The Pantser’s Guide to Story Planning – Part One

The Minimum First Tier Things an Organic Writer Needs to Know About a Story Before It Will Work

The first installment of a two-part series.

Over the course of this debate about story planning versus organic, seat-of-the-pants story development, I’ve come to realize several things.

Most notably, that we are all in the same boat, planners and pantsers alike.

First, pantsers don’t want to hear about it. 

For some reason the very notion of planning out major story points before you actually begin working on the manuscript is judged as either offensive or unworkable.  At least for them.

This is, in my view, much like someone claiming they can’t fly in an airplane… because they’ve never set foot on one.  And so they choose to drive.

The truer statement is that they won’t fly in an airplane.  It’s a choice, a preference, rather than a statement of fact. 

Great analogy, that.  Multiply the time it takes to get there via air by a factor of ten, and that’s about the same ratio of completion efficiency in comparing story planning to beginning a story with no idea where it’s going.

And guess what – both vehicles get you there in one piece.  It’s just that the long way might cause you to miss the very thing you came for.

Here’s the second thing I’ve learned. 

Not about the issue – I’m very clear on that – but about what it means.

Everybody who writes a story engages in some form of story development.   There’s no escaping that, no matter what you prefer to call it.

If you pants, if you just sit down and start writing with no clue what comes next, and then when you get to the end of a chapter you just keep writing and making stuff up from your gut, chapter by chapter… then that, too, is story planning.  Even if you don’t like the term. 

In that case pantsing, or organic storytelling is your chosen methodology.  And we all must live with the consequences of our choices, in writing and in life.

Pantsing actually can work.  

It’s like exploratory surgery versus a targeted operation.  The exploratory surgeon doesn’t know what she’ll find inside, and when she gets in there she does what seems right, making precise and critical judgments in real time.  The pre-planning surgeon, however, enters the O.R. with a stack of MRIs, blood tests and a certainty about what’s waiting for her, and she goes straight at it, with a minimum of time under anesthesia.

Good analogy, there, too.  Because until we know what we’re doing and why, we’re unconscious and in jeopardy. 

Even if the result is the same – the very same tumor in either case is located and extracted – the pantsing surgeon takes orders of magnitude more time, and at greater risk, than the planning surgeon. 

In this case, both doctors know what they’re doing.  So both procedures will work.  But that’s not always the case with writing a story.  Sometimes – often, in fact – the author has no real idea what they’re doing.

Here’s a fact, accept it or not:

The more you know about what makes a story work, about what goes into it, what goes where, and why, the more likely the writer will be – the more compelled the writer will be – to execute at least a minimum level of story planning before they begin the actual narrative process.

In other words, the less you know about story structure, the less likely you are to plan, because you don’t (for lack of a better way of saying it) even know what to plan.

And whether you plan it or pants it, if the requisite story milestones and the dramatic arc don’t unfold properly, the story will fail. 

The key there is recognizing that there is, in fact, a proper unfolding to be had. And this very thing, the rejection of that notion, is the undoing of many pantsers.

Organic writers sometimes drop names of successful authors who swear by the pantsing process.  But here’s the deal – those famous folks are in complete command of the principles of story architecture.

If you’re a pantser, here’s the $64,000 question for you: are you?

Again, the more you know about it, the more accepting you’ll be of the need to plan out at least a few elements of your story in advance.

Because you can’t, you won’t, write a successful draft until you know precisely how your story will end. 

Let me say that again.  If, for example, you’ve unleashed a story organically, and then at the 60th percentile finally come to realize how it should end, and at that point begin pointing your narrative toward that goal… your story won’t work. 

Your only viable option at that point, now that you know the ending, is to start another draft.  One that puts all of the moving parts and contextual elements into their proper place.  Retrofitting rarely accomplishes the goal, and when it comes close, it’s usually less than clean and elegant.  It’s compromised.

It’s impossible for story milestones to be in the proper place, revealing just the right things, until you know your ending.

There’s good news for writers that are scared to death of this truth:

You actually can do both

You can continue to write your stories organically – which is another way of saying, to develop them organically – but with a wildly improved chance of success…

… if you’ll understand, plan and implement nine specific things ahead of time.

In the scheme of things, that’s not all that much.  But they are the nine most important things you need to know about your story, whether you figure them out ahead of time or during the writing itself.  They are essential, unavoidable (and if you do avoid them your story will fail), and they don’t discriminate between planners or pantsers.

I’m not suggesting you plan out all sixty to ninety scenes of your story.  Some planners do just that – I’m one of them – but you can slash your writing time by more than half (by writing fewer drafts) and significantly boost your odds of success if you’ll just plan these nine key elements first.

Next up, Part Two of this series: The Nine Things You Should Know Before You Begin Writing.

For more information, check out these two ebooks from Storyfix that go deeper into issues of Story Structure and Characterization.



Filed under getting published

14 Responses to The Pantser’s Guide to Story Planning – Part One

  1. Hi Larry,

    thanks for all the work on your blog. I really enjoyed the Avatar series, and I used some of the language and concepts from it and many, many other posts here in a work of fiction I wrote a few weeks ago. It features a movie producer, director and script writer having a conference about a new science fiction picture, and they work out the story, and at the same time there’s a story to the conference itself. It was quite experimental, but I had a lot of fun writing it.

    And to the point: I wrote it quickly. I took less than four days to write the 35,000 words, edit it all, and release it online for my readers and fans. By the next morning someone had read it in one sitting, so I could correct some stupid spelling mistakes before too many others downloaded it.

    Without all the planning, and knowing exactly where I wanted to go with the story, it would have been impossible for me to write so quickly. Or I could have written it quickly, but I’d never have been able to be as happy as I was with an almost unchanged first draft to release it as it stood.

    The opposite was when I started writing a novel last May. I knew 90% of what I wanted, but I had some questions about what would happen right at the very end. But I thought “Well, I’ll start it anyway, and by the time I get there I’ll have worked it out.” But I never did get there, as under half way though I worked out the ending I wanted… but it didn’t fit what I’d already started.

    I’ll have another go at writing that novel this year, and because I’ve spent an extra eight months thinking and planning, I reckon I could finish a first draft (about 60,000 words this time) in very short order.

    I’m glad I can take both approaches, as I’d never have worked out the end without the writing process itself, but I much prefer planning meticulously. I just find that with too much planning, my fiction turns out a lot shorter than I first plan, as I don’t want to spend time hanging around.

    Thanks again, and if you care to read a bit more about that last story, see this page:

    Luke B.

  2. Ben

    Great post. I’ve been thinking about writing about this subject for a while, but honestly haven’t wanted to offend the pantsers out there. I’m eager to hear what your nine things are, to see if I had those in place when I implemented my hybrid method last summer.

    Another thing I’ve noticed about the famous pantsers: the most famous ones I know of and have read, Koontz and King, are generally very bad at writing endings. I the journey up to that point is wonderful because they write so well, but without knowing where the story is headed, it never really builds to the end properly. Also, sometimes it seems like seeds get planted that never grow, like the author is putting something in place and hoping it will go somewhere–but it never does.

  3. Adam

    i’m turning into a writer that plans the key moments of a story before drafting, and then let my keyboard lead me from point to point. I love the workflow of that style, because it feels like my brainstorming is focused, and my drafting gets to go where my narrator leads.

    Without guidance like this, i wouldn’t be the writer i am today. Thanks Larry!

  4. I wrote about my past issues with story structure today. SS is the only way to fly.

    How do I register on this site so I can post a avatar of myself in the pic box?

  5. nancy

    I wish I could be more efficient. I start with a scene and a character concept. I write many drafts of that one scene until it’s fully developed. Then I write the next scene. Once I perceive the logic flow, I outline. The problem with pantsing is evident in my current project: my original scene began as chapter 1, then 2, and now–after 8 months–it is chapter 5. Oh! the drudgery of pantsing. I start by the seat of my pants and eventually have to turn them inside-out to get an effective story arc.

  6. I totally agree and I think I am both. Even if it is just a few notes in your head, that is planning. Even if you claim your gut is telling you the rhythm of the story, odds are you have internalized the three act structure and are following it.

    I started my current novel with no plan (which really means no ending) and I ran into a wall. After stopping, thinking, and yes, some planning, I cut half the manuscript and got back to work. Even though I have a plan now, I find that it keeps changing, so I am learning how to roll with it.

  7. I love novels, films, songs and TV shows that are structured so beautifully, you feel like they gave their creators room to breathe somewhere between the boringly formulaic and the breathtaking. A great structure’s like the music, space and physical limitations a choreographer works with. I think the art lies in how we acknowledge then transcend our structures and limitations.

  8. When I wrote my first novel, four years ago, I sorta, kinda planned it. I knew several events I wanted to be included in the story, and, on advice I read, I tried to construct the ending in advance. And I’m still editing that novel, trying to make something of it.

    In the meantime, I learned to write on the fly, from writing prompts. And now, I start with a title, a character, an event or a setting, I begin typing, and a story starts flowing. I get out of the way and let it pour out onto my computer keyboard. I don’t know what the story is about when I start, and I have no idea where it will end. But it is as much a joy and a process of discovery to write as it is to read someone else’s story.

    Those novels I’ve written in that manner require much, much less editing than that first one I tried to plan (which is STILL in the edit process).

    So…I suppose when it comes to writing, I’m an odd-ball. But, come to think about it, I’m an odd-ball when it comes to a lot of things. So, what else is new?

  9. I’m no longer a pantser, but I still find this so very valuable. I can’t wait for your next post.

  10. Leah

    I learned about your blog through your guest piece at Problogger. I’m very glad I did.

    I have participated in writing circles where (dare I call it) “pantsing” is encouraged. It may be useful to do 10 minutes of un-self-edited writing to access your creativity. But to approach an entire work that way doesn’t work for me, although, as Tommie Lyn points out, it does for some. My experience has been as you have suggested: successful pansters have a great grasp of what a story needs. And sometimes they are able to fly because they have allowed story and character ideas time to float around in their heads.

    Would you call the “my-characters-lead-me” writers just one type of pantser?

  11. @Leah — “my characters lead me” — I usually have to bite my tongue when I hear that one. Yeah, that’s definately a form of pantsing. In fact, it’s the quintessential chaotic one, in my opinion, the one that only works after a bunch of rewrites. Unfortunately, those writers too often don’t do those because they trust those leading characters to understand what the WRITER must know. It’s like asking a child to lead you on tour of Los Angeles… good luck with that.

    Staying the the analogy of that for a moment — it’s just as I suggested and you affirmed: if the writer understands the principles, then go ahead, follow them. If they are just wandering around (if the writer truly doesn’t understand the four parts and the five key milestones), then somebody’s gonna get lost, big time.

    Thanks for contributing, and for the value-add.

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you…(infinite thank you’s). I’ve been working on a story for a month now, pantsing it the entire way. On the second draft, I realized the ending I wanted, and I had to start the drafting process over again.

    I droll over the thought of planning, in all forms whether writing or life, mainly because I don’t know the true elements of a story, hoping they will reveal themselves. Kind of like a man feeling around in a dark cave with no light, and I believe I took a wrong turn. This post has really helped me realize my faults, and I anxiously await your next post.

    Thank you once again.

  13. Pingback: The Pantser’s Guide to Story Planning – Part Two

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