Beyond Pantsing

I’m a pantser* by nature. I love the thrill of sitting down at the keyboard and just watching all of the magical craziness that ends up on the screen. Sure, some of it is complete garbage, but that’s to be expected with any kind of drafting. There’s just something inherently exciting about a story springing forth from nothing. When I let everything come to life organically, content emerges that I never would have imagined otherwise.

As much as I enjoy this process, there’s a problem. Pantsing leads to inconsistent structure, inconsistent pacing, and inconsistent characterization. In and of itself, that’s not a problem. Regardless of the way you draft, you’ll always to have to do edits. However, pantsing almost always leads to a much longer revision process. Again, this long revision process may actually be useful in some respects, allowing for another interesting story exploration that might not have been possible otherwise. And if you’re a hobbyist writer, the time crunch may not be such a big issue.

But, if you are trying to become a professional author, or are just generally working with very little time in which to do your writing, this could be problematic. You want to finish that book someday, right? I go to a lot of writing workshops, and almost every professional writer has said that even if they prefer pantsing, eventually they had to become more of a plotter for the sake of production time.

So what do you do? Well, you can do whatever you want, but one solution would be to split the difference. Plot some, pants some. There are probably a zillion different outlining/plotting methods out there, but I’ve found that many of these methods are simply too cumbersome for the typical pantser. I don’t want to spend forever making boring lists of characters and plot points. I want to write, damn it!

Given that conundrum, I’d recommend finding a lightweight outlining method. In this way, you can do skeleton outlining, where all the major bones of the story are constructed first, but the rest of the story’s flesh is left to be…fleshed out later as you actually write the thing. Then, when you’re in the revision process, you can style the details as needed. You can easily take your story to the salon and change its hair color, but you don’t have to do major surgery to rearrange the skeleton.

The next issue is selecting a plotting tool. In Western writing traditions, the Hero’s Journey is probably the most common plot structure out there, and I think it’s great, but even the Hero’s Journey can feel a little too intense for me. Fortunately, there are more streamlined versions that you can use. In the screenwriting world, “Save the Cat,” may be one of the most celebrated iterations, but my personal favorite was distilled by Libbie Hawker in her book, “Take Off Your Pants.” As the title suggests, it’s literally written for those of us with a natural aversion to plotting, and let me tell you—it’s changed the way I approach novel writing.

There are plenty of other options out there as well, including some meant for specific genres, like The Better Novel Project, which is designed for plotting YA novels. The method itself isn’t the most important part—find something easy that works for you. Pick one that focuses on those essential story elements and leaves the actual details for later. You’ll cut down on your revision time, and hopefully write better stories without squashing your inner pantser’s dreams of dashing wildly through those inky pages.

So, fellow pantser, how do you feel about trying some barebones plotting? Drop me a line on Twitter and let me know 🙂

*A pantser is a someone that writes “by the seat of their pants.” No plotting, just going with the flow of whatever comes up. Conversely, a plotter is someone that prefers to carefully outline their writing before starting the process.

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