Finding a Path between Pantsing and Plotting

Stacey Kite

Stacey Kite

I am, by nature, a pantser. (For those of you who might not be familiar with the therm, pantsing is the writing equivalent of winging it.) For me, pantsing is as fun as daydreaming, and I am a world class daydreamer. (Seriously, it’s the closest thing I have to a superpower.) The problem is that I’ve tried writing novels by pantsing it and they always fizzle. The manuscripts start out good, with engaging, clever characters that—at least according to my writing friends—grab them as readers. Then a quarter to a third of the way into the novel, the story turns into a disconnected jumble that I can’t force into any kind of believable plot.
I hate books that do that. You know the ones I mean—books with great beginnings: strong voice, a cool premise and interesting characters, but the story never goes anywhere. It just circles and meanders around because there is no actual plot. You’re so disappointed, and think, “What was the point? There was absolutely no point to that book.” That is exactly what happens to my stories when I try to pants it. I wind up with a fabulous build-up to nothing leading nowhere.

After my third attempt at pantsing my way through a novel utterly failed, I decided I needed to learn how to craft and outline a complete plot before actually sitting down to write. I’d read about story structure and tried loosely applying the principles to my pansting, but it was only after that third attempt crashed, burned and sank in the swamp that I became serious about learning structure.

I read writing books, attended structure sessions at writing conferences, played with scene cards, Y-writer and outlining. Then last year, Megan, one of my fellow Writeowls, recommended John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story to me. That book instantly became my Holy Grail. It is a dense and difficult read, but even on the first pass, I could see why and where every novel I’d tried writing had gone off the rails. I could see exactly what I had done wrong, and more importantly, how to avoid the same pitfalls in the future.

So, I started over—again. But this time, instead of pantsing it (because I knew exactly where that would lead) I crafted my characters and plot using The Anatomy of Story as a guide, developing a novel workbook as I worked my way through Truby’s book. It took me three difficult months, but after all that effort I had fully fleshed out characters with complementing and conflicting flaws and desires, a scene-by-scene blueprint for a high energy plot loaded with cunning twists, and a dramatic and emotional climax. (Thankfully, since I’d already done a ton of world-building with my first three attempts, I didn’t have to do much of that.)

My novel’s workbook is massive—more than 100 pages and over 25,000 words, complete with diagrams, charts and even end-notes. I think it’s a major achievement in and of itself, though it’s not exactly a fun read on its own. Once I finished my workbook, I felt that I was ready to write the story.

But within a few scenes, the story started morphing on me. I swear, I would sit down to write, knowing what the characters were supposed to do and say in order to move the plot forward, and within a few paragraphs my pantsing nature would take over, and the scene would go corkscrewing off in some unscripted direction.

Scenes that should have been just a few pages segued and meandered, mushrooming to 4000 words before the next beat. It’s like I’ve been trying to direct a play, but the actors continually wander off their marks and start ad-libbing, messing up my beautifully crafted plot line. It’s been driving me nuts, and wasting boatloads of time.

So much time, in fact, that when I was scheduled to exchange scenes with another writer in my critique group for some mutual reviewing, I didn’t have time to tidy up the scene before sending it out to him. I knew the scene was a muddled mess, but that’s why I wanted help with it.

All the two characters had to do was walk down a stupid hallway to get from one mark to the next. There were a few character/world-building things I wanted to sprinkle in route, but the action should have taken a couple of sentences at most. Instead, that hallway stroll became a 1100 word scene all by itself. A scene that didn’t have an ending or any kind of logical segue into the next scene.

I couldn’t see how to fix the mess, so I just added a few apology comments in blue brackets for the guy who was critiquing it—things like, “This next section is a disaster and I’m going to cut most of it”, and “I’m lost in the weeds here, and have no idea how to end this stupid conversation—HELP!”—and hit the send button.

Later, when we sat down to discuss each others work, his comments really surprised me. The parts I felt horrible about, those places where the story went sideways, were the very sections he liked best. Those were the sections where he felt the story flowed. The places where the story stayed on track, however, came across as stilted. (How stilted? I’m not really sure, because he’s a very nice guy who doesn’t like to hurt other people’s feelings, and doesn’t go in for brutal honesty.) My conclusion—the characters came alive in the pantsing sections, but were zombies when they stayed on script.

OK—so now I know my writing is best when I’m pantsing it, but I also know from experience that pantsing just won’t work for me. On the other hand, strict plotting may be turning the story into a zombie apocalypse.

There has to be a road somewhere between pantsing and plotting that will work for me, and the only way I know how to find it is through trial and error. Right now, I’m letting the characters ad-lib whenever they want to, and then doing my best to herd them back toward the plot when I start getting too annoyed with their metaphorical side-trips. I don’t know if it’s a workable approach, since coming up with logical reasons/motivations for getting them back on script takes forever and bloats the word count. (I mean really bloats the word count. I’m not talking about doubling it, but sextupling it.)

Maybe I just have to give myself permission to write a 600,000+ word first draft, and worry about how to edit it down to 120,000 words later. I really don’t want to do that, but it’s the best pantsing/plotting compromise I’ve come up with so far.

I’ll let you know how it works out. And if any of you know of a more direct path, lurking somewhere between pantsing and plotting, feel free to give me a clue.

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