Story Planning from a Reformed Pantser

Once upon a time, I used to sit down at a blank page and write whatever popped into my head. Other times, I toyed with an idea first, and once I had a loose premise, I started writing. I wrote about unexpected superheroes, teenage vampires, epic fantasy worlds, parallel dimensions, corrupt ghosts, possessed mermaids…and as fun as it was to play around with these stories, none of them went anywhere. Most of them were never even finished. And when I did get far enough to type “The End,” those manuscripts languished in Revision Purgatory, forever finessing, never finishing. Needless to say, this approach wasn’t going to get a manuscript polished, let alone published. I needed to change my pantser ways and embrace the art of planning.

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Me as a pantser trying to revise a finished first draft.

I started reading craft books about story structure, outlining, and writing faster. One thing these books had in common was the assertion that knowing what you’re going to write before you sit down to write it makes the whole process easier. That seemed reasonable. If you put in extra work in pre-production, maybe post-production wouldn’t be such torture. I decided to give it a go.

Here’s a list of the craft books I read, in the order in which I read them.

Each of these gave me a different piece of the puzzle I was trying to solve. Rock Your Plot broke down story into simple pieces. Take Off Your Pants took it even further, showing how those parts connect. Write Better, Faster showed me how to utilize writing story beats before fleshing out the scenes. 2K to 10K taught me how to revise. Romancing the Beat helped me craft an outline specific to romance novel structure. And Story Genius elevated all of it, taking me through the process of crafting a story blueprint from the inside out, as opposed to outside in.

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How I felt after reading these books.

People tell me planning “takes the fun out of writing.” I thought that, too, once upon a time. But guess what? I wasn’t plotting correctly! I had boring scenes in my outline. When I got stuck, it wasn’t because I had an outline, but because I refused to change the outline. The book didn’t need those scenes, and I was too inexperienced to figure it out. I was also thinking of my outline as a rigid, inflexible thing, set in stone. But that’s not true, either. You created your outline. If you decide to go in a different direction, just change the outline! You’re the one who has control over it, not the other way around.

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My outline knows who’s in charge. It’s there to support, not control.

All my outlines/plans/beats/blueprints have been different from one another, and no matter how much I plan out, I always run into unexpected things as I write. Most of the time, I go with it, and there’s enough flexibility and space in the outline that it works without making major changes to the plan.

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My outline catching an unexpected plot twist.

Since I started reforming my pantser ways, I’ve completed two full-length novels, a novella, and a short story. I’ve also outlined and started writing several other stories as sequels to some of those. As for those old projects? I tried revising the two I’d hit “the end” on, but I had to face the truth. One of them will need to be rewritten from scratch, the other I’m just not interested in right now. Sad, but it happens. They served their purpose at the time. 

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Maybe someday Project Duke’s Underpants and Project Wolf Baby will see the light of day!

What method do you use, and how is it working out for you? Are there any areas of your writing process that could use some tweaks?

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2 thoughts on “Story Planning from a Reformed Pantser

  1. I am a panster. I have often said I’m allergic to outlines. The thought of detailing every nook and cranny out of my story prior to actually writing it makes me want to reach for an antihistamine. My pansting never prevented me from completing a story. However, I often had difficulty getting through the middle of my stories, because I didn’t alway have a direction of where to go next.

    Using Jamie Gold’s beat sheets helped me to add loose structure to my story prior to writing it, without the benefit of sending myself into anaphylactic shock by outlining every detail, chapter, scene, and line to death. Her beat sheets ask a handful of questions to help me shape a general image of the beginning, middle, and ending for my storylines. I call it structure without walls. For a natural panster like me, it makes perfect sense.

    I’ve also added Scrivener to my toolbox. As a panster, Scrivener’s built-in outline structure can be intimidating. It allows for you to set up your book in folders, chapters, and scenes. I had to figure out a way to create a visual representation of my beginning, middle, and ending, in order to make it work for my panster brain. For me, that structure includes the following:

    Beginning:
    Hook
    Introduction of the Characters
    Inciting Incident
    Setup Romantic Conflict

    Middle:
    Pinch Point #1
    Midpoint
    Pinch Point #2
    Crisis

    Ending:
    Climax (Black Moment)
    Resolution

    Now, even though these bullets/folders look fancy and organized, trust me, they’re just a shell. What goes inside those marked areas are very loosely sketched big ideas about what happens in those respective parts. I usually have no way of knowing how each scene will be structured or unfold until I actually begin writing. For instance, I’m writing a story right now where a married couple is struggling to find their way back to happiness. The setup for the romantic conflict is that the wife asks for a divorce. My notation for the romantic conflict setup reads something like, “She asks for divorce here.” But, how she asks for divorce, how he reacts to her request, I have no idea until I actually sit down and write the scene.

    Although Ms. Gold’s beat sheets have helped me build up a low tolerance for loose structure in my story, I still cannot sit down and plot out every chapter and scene prior to writing. I look at some of these plotting books that tell you how to write a book in this many scenes. My reaction is always, “How the hell am I supposed to know how many scenes or chapters this story is going to have before I write it? It takes as many as it takes.”

    I can dress it up a bit. However, in my heart, I’m always going to be a panster, or at the very least, a plotster.

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