Just finishing up a new novel. One that I began by pantsing, instead of planning.
That’s right… me, the Rush Limbaugh of story planning. Loud, obnoxious, and blinded by a bias that until recently prevented me from seeing the writing process for what it is.
This is the story of how that happened, how it felt, and how it all turned out.
Why did I make this leap of faith? Primarily to see what the other side is talking about. That and a tight deadline that motivated me to challenge and test the very thing I’ve been advocating for years.
Hypocrite? No. Crazy? Probably. Curious? Absolutely.
How it turned out surprised even me.
A Position on Pantsing
Two months ago I hadn’t even heard the term “pantsing” – as in, seat-of-the-pants storytelling without having a plan in place. As in, just make it up as you go along.
Seemed crazy to me. How can you write something as complex, nuanced and layered as a novel without even knowing how the damn thing ends?
Recently I’ve softened my hard-line position, mainly because I’ve come to realize that pantsing-versus-outlining isn’t the issue at all.
Both can work if the writer knows what she or he is doing.
The last half of that sentence is the critical variable here.
And, it’s what gave me the confidence to give pantsing a try.
Don’t Try This At Home
Pantsing a novel or a screenplay without an understanding of story infrastructure beyond an intuitive perception of what’s going on in the novels you read – which unfortunately is all a lot of writers bring to the process – is like doing exploratory surgery without knowing anything more about medicine than what you’ve seen on Grey’s Anatomy.
You may think you know how to make an incision with a scalpel, but from that point on the patient is pretty much in jeopardy.
Not all pantsers fall into this category. A few prodigies (Stephen King among them) and veteran storytellers can just sit down and bang out a great story from a single spark of inspiration, with no real plan whatsoever, and end up with all the requisite elements sitting right where they need to be.
But too many pantsers try this and fail. I know because I read and coach a lot of unpublished manuscripts, mostly by pantsers who are new to the game and therefore unschooled in the fundamentals of story architecture.
They just get an idea and go. Right off the cliff.
But if the writer truly owns the six core competencies of successful storytelling (even if they don’t call ‘em that), then pantsing absolutely can work. It’ll still require a bunch of false starts, new drafts, and major revisions that outliners won’t have to deal with, but absolutely, pantsing is a viable way to skin the literary cat for those so inclined.
For the prodigies, the story plan – the basic principles of successful storytelling – was in their head all along.
Pantsing or planning… they’re both just processes.
It’s not knowing what makes a story work that’ll drag you down.
The Story That Began With It’s Pants Down
Let me cut to the dubious outcome of my pantsing adventure.
After 200 pages of rambling and wrestling with the diminishing power of the initial idea, trying to find a through-line for my hero, attempting to develop that hero into someone we could root for, scrambling for stakes and meaning, trying to make it all work… I realized I didn’t know enough.
But here’s what’s interesting: I did know enough about story architecture and the criteria for each of the six core competencies to actually recognize that fact.
Had I not been fluent in these things I would have plowed on to the finish, and the story would have ultimately failed.
Which meant for me, and in a backdoor sort of way, the pantsing process had actually succeeded. Because it led me to the storytelling solutions required – those things I didn’t know before I began to write – to make the story work.
Had I better planned the story ahead of time, sketching out each of the major story points in context to more fully developed concept, theme and character, the requisite context and stakes would have been in place before the writing even began.
And yet, somehow it all turned out just fine. Better than fine, in fact.
How? Because the pantsing didn’t fail after all. It was a process… one that led me to a realization of what the story needed and why, and then a crystallization of what the solutions to those problems should be.
It was pantsing that brought me to that point.
It was my understanding of story architecture and criteria that allowed the process to work.
Had I chosen to thoroughly plan the story ahead of time instead of pantsing it in real time, the exact same thing would be true. Only in that case, I would have detected the problems prior to the draft itself, with the same response.
Different processes, same outcome.
All because of the underlying knowledge of story architecture that should fuel either process.
Without that, either process would have ultimately failed.
So rather than proving to myself that pantsing does or doesn’t work, I proved instead that an underlying handle on the fundamentals of storytelling will empower virtually any process to work – pantsing or story planning or something in between.
Having now tried it, I return to my enthusiastic advocacy of story planning over pantsing, if nothing else because it allows you to skip the anxiety and fear that comes from writing 200 pages and suddenly realizing it isn’t working as it should.
Pantsers who claim that writing from an outline isn’t fun or rewarding, take note: writing 200 pages of manuscript that doesn’t work really isn’t fun. Even when it does lead you to a better set of ideas.
Which it will. But only if you know what makes a story work in the first place.
And that’s called story architecture.
Next post: What is story architecture?