NoNoWriMo #26: The Panster’s Solution to Story Planning

I get asked this every time I use the term, so I’ll go there first: a “pantser” is someone who writes by the seat-of-their-pants. 

That leaves a wide breadth of possible intrepretation — and is not meant to be qualitative or judgmental — but tends to lean toward an unwillingness (often couched as the inability) to plan a story ahead of time.  A preference for allowing in-the-moment intuitive urges to dictate what happens next in a story, and who — in the worst case scenario — claim their characters take it over and it goes from there.

Sorry, that just doesn’t happen.  When a character screams for a different direction, that just means you’re already on the wrong path.  It’s your intuition, your subconscious mind, reminding you that you wouldn’t be in this mess if you’d have thought it out ahead of time.

As you probably know by know, I believe story planning — however you go about it — based on a working knowledge of universal dramatic principles, to be the most empowering creative approach… ever.  That it is, ultimately, a required step, one that even die-hard pantsers ultimately encounter.

So here we are in the home stretch…

.. and most of what I’ve offered here relates in some way to story planning.  Which may leave some natural-born pantsers frustrated or feeling left on the sidelines. Or, thinking I’m absolutely out of my freaking mind.  I hear from them frequently, in fact.

Allow me to try to fix that.  Because — this may shock you to hear from me — pantsing and story planning are almost always co-mingled strategies.

It’s rare when someone really sits down to write a story with absolutely no clue where it’s headed… and it’s just as rare when someone has each and every one of the scenes and story beats completely visualized, down to each scene’s setting, opening moment, outcome, and a final cut-and-thrust into the next scene.

So let’s get real… we plan what we plan, what we can, and we make up the rest as we go.

That said, I continue to advocate story planning, at least to a minimum, necessary degree.  Necessary especially in the case of NaNoWriMo, where there isn’t time to use the drafting process as your search for story.  Which is, by the way, a story planning process by another name.

There’s no back door here.  However you’re in it… you’re in it.  You must search for your story… and you can’t write it well enough until you find it.  Which, for pantsers, happens in subsequent drafts.

There are two levels of “planning” that I believe are necessary to the successful drafting of a novel.  Even for pantsers, who are simply using the drafting process to search for their story… to identify the VERY SAME ELEMENTS that I’m asking you to plan for this NaNoWriMo… ahead of time.

I call those moments the Big Five… the essential tent-pole, transitional moments of your story.  But you can’t get to them until you have something else in place: and that’s a Big Picture vision for your story, based on a concept and a hero with a quest ahead of her/him.

You can and should plan that, too.

At the first level, you need a concept, which is an evolution of an idea that creates a landscape of dramatic tension and character arc. 

Soon thereafter you’ll need a vision for your hero, and hopefully your antagonist.  You’ll need to know what the both want, and what opposes them. The earlier in the story planning — or pantsing — process this crystalizes for you, the more effective — and ultimately better — your story will be. 

Not only that, the more efficient the writing itself will be.  Because you’re no longer searching or planning… you’re executing.

If you begin with a character, if your character is your idea, the same is true: it’s only an idea at this stage.  It doesn’t become a story until you have a concept that sets the stage for dramatic tension, a place for your character to do something.  A “what if?” proposition that demands a compelling answer.

That’s the first level, no matter where you start.  The vision for a dramatically-viable, character-driven story arc.

Again, hard core pantsers search for this in a draft.  I say, search for it beforehand, in a plan… and your NaNoWriMo draft will actually have a shot at working.

The second level — and today’s tip…

… is to AT LEAST conceive and plan for a certain minimum number of scenes — the Big Fiveall of them in context to those first level vision issues as defined above.

1. Know how your story will open.  See the previous post for some depth on how to do that strategically. 

2. Define your First Plot Point.  When you do, you’ll be able to pants your way toward it much more effectively.  This is where you establish your hero, what’s at stake, what’s ahead (foreshadowing), and possibly throwing in an Inciting Incident that helps set-up the moment when it all means something, by defining what’s ahead for the hero, and what will oppose that journey (at the FPP).

You should also know, in general, how your hero will respond to that First Plot Point.  This becomes the context for your Part 2 response and false starts scenes.

3. Know how the story twists — using new information – in the middle.  This becomes context for  your Part 3/pro-activeattack scenes.

4. Know the catalytic, fuse-igniting moment when all cards are on the table, and the story conspires to merge the elements toward the ending.  This is the Second Plot Point… a twist, a surprise, a revelation, a commitment, a change of some kind that puts the hero on the end-game path.

5.  Know how your story will end.  This is critical, and it’s the one that trips up most pantsers.

At a minimum, these comprise only five scenes.

The Big Five.

But when you throw in the intuitively natural and sometimes obvious scenes required to set-up these major milestones, and then what ensues from them, you’ve added another ten to 15 scenes, all of them connected to or dependent upon one of the Big Five scenes. 

These are scenes that, because you’ve planned the Big Five — and maybe, if you’re a pantser, only those Big Five — don’t quite write themselves, but become natural and even easy to plan, because they’re natural and obvious… or even too simply write when it’s their turn on the page.

That’s a huge chunk of your novel right there… just because you understand those Big Five scenes. The other scenes are just connective tissue, a form of reaction and response, leading to a ramp-up of the next milestone.

Story planners — even new ones, even ones who won’t admit to it — will find themselves scheming away on the other scenes, the connective tissue scenes that bridge between each of those Big Five scenes.  Because there will be context for them, and the writer in you will know, in your gut, what they can and should be.  Or more importantly, you will be empowered — precisely because you know those Big Five scenes — from the context already in place. 

What context?  The context of four Part-driven missions (set-up… response… reaction… resolution)… and the context of the exposition-specific nature of your Big Five tentpole/milestone scenes (open… PP1… mid-point… PP2… ending).

Which, in turn — get ready for it — means you can actually pants those connective tissue scenes if  you must, or if you want to.

All of a sudden, simply by virtue of having a vision for — a plan for — five major moments in your story, in context to a Big Picture vision for the conceptual arc of the story… we’re all on the same page.   Pantsers and planners, doing precisely the same thing, in only slightly different ways.

In the film Ghostbusters, Dan Ackroyd describes the apocalypse as, in part, “dogs and cats playing together.”

Welcome to the literary apocalypse. 

It’s the end of the world of clueless, random story development, no matter how you do it.  The only ones left behind will be those who refuse to submit to a vision and a structure… they’re doomed… doomed to piles of drafts and years of frustrating effort before — if ever — their story will work. 

And who will never — unless it’s a fortunate accident or the outcome of natural genius or decades of learning curve — write a NaNoWriMo story that works come November 30th, and are left defending it with the belief that it’s impossible to make a NaNoWriMo story work.

They’re so wrong about that.  I think you know that by now.

16 Comments

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16 Responses to NoNoWriMo #26: The Panster’s Solution to Story Planning

  1. Ahh…. I’ve got this working theory about you that you can’t be a chronic liar. As in, you probably didn’t spend the majority of your childhood making up wild stories…the more on the spot, the more believable the story.

    Because I have been following your blog now for centuries (really only several years), and have bought your books and consumed them with undying devotion. But as much as I love the way your write about structure (and I do agree with you…every successful book or movie I’ve seen fits what you’ve said), but I cannot for the life of me plot out a book. I HAVE to pants it. I have lots of gorgeous beat sheets, and outlines and tent diagrams that haven’t done me a bit of good.

    My theory is that, it’s like a cookie jar. If you think you can get out of trouble by lying, then you will. If you already got caught and punished, you can’t think up a good lie in retrospect to save yourself. So, in a novel, if I know where my hero is going in the next chapter, I can’t make up enough good story to get him there. Oh, I know HOW and WHY and all other sorts of good stuff, but it doesn’t help.

    So I’m going into this Nanowrimo with a premise, the major conflict, and the first plot point done. I fully realize how structure works and it will be whirling in the back of my mind, creating framework as I go, but I can’t put it in there ahead of time.

    I know (ducks flying tomatoes) you get this all the time.

  2. I love the way you break down story structure, especially here when it comes to planning. But specifically in regards to NaNoWriMo, I’m not sure that already knowing exactly how the story will end is necessary.

    I think it would help to have an end goal–something for the characters to ultimately achieve in some capacity, but in my experience (all of one successful year of NaNo), I didn’t even make it to the end of the story before hitting 50,000 words, and I wasn’t sure how it would end apart from knowing my characters would (probably) be successful in their pursuits.

    I think with NaNoWriMo, at least in my opinion, when you are just going as fast as you can the the story is coming to you as fast as you can write it–half the fun is discovering where the story takes you and what ending, in a way, it creates for itself.

    That being said, great post! I appreciate your dedication to an entire month of daily NaNoWriMo-related posts!

  3. Here here! I too appreciate your dedication to this month long NaNo guidance. I would never have even got this far in my planning without you, to be honest. I can see myself actually completing it this year, which is good – but there’s still a way to go, so I can’t be smug. Optimistic is what I shall be, for now….. 🙂

  4. So here’s how I’m going to explain it to the newbie NaNos the day after tomorrow at the Sydney launch meet and greet…

    My 2009 nano effort was 100% pantsed. It was still a couple of months before I would discover this website and all of its gems. And when I did, I realised the complete lack of structure was what was holding it back and tossed it in a drawer for ‘later’.

    I planned the 2010 effort, though and the rough first draft in November (yes, all of it – 92k words – written in November) made it to print in May. And it’s not too bad, I think.

    The 2009 book has since been deconstructed, renovated and re-written and now, finally, is a readable book.

    So, pants and you may get something of value (but you’ll need to do a lot of work, and re-work) in about two years. Or plan, and if you’re lucky (and work your ass off), more like six months to a final product.

    You will get something, eventually, with the pants option but really, when you’ve got the choice, why wouldn’t you do some basic planning?

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  7. Love your advice. I think that in the overall pantser vs. planner concept, there is a spectrum. And it’s impossible, as you say to really fall on one of the two extremes. I feel like I am on the side closer to planner. This is my first year doing Nano. So far I’ve planned the basics of my story. I have a list of scenes I want to include, some basic characters, and general ideas of settings. Otherwise, I will freak out in the middle of November because I will have no idea where to go next. However, I am leaving lots of room for adaptation along the way. I know I will probably need more characters, not use some of the scenes, change some of the scenes, or add new scenes. I think it’s all up to preference and what works for you on how much you plan or pants. However, I think planning out these five points will save you a lot of frustration in the long run.

    That being said, I think you already saved me some. Your post gave me some great ideas for my Nano novel. There was a nagging worry deep down inside that there was something missing/not right. I figured it out: no real twist. I have now decided to change some scenes around and not introduce some information until later in the story. I think it’s going to make the story a lot better. I was also not sure about the genre, and because of this change, I think it’s now leaning towards mystery/suspense. Thanks so much!

  8. Sounds like an interesting fusion method. Some planning, less than a full plan. That may be exactly the right balance for some people.

    The main points about the structure are that they need to be there in its final form. How they got there and whether a writer can imagine them without the context of having written everything up to that point is method.

    Mine works. But I may have had some natural talent because it worked on the very first novel I ever wrote. By now, I’ve got practice – over 50 novel drafts written, all of them workable, some abandoned because I got a better idea, most just need to be polished into final form. It wouldn’t help me to graft the partial method into mine or improve my results… but it may work fantastic for someone who’s not an extreme or hasn’t developed a method yet. So might the full planning method.

    It took longer for me to learn to plot “freehand” or “by ear.” Larry, you’re showing new writers the easy way. This is good.

  9. I think most of my practice on basic structure came in the 20 years between getting an idea for my first published novel and actually finishing a draft. I used to get stuck and not know what to do next. A lot. It was only once I had managed to write enough fragments and get stuck at beginnings, middles and ends well enough that I got my Pantser Method down pat.

    So I won’t say that learning the pantser method is easy, it’s not. I don’t have any problem knowing what comes next now – but I’ve done it that many times too. This partial method could be just enough planning for many writers. A loose sketch instead of an overdetailed one.

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  11. “we plan what we plan, what we can, and we make up the rest as we go.”

    I love this. Because you’re absolutely right. I do have some things planned. I just don’t have it in order yet and necessarily how the characters are going to get there.

    Thanks so much for this post!

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    • Thanks for pointing out this resource. For the record, I used to be (a perception) “anti-pantser,” for reasons that I continue to write about. But I’ve come around… it’s all just the “search for story,” and in the end, pantsers and planners end up facing the same challenges and must meet the same criteria. It’s just a process and a path leading to the same goal. I realize many writers just can’t wrap their head around planning, and pantsers needs to realize this process, while fun and creatively open, is also longer and harder. We all get to choose, and I’m all for whatever works for you. What’s interest is, while I’ve slammed for the perception that I’m “anti-pantser,” many of those same folks say (or imply) that planning just doesn’t work — for anybody — that pantsing is the only and the superior process. That’s as equally wrong and naive as me claiming the opposite (which I don’t, at least anymore). Fact is, both paths end up sharing common things… planners end up changing and adapting (pantsing) as they write… and pantsers end up discovering their story (especially the ending) as they go and, without realizing it and probably not addmitting it to their rabid pantsing peers, they actually plan certain story milestones and scenes long before they get there and have to write it. It’s all good, all craft… and it all ends up in the same place when it’s done well. L.

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