The Writing Process: My Dance With the Pants

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 I know because I read and coach a lot of unpublished manuscripts, mostly by pantsers who are new to the game and therefore unschooled in the fundamentals of story architecture.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?

5 Comments

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5 Responses to The Writing Process: My Dance With the Pants

  1. I’ve been a pantser before and when I read about outlining
    from you, It struck me I’ve been working without a basic requirement– like going to war without a plan!

  2. Mary E. Ulrich

    So this is the Writerhood of the Traveling Pants? It is all a journey?

    Makes sense to me.

    I’ve met teachers who spend hours making the lesson plans, write them out with their goals, objectives, activities all spelled out perfectly, they stick to them… and many times the lessons just flop: the students sleep, don’t get what they are talking about….

    I’ve met other teachers who struggle to put down a word on their lesson plans. They might stay up all night working through 7 different scenerios or ways of teaching the lesson. They might decide their approach the moment the first student walks in the door. Some of these also fail, but some of these teachers are brilliant.

    Like you, this second group might look like pantsers. But in actuality, they are using chaos theory and interacting with their students/characters. When it works either in teaching or in writing it is a thing of beauty.

    So, when’s your book available?

  3. I’ve written a novel pantsing my way along. I had a great time, and the story seemed to work. When a friend pointed me to your site, and I finished your story structure series, I took my manuscript and started comparing it to the 4-part story structure model.

    And I found it fit … almost perfectly.

    I almost fell out of my chair, because I knew nothing, whatever, about story structure and planning. I had no outline when I wrote it. And yet it fell into the model like a hand into a glove. So, I compared the novel’s sequel to the structure model. And again, it started to fit (that manuscript’s is only about half finished) — but not as perfectly. And the story was dragging on, going nowhere, and I thought I’d written myself into a box.

    Which I couldn’t understand because I used an outline for this one. And I just couldn’t get the story going. After reading your story structure series, I know why now, and I know how to fix it (what’s wrong and what needs re-writing and what’s missing).

    In addition, since I’ve learned the 4-part story structure model, I’ve gotten ideas for about four other novels, and I’m using a template I made to plan those stories out. All I’ll need to do is write a synopsis for each one (which I like better than outlining), and then start writing scenes. I have a feeling this is going to speed up the writing process so much, in both writing and revising, I can’t wait to start.

    Thank you for all the great advice and showing me how valuable it is to plan and structure a story, Larry. And for showing me what it means to plan. I’m reading everything you’ve got online about theme now, trying to get that aspect of the six core competencies involved in my work more fully (and intentionally!), so keep ’em coming.

    God bless.

  4. S. Megan Payne

    You make it so one way or another, and it’s an error I see a lot. There are those of us who do it precisely in between. I hate (read loathe, despise, revile, and every other seriously intense synonym for dislike you can think of) outlining with a passion because if I do it, I come quickly to hate the story and never touch it again (don’t ask me why; I couldn’t care less). However, I don’t dive in with no clue either. I jump in with a mood, tone, feel, character (solid character here that I KNOW), opening or ending strong enough to show me a handful of threads, maybe another really interesting scene or two. That’s it. I dive in. All the threads, storyweaving, foreshadowing just happens and builds for me. For the pieces I write this way and like (don’t lose interest in), I usually do two rounds of touch up edits.

    That’s it.

    It’s Isaac Asimov’s method, and it isn’t either way. Not everybody is. And it isn’t a bunch of false starts either. If I can’t start strong that’s the ones that I excluded from my ending sentence in the above big paragraph.

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