Confessions of an Inveterate Pantser

Or, “How I learned to stop bumbling and love the outline.”

On the spectrum from “write by the seat of your pants and see where it goes” [whence “pantser”] to “plan every scene before you write a first draft” [“plotter”], I’m naturally a lot closer to the former. I like to wait for inspiration and just write what comes. I wanted to plan ahead, but I didn’t have any better luck figuring out what should come next, and then I also didn’t have any words written.

Unfortunately, after two abandoned novels and too many anguished hours staring at that blinking, taunting cursor, I realized that discovering the story by drafting wasn’t working for me. I spent too much time polishing words in stories that meandered and fizzled out, and I learned the hard way that pretty words can’t make a boring story more interesting.

The big problem with “outlining” was, as I said, that I didn’t know what should come next. Enter Story Engineering. It’s positioned as the answer to “what comes next.” Unbelievably, in all the books on craft that I’d read and all the creative writing courses I took in college, no one had ever mentioned that stories follow a structure. Stories have common elements, just as houses do, and the architectural answer to “What comes next?” is known! It was a literally life-changing revelation. Delivered in Larry Brooks’s occasionally obnoxious but totally spot-on style, it was a swift kick in the pants for this pantser. (It turns that screenwriters have known about this for ages, but I really appreciated someone making the mapping to novels for me. If you want a kinder, gentler introduction to story structure, I highly recommend KM Weiland’s site and book.)

Now when I’m “outlining” (which certainly does not involve Roman numerals for me), I’m no longer staring at a blank page. Instead, I’m solving a fill-in-the-blanks puzzle, and I have criteria by which to judge whether a plot or character decision is working. If I’m stuck, I can pick a direction and plan in it and realize whether or not it works without any wasted prose. (It still takes time, of course, but not nearly the same kind of time it takes to draft in pretty words and without the temptation to polish them.)

Most importantly, I’ve found that for me, the joy of discovering my story isn’t diminished at all by planning it ahead. I get just as much thrill out of nailing plot points as I did when drafting. I still have pages and pages and pages of brainstorming notes, in both spiral notebooks and OneNote, but since I’m not intending those words to ever be seen by anyone else, I don’t put any pressure on myself to make them beautiful, which means I can crank them out much faster. I can brainstorm with friends and critique partners (CPs) and try out and discard ideas so much faster when I’m dealing with a few-hundred- or few-thousand-word plot plan than with an unwieldy 100,000-word draft. When my CPs discovered a serious plot hole in the middle of the outline, I was a tiny bit demoralized but could just wade in and fix the outline without losing any drafted words.

The best part of story structure is that you can still be a pantser if you want. You can do as much outlining as you want and then dive in. I knew by feel when I had reached a detailed-enough outline that I needed to start drafting. You can outline down to the scene level before you write a word of prose, or you can totally pants your whole first draft, then apply structure to it ex post facto in the editing process.

Of course, this revelation means that all of us will have stronger plots now, which means we’ll all be more competitive in getting published… but as a reader, I say, hooray to all the fantastic books I’ll soon have available to me!

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