Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing MY Way: The "Pantser"

Perhaps we should begin with the most maligned of all techniques known as the "Write by the Seat of My Pants" approach or "The Pantser." I've read many writing books on all types of writing and have never seen one good word written about this technique.

I think I understand that. After all, if I am trying to sell a book on how to write, part of that book is going to have to do with planning my writing projects. Several dozen pages will deal with that subject. Yet, if someone is not planning, what will I put in those pages?

Indeed, if you look at most well-known writing instructors' signature approach to writing, it is rarely about characterization, editing, language usage or any of those essential elements of a novel. The core of The _____ Approach to the Novel is usually a plotting technique.

It is easy to dismiss the pantser. Many of us follow that old adage which says "Plan your work, then work your plan." The problem with that is that I'm not sure the pantser sees writing as work.

While not a pure pantser, I think I understand that mindset. Fiction writing for me is like interactive entertainment. As I write, I become part of the story. Writing fiction is not a "job" for me. The "job" appears when I have to edit and revise what I've written, but the writing itself is a vicarious adventure. If I know what stands behind every bush before my characters pass that bush, it spoils the fun.

Now, I like a bit more structure than the pantser. We will talk about that approach in a couple of days. But I understand the pantser excitement with discovering the novel through the writing. In essence the first draft of the novel for the pantser IS his or her plot outline.

The Pantser's Strengths

The main strength of the pantser is spontaneity. Sometimes writing down a plot outline can limit your creativity. You get a better idea when you are writing, but that means changing the plot outline and shifting around your carefully outlined scenes, so you stay with the original idea and ignore what might be a better approach. Even for explorers, this can be the case. I know where my plot has to get to in a few pages and this would throw off that plan.

Another strength is character-driven fiction. Frequently, "well plotted" novels focus on the action over the character. By that I mean, that the author is thinking mostly about what the characters need to do to make the story work out. The story can easily be forced down the throats of the characters.

The Pantser's characters are driving the story. Mostly the pantser puts characters in a setting with a problem and let's them figure it out as s/he tags along. If the pantser has a well developed set of characters what they do will usually be in character because he is not trying to force a direction on them. (Of course, that can lead to other problems, but we'll discuss them in a moment.)

The pantser can also bring a joyful passion to the story which can show through the way s/he tells the story. Often in the first draft, the pantser gives the impression of "being there" which those of us who have more complete plans may need to create during our revision and editing stages.

The Pantser's Dangers

If you are a pantser, life is a wonderful adventure, but we all know adventures also have some dangers.

One of the biggest dangers for the Pantser is getting off track of the story. This means you will have to spend a lot more time in editing removing irrelevant scenes. It also means you will find yourself going down narrative blind alleys which don't really lead to any place significant in your story.

A couple of tips for the pantser to stay on track. If at all possible, have your conclusion in mind. In fact, I suggest writing or at least summarizing the climatic scene first or right after writing your first scene. Set this aside and glance at it occasionally asking yourself how what you are writing is bringing you closer to that end.

Another tip, even if you don't have your ending planned out, is to simply stop and take stock about every 5000 words or so and ask yourself where is this leading? If it isn't leading anywhere profitable, then change direction.

Are You a Pantser?

Only you can answer that question, but here are a few ideas to consider. When you go on a road trip, do you tend to ignore the map and just head in the general direction of your destination and find your own way? Do you have a tendency to take spontaneous detours? When you cook, do you tend to make up your own recipes or just watch someone else and then do what they do? Would you have trouble finding the measuring spoons in your kitchen? Are you someone who gets a new program and installs it and doesn't bother to read the handbook or instructions at all, but prefers to figure it out on your own? If that is the case, you are probably a pantser.

Here's a good test. You probably have some sort of idea for a story, Sit down and set a timer for ten minutes and start writing on that story. If at the end of that time you find yourself generating more ideas for the story and wanting to continue, you are probably a pantser. If you run out of ideas and wish you had some sort of guide to follow, then you probably are not. You may well be a plotter. We'll talk about that Tomorrow.

Plotter, Pantser or Explorer you may have found yourself frustrated by Novel Writing books and courses that tried to squeeze your creative process into someone else's box. If you want to try something different check out the course Write Your Novel by Valentines Day - Your Way!


  1. I'm usually something of a Plotter (although I tend to find actually writing down any sort of plans counter-productive unless I'm cowriting), but last year for my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, I was a pure Pantser. And it was glorious. I came up with a vague idea for a first scene on the evening of October 31st, and just let it go from there. Three days in, I had a bit more of an idea of what the story was about, and by the end of the first week, I could see the entire structure, just as I could on projects that I'd spent months mulling over.

    I think the biggest concern for the Pantser is world-building. Overall I'm pretty pleased with last year's efforts, but the setting is kind of a murky blur, especially in the early parts before the story really asserted itself. Unless your story happens in a real location that you know intimately, creating a sense of place is going to be one of the biggest goals of subsequent drafts. The other, of course, is making sure that the finished product feels like a cohesive whole, no matter how it began life.

  2. Pantser here! Outline? What's that? The last book I was working on, I got some of the characters into trouble ... then I had to figure out how to get them out of it. I've been working on another story, concentrating on the heroine and her companions, when all of a sudden it occurred to me I should devote some time to the bad guys so I started writing a chapter on them. I put it where I was currently, might move it to a better place later, who knows? Pantser, definitely!

  3. For the pantser/character first, the critical element for the author is keeping a good grip on who your character is and how they react to things and keeping control of the obstacles, threats, attractive red herrings so that you are the one deliberately throwing at them things that will keep them going in a direction that will make for an interesting plot arch. Ideally, we want them to cause half of their problems I'm told, but that is the result of the character's shortsightedness, so we need to look farther than the character can see. We are often intuitive personalities and can still learn from the plotting tools and techniques out there even if planing everything out ahead exactly the way a sensor would doesn't suit us.

  4. Being a panster, I find that I usually do line by line research. Makes research funner.

  5. I like to do my research and character development in advance. I get a lot of ideas from the research. But then I write science fiction and keeping abreast of the current research is good. In fact, I just decided to do a second nano novel based on the recent research that found neutrinos being accellerated past the speed of light. It's not totally confirmed, but it gives a base for a speculative work about a group of scientists who use that idea to send messages back in time to avert disasters. The problem they can only send messages of about 150 characters back 48 hours. And they have to use the least force possible or "nudges" to avoid negative consequences.

  6. Another pantser here. When I started writing many years ago I was 100,000 words in when I realized I was nowhere near the story I was supposed to be telling. I've improved since then, but the characters have to solve their problems by the seat of their (and my) pants, and I'm the one throwing trouble at them.

    I find now that I prefer to have a good idea where the story should go, but not how it gets there until I'm very close. I also like to plan each chapter ahead to the degree that I know what should happen (or be established) in it.

  7. Christopher--

    I think that the best trick for the pantser to use is the one I mentioned in my previous post: The slash-dash method. It's planning just a scene ahead in very minimalist fashion. You just write down behind a slash the basic idea of the scene, then beside dashes things that happen in the scene. For instance, the scene in Dickens Christmas Carol where Scrooge encounters Marley's ghost:

    /Scrooge meets marleys ghost
    -Scrooge is started but doesn't believe
    -Eventually S. believes
    -Marley tells scrooge he will face a terrible fate if he doesn't change
    -M. fortells the coming of three spirits

    There is plenty of room in that little "outline" to allow the pantser to explore any number of possibilities.

  8. I'm a panster through and through. And you're right, writing isn't "work" for me at all. Writing is a fun way to play with my imagenary friends and not have people looking at me funny...well, most of the time.

    You hit the nail on the head when you said the work comes when it's time to edit and revise. Not because I don't think it needs to be done - it most certainly does - but because I'd rather move on to the next set of friends waiting to play. :)

    Concilium, July 2012


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