Epiphany: The Bottom Line, Revealed

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been in a street fight for the last 30 months.

Pantsers vs. Planners.  Jets vs. Sharks.  Right vs. left.  Good vs. Evil.

You would not believe — I’ve only shared a sliver of it — the vitriolic venom sent my way when I’ve suggested that there exists an underlying, matrix-like set of structural principles and aesthetic sensibilities that, like the Gods looking down from Olympus through their enchanted reading glasses, determine the fate (readability, publishability) of our stories.

I’ve been misunderstood.  And indeed, I’ve been guitly of misunderstanding.  And… I’ve been overwhelmingly reinforced by a small army of writers who get it.

My position has… softened.  I’ve realized that the “fight” isn’t what I thought it was.  That there is significant gray imbued in all of this discussion about the writing process.

But there is no gray at all in the truth about what makes a story tick, and the precision of that truth.  We don’t get to define, or reinvent, the word “tick” in this context.  Not if you intend to throw your story out there with the intention of finding an audience.

I think I stumbled up on it.  I wrote it in my post of two days ago.  One sentence.  Not planned, but totally pantsed in the throes of writing that post.  Here it is again, slightly paraphrased for even further clarity.  It bears repeating. 

It warrants posting on your computer, maybe tattooing onto your body if you’re still confused:

Write your story however you need to write it, process-wise.  But don’t turn a blind eye to what’s true about the story itself, however you get there.  About what the story demands from you before it will work.

That’s non-negotiable.

Which means that, at the end of the day, planners and pantsers are two names for the very same pursuit.  Same game, different paths and styles.  But there is only one finish line.

So I’ll stop the divisive ratta-ratta if you will.

Like many Epiphanies, the problem is simplied when clarified.  And the polarization vanishes like smoke blown away in a relieved sigh of recognition.

I still have strong opinions about the creative process. 

You can build a castle with a blueprint and a forklift, or you can built it one handful of sand at a time.  The latter may be more romantic, it may be the only way you can wrap your head around it, but that doesn’t change the above Epiphany.

I still beleive that the more one understands those principles and criteria, the more the writer will be prone to plan, or at least realize the “search for story”  in real-time, rather than continue to just write with blind trust that there is some muse sitting on that Olympus cloud that will show you the path.  Or at least how your story will end.

Either way, though, the truth is clear.   Only the path remains shrouded in an intoxicating mist.

If you’d like to learn more about the principles and criteria mentioned in this post, CLICK HERE.  My little Epiphany changes nothing that I’ve written in that text. Or dive into the roughly 300 other posts on this website that scrutinize and contextualize them.


Filed under Story Structure Series

16 Responses to Epiphany: The Bottom Line, Revealed

  1. Well said, Larry! It really doesn’t matter which creative paradigm you use to get the first draft written.

    All that matters is that your story has a great design by the end of the last draft.

    There are many roads to nirvana, but it’s still the same nirvana, no matter how you got there.

  2. Ben

    I’m glad to see you posting this. One of my major criticisms of your book was that although you paid a small amount of lip service to the idea of pantsing, it seemed obvious to me that you didn’t really believe in it, and you spent a lot of time bashing it in what felt like underhanded ways. I’m not even a pantser, but it felt unfair to me. All those pantsers out there need to get your wonderful message without feeling like they are somehow doing it all wrong unless they change their ways. I’ve even refrained from recommending your book to some writers because of this issue. The message of story structure is separate from process. Even though it all works so much better if you plan it out beforehand. 😉

  3. Olga Oliver

    Truth is the core, Larry. Here’s one of my posting hanging on my computer: GOOD WRITING DEMANDS THAT I DRAW ON EVERYTHING THAT I AM.

  4. I’m here to tell you, that pantsing stuff doesn’t work. Oh, I am sure a lot of people write entire novels on a wing and a prayer, with nothing more guiding them than what they perceive as intuition. But I am equally sure that almost none of those novels SELL.

    And isn’t that the point?

    Writing is not a performance art. It’s not painting; it’s not playing music. If you do those things, someone might see it or hear it. Writing a novel is not a personal cathartic exploration of the soul. If that’s your goal, start journaling.

    Novels are written for one reason — to be read.

    And please don’t torture your family and close friends by handing them your badly-written tome over the holidays and guilt-tripping them into reading it and giving you high praise.

    Instead write a good novel. How do you do that? Put some thought into it before you start pounding your keyboard into submission. Plan a little bit.

    You plan everything else, vacations, trips to the grocery, your day. I don’t go to the gym without a plan. I know what muscles I’m going to work, and I know what machines and weights I’m going to use. I don’t just walk in and grab the first piece of equipment I see and start cranking out reps.

    So why not plan one of the most challenging and potentially rewarding tasks you will ever undertake — writing a novel.

    Don’t believe me?

    How about these guys:

    Edgar Allan Poe: “Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen.” (The Philosophy of Composition, 1846.)

    James Ellroy: “I write a huge outline, a formal outline. For example, the outline for ‘The Cold Six Thousand’ was 350 pages. The novel itself is 672 pages. It was an 1,100-page typed manuscript.”

    Thomas Lennon and Robert B. Garant (whose movies have grossed $1.5 billion): “If you sit down with a blank file open on your computer, cursor blinking at you, taunting you to write a 105-page screenplay with no map at all, you will fail.”

    There are exceptions to every rule, and there are a handful of successful writers who can go from concept to final draft without so much as a single note on a single scrap of paper. Stephen King is one. But let’s face it, if you were that kind of gifted genius, you wouldn’t be surfing Internet sites looking for tips on writing.

    I am not a gifted genius. I’m a blue-collar writer. I have written a produced Lionsgate movie, two published novels, and two published nonfiction books, and by “published” I mean from big New York publishing houses, not Bob’s Vanity Press.

    And I have outlined every one of those projects before I started writing. I also outlined most of my 800 published newspaper and magazine articles too.

    I’m struggling through an outline right now for a new movie script. You know why? Because it’s a hell of a lot easier to fix story problems in the outline than it is to fix them after the first draft is written.

    In the real world of working — as in published and produced — writers, flying blind or by the seat of your pants is nothing but a one-way ticket to the slush pile. So my advice is to get onboard the outliner express or stay unpublished.

    Chuck Hustmyre
    working stiff writer

  5. Was recently introduced to your blog by a writer friend who had so beautifully revised her book that I asked her to explain how she did it. She had followed your guideline. Now, I’m doing the same thing and loving the way you describe each structural point. It’s getting me excited about rewriting this thing I’d gotten bored with. Why? It makes more sense and is easier to use than any process I’ve yet come across.

    I don’t see why there should be a problem from your end. If you believe in your process, shout it out. There’s no need to defend it. Whoever wants to follow your advice is welcome to do it. Others can simply tune out.

    Meanwhile, Larry, I’m delighted to have met you. Looking for more great posts. Loved the “Help” de-construct.

  6. Dawn P

    Larry: Don’t let the Nay-Sayers get you down. I’ve been at conferences where you present, and have seen listened to the ugly banter. But consider that every dysfunctional person must protect their position to the death–even if they’re wrong. Or deluded, and find out they’re wrong later on when the story doesn’t work.
    Concentrate on the Believers who follow your format and preach it. Consider the amount of people you have truly helped, the words now on paper ( or e-readers) because you persevered.
    There will always be those ready to cut you down. Ignore them and press on to find the lonely writer searching for the voice of reason.

  7. Carmen Lassiter

    What everyone else said. I’m just sending you a cyberhug.

  8. Fancy

    Last month I stumbled upon your blog while researching inciting incidents, and I read the article about how inciting incidents may or may not be the first plot point. That was so enlightening that I signed up by e-mail and checked out a bunch of your articles. I then borrowed “Story Engineering” from the library to see if I would like it, and it’s currently in my cart on amazon.com–I’m saving my pennies to get it.

    But here’s the thing–as I read “Story Engineering” and eat up everything you say, I feel constantly beat up by your defensive “rants” (for lack of a better word). I get it, I love it, and yet I’m constantly being argued with. I know you aren’t really arguing with those of us who get it. But it has felt that way–like you aren’t “listening” to those of us who support you and what you teach.

    This book is like getting the answers to all the questions I didn’t even know I had. I’ve been trying to write this novel for 8 years in fits and starts, and I kept getting paralyzed because I didn’t know what to write–what if I went down the wrong road? I didn’t want to spend time writing stuff that wasn’t relevant to my story. I KNEW that I needed some kind of skeleton or road map, and no amount of outlining got me there (I’m a big outliner in all my writing, mostly nonfiction for volunteer and business use). I’ve read MANY fiction-writing books and NONE of them–even those on structure–have helped me figure out how my story needs to be laid out, until “Story Engineering.”

    So I was glad to read this post this morning. You don’t have to defend what you teach. It works. And the fact that only a “small army of writers” get it points to the fact that most people are NOT big-picture thinkers. (You probably run into this in other areas of your life, too.) And you can’t make them so or convince them to be that way–it’s simply not how they are. You can just teach what you know, let it go, and bless both those who get it and those who don’t. Someone who is not a big-picture thinker can benefit from what you teach if they make a concerted effort. Otherwise, they will just keep writing their hundreds of drafts to find the structure. But those of us who get it instantly are big-picture thinkers and we thank you–oh, so much–for painting that big picture.

    I’m about 7/8 of the way through “Story Engineering” and I am SO excited to write now! I’ve figured out the “bones”–the plot points, pinch points, and midpoint–of my story and am ready to outline it for real. I know there are still things I will discover as I write (Heck, I discover some as I’m reading your book!), but I don’t worry that they will derail me because now I have the right road map–finally! Even Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake software didn’t help me before, but with the knowledge I have now, I can’t wait to use it again!

    A million thanks for teaching the truth about story structure. I’m glad you now see that you don’t have to defend it. The truth is the truth.

  9. Jade

    Well said!

    I have come to believe that the process in which you write helps to define your voice. Indeed each writer’s voice is unique and the process that works best can also be unique to that person. But the structure, the matrix of the finished product will hold certain amount of unavoidable patterns that are the essence of a successful story. My views of the writing process continually evolve, and I hope, come closer to the truth.

    Keep up the wonderful posts Larry.

  10. Debbie Burke


    I’ve mentioned before how I pantsed my way thru seven novels, several of which were good enough to get agts, but not publishers. Now, on #8, I’m using your story structure (along with the terrific circus tent visual from Rachel), and the book is unfolding so easily and painlessly, I’m amazed. You convinced me, a formerly diehard pantser, of the merits of planning ahead, something no other writing mentor has been able to do in my 20+ years of fiction writing.

    Other posters are correct–you don’t need to defend yourself. Your techniques work. If people want to pursue their own intuitive path (which I understand, having used it for seven novels), fine. No point in arguing.

    Just keep putting out the solid information and techniques you’ve been doing and you’ll stay the successful popular blogger you are and a place to which I regularly refer struggling writers.

    A big thank you for all the knowledge and time you’ve shared so generously!


  11. Hi Larry – When we are passionate about something, we tend to get highly defensive when people dare to criticize our beliefs (especially when we have proof that we are correct). You are trying to help and obviously there are people who don’t want (or need) your help. Let them go, who cares if they ever become a published author? And for those fortunate few who’ve written a published book over the course of a weekend, good for them and let’s see how it goes the second time around.

    For people like me – having no idea where to start to get what’s in my brain onto paper (so to speak), I need your systems, your path to follow. You’ve published several books and are willing to help others to that path as well. There aren’t many others who can say the same. You actually walk the talk that you profess.

    Keep up the good work Larry and don’t take it personal! There are plenty of opinions to go around, whether they agree with yours or not!

  12. Kate L.

    Larry–please don’t change the way you think or express yourself! I think it’s great and often quite humorous. (Sometimes I wonder if you’ve been a comedy writer in the past.) Don’t worry about the pantser nazis who attack what you say. Tell them to come back and talk to you after they’ve hit the bestseller lists themselves. Your advice is right on the mark for what it takes for 99.5% of writers to get published. The only thing you should let go of is your need to apologize for offending people with the truth. Period.

  13. nancy

    For the past year and a half I have not read a book or watched a moved without testing your theory. I take a watch to the theater and I divide and page count novels. I almost always find your four-part structure with all pieces in the right place. Sometimes there is a three-act stucture. But never anything else. Westerners expect a certain framework, and we quit reading if it isn’t there. But more importantly, agents quit reading if it isn’t apparent up front.

  14. I can’t plot it all up front. I’ve tried – really I have – but it all feels flat until I start writing. I do some planning of course but the neat outlines elude me…

    However, after digesting numerous storyfix posts and all of Story Engineering, I can’t even start thinking about a new story without looking for the First Plot Point, Mid-point, Hook, etc. My husband – a physicist, NOT a writer – now analyzes movies based on story structure principles, because I’ve spent so much time discussing them with him!

    It’s just how stories WORK. And now I get it and can (almost) do it myself. Thank you!

  15. Last year, when I first came back to writing, I would have called myself a die-hard pantser. Even the idea of outlining gave me hives. I thought an outline would totally stiffle my creativity. Then I got stuck on my MIP about 2/3 of the way through. I realized that I needed do something but I wasn’t sure what. Then I read Story Engineering. I tried to fight the logic, but eventually it won out. I gave outlining a try (keeping a somewhat free flow by making a branched outline instead of a straight one) and found that it boosted my creativity instead of smothering it. Once I had my scenes laid out, I realized I could play with them a lot easier than if they were all written in the manuscript. I can add, subtract or change whatever needs changing before all the work of writing it all out. Fabulous! I’m totally a plotter now. 😀

  16. Here is the thing: even Stephen King practices a form of outlining, except in his case, because of his talent and expertise, his outlining takes place in his head, as he goes along. He says in his book On Writing that every story has its structure already in existence, and it’s the writer’s job of unearthing the skeleton, of blowing the dust off the fragile little bones until he can see the entire body. (I am paraphrasing like mad here, so please don’t shoot me.)

    Somebody else said – and I would have to look this up – when a pantser writes a really rough first draft, that’s his outline. Get it? The pantser gets it all out of his system and onto the paper (sort of like NaNoWriMo, only slower), and then uses this first draft to develop the story more fully. I have been told many more drafts usually follow.

    I like to think that pantsers and plotters are more similar than they would like to believe, but the bottom line is, you have to find what works for you. And anything that really works has as a hallmark a very organic feel to it when you are doing it. That’s how you know you are on the right track, whether someone thinks that makes you a plotter or a pantser is really beside the point.