Planning for Pantsers

I’m a proud pantser. That is, someone who doesn’t really plan before starting work on a new story. I often begin writing a book with little-to-no idea how it will end. I get bored if I plan too much. If I’ve worked out the story from beginning to end, then I already know what’s going to happen, so what’s the point in writing it? For me, half the joy of writing is discovering the story as I go, just like any reader would.

So, I pants it, and make it up as I go along. The first scene, the first few thousand words will come to me easily enough.

But then the problems will begin.

I’ll get stuck. Somewhere between 5,000-10,000 words I will stop dead and just simply not know what comes next. Sometimes I can chip away at the block. A few words here, and few words there, until I am through the other side and writing again. But the problem with this approach is that it slows me right down and wastes my precious writing time. And it will happen multiple times a book.

So, I’ve developed a strategy, one that allows me to pants my heart out, while still having a vague idea where my story is going. Basically, I plan out only the major beats in the story. Chuck Wendig calls these the ‘Tentpole Moments’.

When planning this way, I will write out all the major turning points of the story. Usually there are 5-10. Sometimes, I will fill in the gaps between with scene ‘suggestions’ that will change and evolve as I go. Other times I’ll just write ‘stuff happens’ and know I’ll have to figure it out later. (Sorry future Aislinn!)

For example, my ‘plan’ might look something like this:

  • Suzie and Dan meet (coffee shop?? Rollercoaster?? Prison??). They like each other.
  • Suzie finds out Dan is actually an alien.
  • Dan finds out Suzie is a scientist that studies alien life forms.
  • Suzie’s colleagues capture Dan and experiment on him.
  • Suzie helps him escape? Or he gets himself out and takes her prisoner? They go on the run together.
  • They hideout (where??). Government is looking for them. (why?? Suzie works for government?)
  • Dan manages to contact his people. (how?)
  • He and Suzie get it on. (Of course)
  • The government come close to finding them, but Dan’s people arrive in time. They whisk Dan and Suzie away to his planet.
  • HEA

It’s not really much of a plan, is it? It says nothing about the settings, or the characters. There is no detail about any of the scenes, from tone to place to emotional content. The wheres and hows and whys are all missing. All of that comes as I write. But it does give me a very basic story structure. An outline that will carry me from one scene to the next.

Nothing I write down is set in stone. It is malleable and often changes. And the more I write, the more obvious the direction the book must go in will be. Once I get over the middle hump, writing is much easier, because I am essentially writing the payoff to everything that I have written before, and taking things to their logical conclusion.

I like writing towards big moments, having a vague idea of what is coming so that I can choose the scenes that need to get me there, and shape them to fit the story I’m telling. Of course, the one thing that will never change through all my story planning is the note – ‘HEA’. It’s amazing how much of a difference it can make, knowing you are writing towards a happy ending, and knowing what you will need to get there.

Here is what my plan for Soldiering On looked like after I had finished writing it:

Plot outline

Anyway, so, if you are a pantser that is struggling with writer’s block, maybe try this method. Write a bullet point outline – fill in any details that you know – and go from there. As new ideas and plans come to you, update your plan. Even just putting it in writing will help you clarify what you need for your story. And it is very satisfying to cross out scenes as you write them!

Good luck!

One thought on “Planning for Pantsers

  1. Pingback: The Dreaded Writer’s Block | aislinn kearns

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