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…
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.