Getting It Down on Paper: The Pantsers-Piano Analogy

I get hate mail.  I really do.  It’s from people who don’t accept – who don’t even want to hear about it – that there are standards and principles and rules when it comes to writing publishable fiction.

That there is such as a thing as story architecture, which is the sum of structure and artful effectiveness in the realms of concept, character and theme.

Even avid outliners are lost without an awareness and acceptance of story architecture.  But the truth is, if someone is an avid story planner, chances are they’ve gone that route precisely because they have an awareness of the need for story architecture.

We all start out as pantsers.  Only some of us, when we understand what elements and aesthetics a story needs to embrace before it will work, tend to adopt the habit of planning for it ahead of time.

Hear me clearly: you can write a great story without planning it out ahead of time.  You really can.

If, and only if, you understand those pesky “rules” (and if the word rules offends you, call it something else, cause they ain’t goin’ away).

If you know about structure and the dynamics of dramatic tension, stakes and pacing, and then you can execute them without giving the destination of your story a single coherent thought.

At least until your second, third and sixth drafts, when your story is screaming at you for an ending and a few story points that make getting there interesting.

And if you don’t like the word rules, then think of them as principles.  Like gravity and taxes and death, which are just as certain.

Welcome to pantsing… writing stories by the seat of your outline-hating pants.

There are pantsers who get all this. 

And, on occasion, they publish.  Because, when they finally stuff their manuscript into an envelope, they’ve come up with and delivered the exact same architectural elements as have story planners.

It’s just a very different way of achieving the same thing. 

I’ve finally hit on an analogy that makes the differences clear.  At least I hope it does.

When Your Ear becomes the Seat of your Pants

Writing a story without planning the story ahead of time is like playing music by ear.  Which means you compose by ear, as well.  If you do, you better know music theory inside and out, sheet music or no sheet music.

Or, you’d better be a prodigy who doesn’t need music theory or sheet music.

It can be done.  Some of the most famous composers in history have done it, most of whom were indeed prodigies.  Some of the best musicians of our time can’t read music at all, most of those playing in rock bands.

Either way, it’s all in their head.  

They’re naturals.  Or if they’re not, they’ve tinkered with it enough – the equivalent of writing multiple drafts – to make it seem as if they’re naturals.  The structure, the melody, the pacing, it just flows after enough hours at the keyboard.

Others study music, they understand its inherent theory, and they tend to plan their compositions in context to the existing expectations of Nashville.  They use the rules of musical theory to guide them, rather than backing into the rules randomly or relying on their ability to abide by them naturally.

Like prodigies do.

Successful pantsers are one of two things: they are experienced enough at the trial and error of writing by the seat of their pants that they intuitively know what works and what doesn’t – they’re good at playing by ear – or, they’re prodigies. 

The key word there being successful.

So if you’re in defiance of story planning, and if you’re not getting anywhere with that position – as in, anywhere near an agent or a publisher – then consider the possibility that maybe you’re not a prodigy after all (few are). 

And that you’re rejecting the very thing that can make your dream happen.

And if you’re not, then you must decide if you want to put in the years of work it will take to intuitively grasp the form and function of storytelling using only the seat of your pants, without knowing or caring about where story points go or giving a rip about the difference between a set-up and a denouement, or what sub-text is all about or how to retrofit foreshadowing back into a story once you’ve figured out how it’s all going to end.

Which might work, or it might not.   

If you’re a pantser who ascribes to the principles of story architecture, one who knows what they’re doing and accepts the fate of multiple drafting as part of the process, please know I appreciate you and know you’re out there.  I salute you, because chances are if you’ve actually published this way, you are, in fact, a bit of a prodigy.

It’s just that too many people who reject story planning don’t get it.  And that’s why I’ll keep whipping up analogies until they do.

The Inevitability of Story Planning

Even a tiny bit of story planning goes a long way toward empowering the next draft.  And, when you think about it, the preliminary drafts of a pantser are nothing more, in hindsight, than a story planning process in its own right.

Story architecture isn’t optional.  And by that standard – see previous paragraph – neither is story planning. 

All of us – planners or pantsers – get to choose when and how that happens.


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10 Responses to Getting It Down on Paper: The Pantsers-Piano Analogy

  1. I like the way you defined the differences here. I understand your perspective better. But there is still the aspect you don’t talk about much: the ones who don’t outline, don’t necessarily plan their architecture (playing that by ear), but yet they plan quite a lot. It’s all in their head and they count on the playing by ear to fill in the gaps. I write like this and know a lot of people that write like this and we don’t “discover” our story on the fifth draft, but rather it all hits a point on the first (sometimes second if it’s just one of THOSE stories), where it all comes together and hits everything you’ve put in before. Not that there isn’t any preplanning “quote,” but it isn’t the detailed underlying structure so much as the actual story details and this character has to do that for this to work and if I put THAT in, it should do this, and as long as I come up with a reasonable reason for them to all get here by the end of the book, it should all come together. It’s informal. It’s by ear. But it’s not by the seat of one’s pants.

    Excellent description of the differences. Very good post.

  2. Very good analogy, Larry. Very good. I really appreciate the effort to help understand this. It’s something which really opened my eyes and made writing fun again. I got so tired of the prospect of drifting plotlines, sliding events in after the fact to make the story interesting, and wondering why the “middle” had to be the “muddle”.

    Story planning solved it all, and having so many different ways to relate to it is fantastic.


  3. Brenda

    I wrote and rewrote nearly one hundred thousand words that I thought had a great concept and theme. I found myself with a “unique and entertaining voice.” Only the manuscript wasn’t good enough for me. It was good, not great. I have read and reread all the structure and architecture posts, all the characterization posts, every point that can make a difference. I am a “panster” who has learned how easy it is to frame your free flowing thoughts and ideas. Why would a writer not want to structure their main plot points and then write to and from them? Anyone who balks at the idea need only try. Thank you, Larry. Reboot efforts move rapidly daily. Only the author of a best selling trilogy with blood dripping from his or her forehead will be able to convince me that I have not found the way! Where the hell is Hemingway when you need him?

  4. I’m a happy plodder, not a panster or a prodigy, but I know your approach makes it all feel do-able. Given how many posts I read about writer’s block, getting stuck and frustration, that in itself is a gift to writers, above and beyond the sense you talk when it comes to architecture.

    I’m longing to find the time to sit down and develop a few characters who have soul and humanity, integrity, wit, humour and some values or loved ones to save – and that’s all thanks to you.

  5. @Janice — I have a tip for you. An infallable way to write what you say you long to do… write a character who has soul and humanity, integrity, wit, humour and some values or loved ones to save.

    Here’s the tip: look in the mirror. That character is you. I know this about you after our many warm exchanges.

    Model a hero after yourself. You can’t go wrong. Because you already are a hero.

  6. Linda

    The one thing I really disagree with is the assumption that “panters” are rejecting story planning. I’ve always felt like my writing is a lot like “throwing paint at the wall” and have been frustrated by how much revision needs to happen. I tried many different outlines, looking for something I could work with. Not one worked. I literally could not even comprehend what I was supposed to do with it. I even did a outline workshop that was supposed to be pantser-friendly. It was, to borrow your music analogy, looking at a sheet of music and not understanding what the notes were supposed to do. I finally came to the conclusion that I absolutely cannot outline and to stop wasting my time trying to do one. I’m better served by identifying areas that cause me problems with revision and trying to find ways around that.

  7. @Linda — the reason so many pantsers struggle with story planning is that they don’t know WHAT to plan. They don’t get story structure. Many pantsers choose that approach precisely because they don’t know what to shoot for in the planning process. And once you know, then it become almost impossible NOT to plan.

    Plan what? The concept… the arc of the character… the thematic target… the main structural milestones: open, hook, inciting incident, mid-point, second plot point, and the ending.

    Anybody who says they can’t do this either hasn’t tried it, or they don’t really get it. Pantsers who succeed DO know this stuff, but trust me, they don’t start writing without a solid notion of what these are. Fact is, you can’t write a decent story without these things in place, pantsed or planned. How you get there is a choice you make… one way is inefficient (even for successful planners) and one is more efficient.

    At the end of the day it’s really a matter of degree. You can start with absolutely no clue, and it’ll take forever and be so frustrating that most writers quit the story before they should. Before it’s ready. Or, you can write your Part 1 knowing what your first plot point is — even if you aren’t yet sure what those scenes are, you at least know what they need to accomplish – and in context to the concept and the desired target outcome.

    Somewhere along that continuum, that “matter of degree,” is your comfort zone. I hope you find it. The further down the line toward planning it is, the better your stories will be, the less blood and pain they will extract from you, and the more joy you’ll get from the process.

    May you become, if you aren’t already, a pantser who gets it. Because anyone who doesn’t understand story structure — which is NOT “outlining” by the way, that’s just one way to plan — has only one chance of writing a successful story: pure luck.

    I wish you well along this journey. Please let me know if and how I can help you. Larry

  8. ReBecca

    I think I’m a pantser. I outlined my first book, using a story structure, and first writing the plot point scenes, then outlining the scenes in between and writing them one by one. I spent about 80+ hours before this, creating characters, back story, and story world. What this did for me was get me through my first book. But it (outlining) also killed my first book, even though I learned a lot from the process. Because once I wrote the outline, once I knew what was going to happen, I got terribly bored. I wrote the entire novel just because I wanted to finish it. Not because I loved the story. I’d already told the story (in the outline) and was frustrated because every day I sat down to write, I was stuck in this perpetual retelling of the same story, and it was miserable.
    I abhor routine. I know it’s helpful in life. I know there are things we must do every day, like brush our teeth. And I force myself to do those things. However, I crave adventure, and the unknown in a journey.
    I like the musical analogy, because I play music by ear, and I compose music by ear, but I cannot read music. I’ve taken classes, and even played the violin for about 4 years, but I never got to a point where I could “sight read.” I would carefully decipher a measure of music, note by note, memorize it, then move on to the next one. I can play whole pieces of complicated classical music this way on the piano. But put a new piece of music in front of me, and I’m likely to burst into tears. I feel like I suffer from a kind of musical dyslexia/amnesia because I can know what the notes are one moment, but completely forget them the next. This is after years of practice and study, and trying to force myself to “get it.”
    I have a deep admiration for plotters, just like I have for people who can read music. Most of that comes from the knowledge of how difficult it is for me. Some of it is tinged with a little bit of jealousy. I would love to plan and plot my novels like that without killing them. And maybe one day, I will be able to. I am a very determined person.
    But I also believe in working with the way I am wired instead of against it. Part of that means being open to changes in wiring, should they occur along the way!
    I completely agree that plotting is helpful, and that outlining and planning can insure balance and complexity. I cannot speak for all pantsers, but I can speak for myself: I plot and outline and plan. But on a subconscious level, most of the time. And I’m completely happy with that. I know that it is there, it is happening, the gears are turning in the background. Sometimes I have to poke at it with my conscious mind with dreamy “what if” questions. But mostly, I leave it be. I know that my subconscious mind is much smarter than my conscious, or at least, it has faster access to reams and reams of data, years and years of studying structure, story and writing. That’s where everything is stored, after all. My conscious mind has to deal with other things and doesn’t have time to bother with running back to the file room to pull an old and dusty file from some pile that it’s forgotten.
    Perhaps plotters can access this material more easily by writing it down? While pantsers let the subconscious run back and forth, happily piling up useful material, knowing that when they need it, they can open the door and search through that magical pile of “found objects,” until they find the perfect piece that fits their project.
    I do not want to know what my shy subconscious librarian is piling up for me. She scrambles around back there, trembling with excitement, like she is staging a surprise birthday party. She piles up content and structure information, dialogue and backstory. But she doesn’t want to open the door and let me see it yet. And I don’t want to see it yet. I love the surprise. I have always loved surprises.
    I stand at the door like a little kid before Christmas. “Please, can I just have a peek?” So she gives me a peek once in a while. But mostly, she piles up as much as she can, creating an odd sculpture out of fragments of images and data. A wonderful, wild and surprising sculpture that is breathtaking in its messy form. While she does this, I scribble thousands of words a day from the stuff she tosses me, the stuff she leaks. The whole time, I am fueled by the anticipation that soon I will see the entire picture of this crazy thing she’s constructed by herself.
    This is fun. Pure fun. But it is also a process of learning. For me, the moment something surprises me, I not only experience intense pleasure, but I learn something important. My shy subconscious librarian scurries back to her storerooms, like she is squirreling away a precious nut, thinking, “I must keep this. It’s valuable! It’s wonderful! It’s a treasure.” There is a gleam in her eye, and she is so excited, her breathing is uneven. She almost trips over piles of files because she cannot tear her eyes away from what she’s just discovered.
    It might be true that writing this way may take me longer, and I may have to go through more drafts. But I am not concerned with such things right now.
    What I want is to write quickly, to write entertaining stories, to be surprised as I write, and to enjoy the music, the magic, while I do that.
    What I want is to continue studying, continue learning. But I do NOT want someone to tell me how I must apply the knowledge, how I must use it in my work. If I were a painter, I would study the Masters. But when it came to my own work, I would not let someone else tell me what colors to use, and where. I would not let someone else tell me that I should be a sulptor of marble rather than a glass blower.
    It is my work.
    It is my art.
    It is my process.
    It is my brain.
    It is my heart.
    It is my very intensely personal process.
    And as my 3 year old niece loves to say, “I am the boss of myself.”
    And I plan on being the most respectful boss I can be. A boss who insists on learning, playing, growing, and constantly seeking truth. And a boss who stands ready to protect that shy subconscious librarian, so she can get her work done in frantic peace.

  9. @ReBecca — thanks for your very thoughtful and wonderful response. Allow me to clarify one thing before I completely agree with you.

    I don’t advocate “planning” as the ONLY way to get a great story written. I do suggest, however that successful storytellers, both pantsers and planners, are doing the very same thing in different ways… one ahead of time… the other in real time. Both can work. And if one defines the writer and the writing experience, then by all means let it be so.

    However, that doesn’t release the pantser from the need to “own” the principles of effective storytelling, just as someone who plays music by ear still must (if they are to be professional and successful, which is the analagous point here) adhere to solid musical theory.

    But the truth is, many if not most writers who pants do so because the don’t possess that awareness and knowledge. Some planners plod along without know it, too, but the default process for the vast majority of those who do understand story architecture (which has nothing at all to do with planning ahead) is, in fact, story planning versus pantsing.

    Those who can pants successfully, and there are many, apply their knowledge of story architecture (which is non-negotiable; sorry, you can’t make up your own physics of storytelling if you expect to publish or find an audience) as they “search for story” within a draft. Then, using the drafting/pantsing process to find their story and APPLY it to the given standards of story architecture, they eventually do find their story… and then they need to start over with a new draft. There isn’t a pantser on the planet who truly began a draft without knowing the ending who didn’t have to start over once that ending is clear and compelling.

    I wish you luck on your journey. You can’t unlearn what you know about story architecture and dramatic physics, so your inner storyteller is already armed with that which the effective story planner already knows. Listen to that quite voice, and you will be wonderfully successful and fulfilled.


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