Game of Thrones was because Martin was a Gardener, yet the show writers had to write the final season without his text and relied on an Architect approach to draw the story to a conclusion.
J.K. Rowling as an architect.
Rowling used what has become known as a ‘story grid’ to plot out her stories. The following is part of her outline for Order of the Phoenix.
This concept is from George R.R. Martin’s description of writing approaches which he outlines in this quote:
“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.”
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