From Story Pantser to Story Planner: One Writer’s Journey

A guest post from Jennifer Blanchard, of Procrastinating Writers

Since I was in middle school, I wanted to write a novel. A real novel. I wrote a 160-page novella when I was 13, but that didn’t count. I wanted to write a full-fledged, 300-page novel.

I spent years of my life dreaming about writing this novel. I had story idea after story idea. I started and restarted and started all over again. Hundreds of times. Maybe even thousands.

But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t write that novel. I couldn’t make it happen. It always felt like I was missing something—some knowledge or information I didn’t have at the current moment.

When I found StoryFix early last year, that’s when I figured out what I’d been missing.

Story Structure

In order for a novel to be successful, it has to be structured. It has to contain certain plot milestones and they need to show up in specific places throughout the story. That was the information I was missing before I found StoryFix.

When I first learned about story structure, I was intimidated. There was so much I had to know about my story before I could even start to write it. And I didn’t know any of those things about any of the stories I’d tried writing all those years.

For almost a year, I immersed myself in “StoryFix University,” learning everything I possibly could about story structure, creating characters, story architecture…and anything else Larry decided to throw our way.

But still, a tug-of-war was going on in my head.

You Can’t Plan Your Story Before You Write It…Can You?

Some people are more right-brained and others are more left-brained. Then there are those few who are balanced between right and left. I’m one of those people—I’m balanced almost equally between right and left brain.

So that’s why I was having such a hard time fully adopting Larry’s point-of-view on writing a story. I mean, it made sense — plot points have a specific location where they need to show up in a story and have a specific mission they must accomplish.

But still, the tugging went on.

The right, creative side of my brain was screaming for me to ignore Larry’s theories and ideas. “Just sit down and write!” it would say to me. “Planning removes all the creativity from writing the story.”

Then the left, planner/organizer side of my brain was screaming, “Have a plan. Know all about your story before you write it. It’s genius!”

So two months before NaNoWriMo was set to begin, I thought I’d put everything I’ve learned from Larry to the test. My mission: Plan out every scene in the novel I was going to write during November.

The results converted me.

From Story Pantser to Story Planner

I always thought planning out a story from start to finish would be too challenging and make it hard to be creative and listen to what my characters wanted. But when I finally decided to sit down and give it a try, here’s what I found: 

  • Clarity — The more I planned things out and the more I thought about the mission of each scene as I moved through the story, the clearer my story became.
  • Focus — With planning out each scene ahead of time, I was really able to focus on the information and details that mattered to the story. I was able to cleverly insert foreshadowing from the beginning. I knew what needed to happen in each scene in order to get to the next one.
  • Control — Before I attempted to plan my story out, I would let my characters “tell me” what they wanted to do. But what they wanted to do didn’t always fit or move the story forward. Planning allowed for me to control the characters, by dropping them into places and challenges they’d be too chicken to enter into themselves.
  • Relief — As I started planning out my actual scenes, relief flooded over me. It finally felt like my story was real and not just a bunch of random ideas and lists in my notebook.
  • Reassurance — I now feel like the time I spent writing my NaNoWriMo novel will finally churn out a story that works. And a book that’s a polish away from being publishable.

Since I pantsed my first novel, I spent months writing the draft and then rewrote it two more times before I quit. I felt overwhelmed and like the story was going nowhere.

I believe pantsing is the biggest problem procrastinating writers (and writers in general) have.

They don’t plan enough or know enough about their stories, so they procrastinate on writing them.

I found that planning all the scenes in my novel got me jazzed to write it because I knew where the story was starting, how it was getting from one plot milestone to the next and how it would come to an end.

This experience was enough to convert me from pantser to planner. And I’m never looking back.

Where are you on your journey from pantser to planner?

About the Author: Jennifer Blanchard is the founder of Procrastinating Writers, a blog that offers guidance for writers who struggle to get started.

19 Comments

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19 Responses to From Story Pantser to Story Planner: One Writer’s Journey

  1. Choir here…

    Last year’s NaNo was pantsed. Struggled to get to 50k and I ended up tossing what I wrote (although in subsequent planned work I used some of the characters).

    This year I planned, using the story structure and character arc I learned here. (I named the four sections in Scrivener ‘Setup/Orphan, Response/Wanderer, Attack/Warrior and Resolution/Martyr.)

    I had the idea for the story in September and went through the exercise of deciding what the plot points would be, pinch points, back stories, all of the things that I now realize that NEED to be there.

    Doesn’t hurt that that I’m an engineer by trade and this type of structure warms my cockles.

    This NaNo I actually completed a 90k novel. Finished a day early, actually. 9o,526 words in 30 days. And I have a ‘real’ job.

    Can’t pants that.

    Of course it still needs a good scrub and I don’t think the last chapter has the emotional punch that it should, but it’s a piece of work that I know I can get to a publishable state.

    And I heartily agree with the term “StoryFix University”. I’ve learned so much in the past year it’s amazing.

  2. This year was my first nano, and I did do more planning than usual — but I’m still a largely a pantser. I wrote a YA sci fi — and yes, I did do a fair amount of tossing out even in the course of the month. I’ll be revising in the next couple of months, and I’ll make sure that the major plot points come where they should.

    At this point in my writing career (Nano novel was my third — first was a chapter book, second a MG) I don’t know my characters well enough before I start writing to be able to plan the novel out. After I’ve written the first draft, then I do.

    I do greatly admire those who can plan out a story in advance .. but at this point, it seems what I need to do is write a first draft, then go back and revise it.

    I’ve ordered Larry’s book, and am looking forward to reading and studying it.

  3. Mike

    This year was my first NaNoWriMo. I’m just like Jennifer – center-brained. As is fitting for someone who can’t decide which side to give control to, I pantsed my planned story. I planned out the major plot points based on the Story Structure articles, but then did the actual movement between those points by the seat of my pants. Things moved well in the story, but the big problem I ran into was I ran out of story nearly 20,000 words too early! So, for the end of NaNo I was making it up as I went.

    Next time, I think I’ll do a more scene-by-scene plan.

  4. Martha

    Some writers are still agnostics about story structure. I’ve been there — have novels in the drawer that never went anywhere. Then I heard Larry talk about his four-act structure concept and wanted to stand up and shout, “Amen, Brother!” I saw the light, was converted, and now I do my best to spread the gospel. Doubt no more . . . you too can be saved!

  5. Curtis

    Story and story structure meet evangelism. I love it!

    We just need a hymn.
    Softly and tenderly our Planner is calling. Calling for you today.

    I’m a believer. Enough with the pile of words that reflect a researched imagination that want to be story but can’t because it never recognized the story structure that’s been around since the Gilgamesh Epic.

  6. Aric

    As a follower of Larry and Jennifer for most of this past year, I am ashamed to say that I failed Nano this year.

    Not from lack of story and proper planning. My plot was finished in August, my outline and character sheets were hanging around the computers by September. I wrote on Webook.com to make sure I did not have to backup as often.

    Then it happened. I was only able to work on Wyldheart for a total of about 13 days (actually about 13 hours) the whole month. By the time I was finished with the daily stress of the day job, I was falling asleep at the computer.

    Add to that our band is shooting for our next youtube video, and we are working on pushing our song writing publishing…

    But I have to say, like the comments above me, Larry and Jennifer both have been instrumental in shaping what has been a 30 plus year hobby, into something that I might actual get published someday soon. Keep yelling at me guys, my pants have holes in the seat….

  7. I’m still having a bit of a struggle between the two halves.

    One project that’s taken an early hibernation, I planned everything out – and then sat down and promptly ignored everything I’d decided to do between plot points. And I actually spent months revising/refining my beat sheet. Don’t even remember now how many different drafts I went through adding details, taking them out … urgh.

    This year’s nano went the same as last year. The story I sat and planned and took care of background details and world building hit 50k and then something completely different just runs up with sparkly streamers and I spend the second half of the month on another 50k just pantsing through something silly. Resolving myself to the idea that I may just have to use NaNoWriMo for fun silly crap that doesn’t mean anything and focus on reall writing for the rest of the year. Guess November can just become stress relief month. 😛

    Though I think I’ve hit on something that will help keep me more on the planning side of things. Projects I seem to do better at are the ones where I’ve set up a detailed calendar for when things are supposed to happen. Not just filling out all the plot points and the dribble inbetween, but dates for all of it to happen. I have no idea why because I’ve never been one for using a date planner for myself – but having a date planner for my stories seems to help.

    Guess it helps give structure to the structure so to speak and things just seem to flow easier for the most part. Still working on fine tuning everything, so can’t say if it’ll get me any closer, but something’s better than nothing.

  8. Monica Rodriguez

    I’m definitely inclined to planning. So when I came across Larry’s site last year it was an easy transition for me. I did my first Nano with the aid of this new knowledge, but I think it was too early for me to use it properly. If I was enrolled in StoryFix University, I was still a freshman. My first Nano not only ran out planned story about 2/3 of the way thru the month, but it needed heavy revisions, esp. on the subplots.

    This November, I had a year’s worth more of Story Fix Ed under my belt and my planning “process” shows it: I began plotting out a story early Oct., one I’ve had in mind for a while, that I have significant character dev’t already done.

    Half way thru the month, I had to admit I was stuck & I did a radical thing. I switched to another story that I had a solid idea for, but no planning yet. I plotted out the whole story, with only the very end in question.

    I finished Nano 2 days ealy (while working a ‘real job’). The planning worked even tho I had only had 2 weeks to do it in. Even tho I had started with only a germ of an idea & really wrote with the beat sheet as a guide. It pointed me in the direction I had to go, so I never lost time wandering.

    Planning works. Even when you’re pantsing. 😉

  9. I followed Larry’s structure for this year’s NaNo as well. I also completed a first draft of my novel – 96,000 words and needed to late on the last day. I ran into a little trouble at about 75-80 percent in the planning as some new ideas kept trying to twist things, but I straightened them out. Obviously, there is revisions needed but the plot and subplots, I think, hold together well.

    Thanks Larry.

    Dale

  10. Theresa

    I am in the same position Jennifer was. I started several stories, a few are finished, but most are not. I do not know much at all about structure, and feel overwhelmed.

    Glad to know there’s light at the end of the tunnel :). I am glad I found this website, and am hoping to learn a lot.

  11. I just wanted to say thank you for all the awesome comments! I don’t typically comment back to other people’s comments unless I feel like there’s something I can add to the conversation. But you guys/gals have all said such nice things, I felt like I should chime in and say thanks.

    @Tony McFadden Congrats on finishing your NaNo novel! You’re my hero (I dropped off around 11,000 words).

    @Margaret Fieland You’re going to love Larry’s book. It’s like the “bible” of fiction writing.

    @Mike I found the same thing–I planned my novel, but once I started writing, I was finishing too short. I’ve written my entire part one, and the FPP is supposed to show up somewhere around page 65, and I had it showing up on page 45! So I had it happening 20 pages too early. Back to the planning phase I suppose.

    @Monica Rodriguez @Dale Mayer WOW–Congrats!! That’s awesome news about your NaNo novels.

    @Theresa There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel. And it starts with Larry’s eBook: Story Structure–Demystified. Buy it and read it. You’ll start to see the light…

  12. Interesting article. I wrote my first few novels as a “pantser,” seeing where the story would take me, but, like you, the more I learn about writing, the more I’m leaning to the “planner” side of things. I have a few more novel ideas in my head—one that’s been there for so long I can see the whole thing so I’ve mentally planned it and one that needs research so will also be planned before I write it. I think they’ll both be better novels than my first attempts.

  13. Jennifer,

    You could have been reading my mind. Well, all except for the NaNo part. (Never done it.)

    But I have studied structure as taught in various “how-to” books of various authors as well as DVD’s and CDs of Hauge and Vogler (both great). And even after all the studying, nothing regarding structure stuck for me…until I read Larry’s book.

    Jennifer – thanks for a great post.
    Larry – thanks for an awesome book!

    Joan

  14. Jack

    It is “pantser” or “pantster”? I thought it was pantster.

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