The Pantser’s Guide to Story Planning – Part Two

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

The second installment of a two-part series.

(Read Part One of this series here.)

The Nine Things You Should Know Before You Begin Writing

This reminds me of that old Steve Martin joke: How do you avoid paying taxes on one million dollars?  Okay, first you get a million dollars

Insert nervous laugh here.

The nine things you need to know break down into two categories: the four sequential parts of your stories, roughly defined as quartiles… and the five essential story milestones (story points) that chart your course.

Again, if your story is to work, you will discover these nine things.  Either within a plan, or within a draft that will require significant rewriting.

The suggestion here is that you really can discover – and should – each of them ahead of time.  When you do, the organic process you apply to the manuscript will turn your metaphoric car into a high speed bullet train.

Not quite nearly the speed of sound, like that airplane, but orders of magnitude more efficient than writing blindly from the jump seat of a car.

The four contextual parts of your story. 

You can’t really go deep into these until you know the five story milestones, but this is what you’ll be shooting for when you do.  Each of these is comprised of about 12 to 18 scenes, and eat up about 25 percent of the total length of the story.

–         a Part 1 set-up – scenes that introduce the hero, the context and stakes of the story, all before something huge happens (the First Plot Point) that really ignites the hero’s journey, need and quest, which is what the story is really all about.

–         A Part 2 response to their new journey – whatever their life course and need was before, it’s either put on hold or altered because of a new calling or need, as presented and defined by the First Plot Point.

–         A Part 3 attack on the problem – whereas the hero has been reeling and reacting and fleeing and rebounding, at the mid-point of the story they begin to fight back, to move forward to seek a solution.

–         A Part 4 resolution – wherein the hero conquers their inner demons and becomes the catalyst for the resolution of conflict and the meeting of their goal.

These four parts define the context of your scenes.  Even if you’re pantsing.  For example, if you’re in Part 2 (reaction/response) and you’re writing a scene that has your hero acting perfectly heroic, and successfully so, it won’t work as well (because it’s out of context) and will ultimately sabotage the flow of the entire narrative.

Again, if the pantser knows this they’re on safe ground.  If they don’t, they won’t understand the rejection slip that becomes an inevitability.

The Five Milestone Story Points

In looking at those four contextual story parts, it’s clear that you also need to understand the transitions between them.  If Part 1 is a set-up for the arrival of the First Plot Point (which is the most important moment in your story… did you know that?  If you didn’t, let this be a wake-up call for you…), and if Part 2 is a response to it…

… then obviously and with absolute necessity you need to understand what a First Plot Point even is, where it goes, what it does and why this works.

The same is true of the other four major story milestones.  Your story won’t work – planner or pantser – until they’re functional and in the right place.

Here are those five moments that your story depends on:

–         the opening hook

–         the First Plot Point

–         a Mid-Point context shifting transition

–         the Second Plot Point

–         the ending.

Some of these can unfold as tight sequences of scenes, especially the ending.

Each of these is its own clinic on dramatic fiction, because they are the essence of dramatic fiction.

The nervous pantser might, at this point, say: hey, where’s characterization in all this?

The answer is – it’s all over it.  These four parts are a roadmap to the presentation and flourishing of your character in context to the dramatic need and action you’re giving them.  If you implement your characterization outside of these guidelines, your story won’t work as well as it should.

Sometimes people reject what is true simply because it’s new. 

They’re not comfortable doing it that way.  Exercise and diet, for example.  Relationships.  Money management.  All of these life challenges depend on certain principles, and you can reject those truths until you are blue in the face, and you can do things your way if you want (the singles condo complex is full of them)… but you won’t get near any of those goals until you live according to certain principles.

Same with your stories.  Pants if you choose, but do so with an awareness that there are, at a minimum, nine things you need to understand when you do.  Or you will either most certainly fail, or you’ll stumble upon them instinctively without ever really knowing how it happened. 

All nine of these story ingredients and principles can be developed ahead of time.  Brainstorming, percolating, trying out scenarios and sequences using note cards and conversations over drinks… all of them are a viable means of discovering what dramatic conventions serve your story, and even your character, best.

I wish you well on this journey.  I hope, at the very least, that I’ve eased your fear of flying, and that you’ll gift yourself with this new engine of creative efficiency and productivity.

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


Filed under getting published

13 Responses to The Pantser’s Guide to Story Planning – Part Two

  1. Excellent post. Over the course of the three MSs I’ve completed, and the two that I didn’t, I’ve learned that I definitely need to do some planning. Even though I still lean toward the pantser side of the aisle.

    With each new book, I learn more about what I need for writing success. Your post will really help me as I get ready to start my next MS, and work on revisions for the current one. Thanks!

  2. I wish you well on this journey. I hope, at the very least, that I’ve eased your fear of flying, and that you’ll gift yourself with this new engine of creative efficiency and productivity.

    This sounded a bit ominous… You’re not going anywhere, are you? Or were you just saying a subtle goodbye to any pansters you think may be unsubscribing as we speak?

    This was another good mini series. The more we hear this parctical advice, in as many ways as you can imaginatively
    repackage it, the more chance there is of it becoming automatic for us so we can concentrate on the less structural elements.

  3. Gosh, your quote html is a bit dramatic! On most other Thesis themed sites, it just indents the quote!

  4. Colleen Shine Phillips

    Hi, Larry. Another great post, of course. I pass on your site to everyone, and especially now, to my panster friends. I have told them all that after reading Story Structure, I am a convert. I have passed over to the “dark side”, as I tell them, and am going to structure my next novel. I have restructured the one I am finishing, but of course this is like the zillionth rewrite. Not gonna do that again. Ah, and the structure DOES work with short stories. Thanks!

  5. tom

    n amazing series. Thank you for the professional information. Your work is greatly appreciated!

  6. Thank you once again for your wise words. Now I believe my story will flow freely on the page, after planning of course, since I now what the major points are. I’ve yet to regret e-mail listing your blog, for it is a never ending fountain of inspiring knowledge. Once again, thank you.

  7. But, but, but… what if you have more “plot points” than that? What if you have three or four? Or more? It’s not resticted to only two is it?

  8. That was a dumb question wasn’t it?


  9. I’ve been wondering how to frame these plot points differently. For example, if I have a story that starts with the hook, and then refers back to the first plot point as the thing that propelled the story to the hook, will that ultimately work? I’ve been playing with that idea and I’m undecided.

  10. @Sierra — it’s important to realize that the “hook” and the first plot point are very different things. Each appears in a designated place within the story sequence, and to adhere to standard principles of storytelling, you really can’t mess with them (i.e., “invent” your own structure). The vast majority of published novels and movies prove this to be true.

    The hook occurs in the first 5% of the story. The first plot point occurs between the 20th and 25th percentile. Each has a different mission and affects the story in different ways.

    It’s a mistake to think that because you have a solid hook, you don’t need a plot point at the proper place, that your hook is, in fact the inciting incident. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. Make sure you’re clear on the difference, and that you use them both in your story. Hope this helps.

  11. It’s amazing to me how much clearer this makes my writing. I always ALWAYS struggled with the structure.

    No more.

    Thanks again.

  12. Pingback: 10 Links: Novel Development – Methods and More « Keri Mathews

  13. I’ve completed 9 novels without a single one of them being of publishable quality. Every one was written by “pantsing”. They pretty well hit all of the weaknesses you cited in the two entries in this blog series. I don’t regard them as a waste: they contain some good ideas. They helped me learn to write. They also gave me an opportunity to develop my fictional universe (it’s science fiction).

    In my non-writing life, I’m a teacher. I would never “pants” a lesson. I always walk into the classroom with a plan. If I walk in without a plan, the lesson is a disaster. I think I’m fairly creative as a teacher, even working with a plan. So, the real question I started asking myself this year is why what works so well in my classroom isn’t working in my writing life.

    For the past few months, I’ve been outlining a new novel. It is in the same universe as the previous 9. One or two of the characters in other novels will appear in this one. The main point is that I haven’t started writing yet. I’ve been researching, asking questions, writing down plot points, scribbling out ideas, and trying new things. In a few more months, I expect to begin actually writing.

    Time will tell if this ends up as publishable quality. However, I’m excited because I feel a lot of excitement in this: I’m solving problems before the story starts. I’m discovering inconsistencies before the story starts. I’m discovering where research is needed, and the research is pointing the way to a better story. More importantly, I’m finding a way to write a book that expresses my Christian faith without preaching or stopping the story. I’ve been able to make my faith an integral part of the book rather than an add-on. I’ve even managed to fit in my Libertarian politics, all as plot points, not preaching points.

    I discovered your blog today and I’ve really neglected my students in reading it. I need to go away now and plan for my lessons tomorrow. But, I wanted you to know that I discovered you during a really frustrating point in my planning: I wanted to start writing, but knew I wasn’t ready yet. Your blog tipped me in favor of more outlining and planning.