How to Plot and Pants at the Same Time

pantser, n. — A writer who “flies by the seat of their pants” when drafting a book, rarely plotting more than the basics and never going so far as to outlinegiphy2

When I first started seriously writing I was a die-hard pantser. Any advance plotting more in-depth than the basics–world, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict–seemed restrictive at best, and pure tyranny at worst. My reasoning went that I couldn’t possibly be truly original, spontaneous, and creative with my writing if I had every last detail trussed up into a series of predetermined scenes. I had to let my imagination run wild! Find the flow! Go where my characters needed me to go!

Well. That all worked okay for a little while. But when I started drafting my second full-length novel, I ran into a curious problem. About a quarter of the way through–somewhere around the 20-25K word mark–I got stuck. I didn’t know exactly why, but the story had gone off track and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back ON track because I didn’t know where it was going. So, in pure pantser style, I started over. I began the story a little later into the action, changed up a few characters, and introduced the villain earlier. Things were going smoothly, until BAM. Yep, you guessed it. I was stuck again.

giphyHmm. Maybe pantsing wasn’t the most efficient method after all. Since I wasn’t particularly keen on writing another twenty thousand words I wasn’t going to use,  I started reading instead. I started with Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, then moved on to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Neither had all the answers, but I was beginning to see that maybe stories needed structure and planning after all. By the time I read Brook’s Story Engineering, I was ready to listen to what he had to say.

I like to call it Story Architecture. Stories, like buildings, have shapes, comprised of certain elements that are nearly constant across the board. Whether it’s a shack in the woods or a Frank Lloyd Wright art-home, a house has walls, a roof, at least one door, and nearly always windows. Similarly, a story must comprise certain elements that make it, well, a story. Beats. Pinch-points. Emotional arcs. And once you start identifying these building blocks, you start seeing them everywhere. The book you just picked up at the library. The latest summer blockbuster. The cartoon your niece is watching. And most importantly, you start seeing them in your own work. And you start seeing why your by-the-seat-of-your-pants-story has run into the ground.

giphy3And so I started outlining. I cobbled together a worksheet/beat-sheet that includes elements from Story Engineering, Save the Cat!, and even The Hero’s Journey, and I’ve used it to outline every manuscript I’ve written since. This beat-sheet helps me map out every plot point, every emotional arc, every shift in tension or sympathy. It helps me build the scaffolding upon which a readable story can be built.

But. (Y’all knew there was gonna be a but.) You may be able to take the girl out of the pants, but you can’t take the pants out of the girl (that sounded way less weird in my head). So I still try to find ways to incorporate the spontaneity and extemporaneousness of pantsing while also rigorously plotting.

First, I never outline too deeply–working through an outline beat by beat is bad enough, so I find scene by scene outlining to be way too stifling for me. Second, I never outline the climax and denouement of the story, instead letting the culmination and conclusion arise organically from the plot and characters as they stand. And finally, I never refer to back to my outline once I’ve completed it! Usually, after spending so much time with the plot, beats, pinch-points and emotional arcs, the shape of the story has already been built enough in my head that I can safely play it out on paper. And even if I decide along the way that I want to change the paint color or add an annex or even knock down a wall, I’m secure enough in the overall structure of the story that this won’t derail the entire plot.

giphy1My method probably isn’t for everyone! But whether you’re mostly a plotter or a mostly pantser, it goes to show that a little bit of flexibility in either direction can go a long way.


Kurt Vonnegut, and the Shapes of Stories

Jami Gold | Worksheets for Writers

Pixar’s 22 Rules for Storytelling

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.