Confessions of a Former Pantser

When I wrote my first novel, the 215,000-word meandering monster no one will EVER see, I insisted I was a pantser. I wrote it scene-by-scene, in any order, with only a vague notion of a midpoint and an end, and a few scenes in between. There are lots of chatty scenes and WAY too many scenes set at balls.

In the end, instead of a gorgeous pseudo-Victorian fantasy epic, I had a steaming pile of crap on my hands.

I’m now a card-carrying plotter—in case you hadn’t picked up on that.

And I’m here to tell you, pantsing addicts, that you, too, can shed your unguided, fly-by-night methods and come out of the hairy wilderness that is a book with no rising tension. You can learn to write a well-plotted book while still feeling like the proverbial seat of your pants is guiding you.

The key? Plot points.

To give credit where credit is due, some of what I am about to recommend comes from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks (Love or hate the book, it has a lot of good advice!) and is lightly altered by Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. In Story Engineering, Brooks discusses three major plot milestones to aim for and plot around:

1. The first plot point, located 20-20% through the book, a moment that changes everything for the hero and her quest. This is the moment that FORCES her to react, and from this point there’s no going back.

2. The “context-shifting Midpoint,” located (surprise!) 50% through the book, wherein you deliver a piece of information that alters how your protagonist approaches her problem. Generally, this morsel of knowledge raises the stakes and the tension.

3. The second plot point, at the 75% mark, after which your protagonist is active instead of reactive. This is the moment where the hero learns everything she needs to know, and she forms her plan of attack.

Brooks mentions a lot of other points, too, but these are the most important, and the ones that will help keep your plot ticking along. And here’s what I’ve learned: if you plot these points in advance, you can play all around them but still keep your plot running ahead with your reader in its teeth.

There you have it, pantsers: just four plot-points to drive your action onward. If you know these, you can shape how your character achieves these points and what she does in response to them as you write.

And yes, you may alter these points, as long as you keep them in approximately the right place. But you must always be aiming for the next milestone, or your plot will wander off to die quietly in a corner, along with your readers’ interest.

The key is to keep your action aimed at the hero’s goal, shifting the tenor of the action with each new reveal of information. If you keep that in mind, you can still pants yourself into a happy ending.

But with that image in my head, I’ll keep my plotter card, thanks.

10 thoughts on “Confessions of a Former Pantser

    1. Kristin McFarland says:

      Story Engineering is definitely worth a read, even though I hated it at times. Brooks is a little too convinced that his idea is the ONLY way, when really most of these people have just put names to existing structural concepts. I’ll have to check out the Plot Whisperer, though!

  1. I think what made me give up the romantic but useless notion of myself as a pantser was the realization that I hadn’t finished a single novel by that point, despite 4-5 attempts at different ones. They all died somewhere in the middle, when I couldn’t figure out what came next. The first novel I plotted was not-coincidentally the first I finished. I don’t even try pantsing now outside of short stories, and even those get a lot of notes before I start.

    1. Kristin McFarland says:

      The Great Swampy Middle — where so many novels shrivel and die. That’s where having goals for your plot really comes in handy. You’re right, though, the notion of pantsing is quite romantic: we sit, nibbling the nibs of our pens until the Muse whacks us upside with a fantastic idea… when usually the Muse just sits, filing her nails, until we supplicate her with a well-plotted structure.

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