Writing Styles: How to Pants It

As Michelle posted a few weeks ago, outlining and pre-plotting your story can be an excellent idea. You set up a map and course to guide you where you want to go before you even begin. Sounds great, right?

So when is it not?

For some, it is always a good idea to pre-plot. It does, after all, provide structure and outline for a project that may quickly go off the rails.

But for others (and I do include myself in this group), pre-plotting is not only a painfully boring chore, it can derail your project before it even begins.

You see, I am a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants (thus the term). My idea of planning for a novel involves scribbling a few sticky notes with things like “The cat can talk!” and “Why do trains in Serbia always crash?” Then, I pick up my pen, and start writing.

And novels come out.

Look at me, Ma! I'm pantsing a novel!

Look at me, Ma! I’m pantsing a novel!

Do I know where my characters are going? Of course. I am usually a few steps ahead of them. As so should you be, if you want to try pantsing your own story. But knowing where your characters are going (and what is going to happen to them) is very different from knowing, ahead of time, how your characters are going to react. Because therein lies the trick to pantsing.

Pantsing a story means having very well developed characters with strong motivations. Ideally, every story you ever write, no matter how you write it, has strong characters in it. They are the voices that carry your narrative, after all. They need to be strong. If your characters aren’t strong or their motivations are murky (to you, anyway. The reader isn’t here yet, this is all for you, dear writer), they tend to end up spinning their wheels, and the plot goes nowhere.

But when you do have strongly conceived characters, you may find your characters have no problem running full steam ahead towards a goal, and carry you along for the ride. Does this mean knowing what you’re going to throw at them next? Sure. But your characters should know how they’re going to react before you do.

Sometimes, in the times that I’ve attempted to outline, I find myself trying to force my characters into performing in ways they don’t want to. And then my characters end up fighting me. If you ever find yourself in this situation, stop. Listen to your characters. What do they want to do? Perhaps the problem isn’t so much they aren’t following your lead, but you aren’t trusting theirs. Follow your characters, see where you take you. You may be the writer of the story, but you don’t have to be an authoritarian dictator.

Another pitfall of pre-outlining can be what I like to call “pre-emptive catharsis.” Writing is very cathartic for me, and getting to the end of a story especially so. However, if I outline, I more often than not find myself “done.” I’ve reached the end; I’ve found my release of emotion. It doesn’t matter that it was in 200 words of vaguely sketched out ideas and not 100,000 words of detailed narrative—I am done. I now know how the story ends; I don’t need it anymore. And when I try to write that same story, well… why would I want to write the same exact story twice (even if the second has way more detail)? It saps a lot of creative mojo and motivation.

So I pants. If it guarantees me actually getting to the end of a story, then why risk an outline? My characters will tell me where they need to go, and I will figure out every else on the road as we go. That is, after all, what pantsing a story is—hitting the road, walking it with your characters, figuring out the “meaning of life” stuff on the way there, not before it. It’s the journey, man, not the destination.

If this sounds like you, perhaps you should consider yourself a pantser. After all, it’s only the first draft. Who cares how your words get down on paper, as long as they appear?


10 thoughts on “Writing Styles: How to Pants It

  1. Laura Weymouth says:

    This is SO my writing style. I thought I was just some weirdo who had a problem with outlining, lol. There’s others like me!!! I don’t think I’ve ever finished a story for which I drew out a detailed outline. I just need room for my characters to surprise me.

    • I like those stories the best–the ones where your characters discover the story line before you do. Even though you may be the writer, it’s kind of like you’re reading the story as it unfolds. 😀 It’s a fun way to write if you’ve got the knack for it. Happy writings, friend! Go forth and pants!

  2. I think a lot of the difference between pantsers and plotters is how our brains work, and how we come up with stories. We all, obviously, start with “what if”, but in my case that “what if” leads to HOLY FRIGGIN COW I JUST GOT AN ENTIRE STORY I HAVE TO WRITE DOWN THE SKELETON BEFORE I LOSE IT! Hence, I am a plotter. I’ve tried ‘writing by the seat of my pants’, and I meander all over the universe…

    Pantsers, it seems, start with solid characters and throw them from the frying pan into the fire. Plotters seem to start with, well, the plot. For me, the characters evolve as I write them and discover their motivations and why they’ve made the choices they did.

  3. My short stories always start out with an idea, either character or situation. I write by the seat of my pants, letting everything unfold as I type. So, my short stories have always been done by pantsing.

    Now, I just completed my first rough draft of my very first novel. And by completed, I mean, not quite because I’m not sure exactly how to end it just yet, but it’s almost there, or I’ve passed it. LOL Anyway, I started that out with a short scene. I had no idea where it was going. I discussed it with TheHubs and he came up with a complete back story that happened like a couple millenia before my scene ever thought of happening. So, after I had that I knew where/when/what this story was going to do. I wrote out certain points that were going to happen on my whiteboard. I tried outlining, Lord I tried. But I got so lost, so bored, and way too overwhelmed! I think I have ADD when it comes to this because I want to write it…not outline it…just get the words out. 🙂 Anyway, So, I sort of have an outline, when I started developing a story, on my white board. It’s not chapter by chapter, or scene by scene. I just have certain scenes I want to have happen. Getting there, has been a struggle sometimes. But I managed to get out about 75-80K words now in about 2 years. I’m learning. And I must be a slow learner. Or, I fear it still. Either way, I think this constitutes a “plantser” because I pants more than I plot.

    Course, this all can change seeing as this is my very first ever! 🙂

  4. I usually have an idea, sketch my major characters, discover the ending, and then I begin to write. When I’ve written a couple of chapters, I usually get stuck, so then I start plotting a bit as I go, which keeps things moving while also keeping me interested. That’s just me, though. It seems like I can’t be a pantser through-and-through or else I’ll end up following my characters blindly away from the story rather than directing their paths.

    I do understand the feeling of being done once you’ve outlined up until the end. Once I know how my characters are going to finally reach the end of the novel, I feel done too, and I start thinking about the next project. Once I reach that point, it is hard for me to stay interested and even harder for me to keep going.

    It seems like you’ve got things figured out, though. I am still searching for that perfect balance. I want to be in control so my characters continue to do things rather than, say, blow off the entire plot to go shoe shopping. But, I also want my characters to have the freedom to reach the end in their own unique ways.

    • Plotting or pantsing–it really doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got a word count at the end of the day. And you may find that different projects require different approaches. It’s a never-ending learning curve. 🙂 But remember, even if your characters DO take a header into the seedy underbelly of shoe sales, you can always fix it in editing. Good luck!

      • Yes, each project does require a different approach. The one I’m working on now has some very rebellious characters and a plot that has changed 3 times since NaNo began (I just can’t decide where I want to take the idea!). Good luck to you, too!

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