How to be a plotter even if you’re a pantser

seat of your pantsWriters can be divided into two categories: pantsers and plotters. Pantsers write without planning while plotters prepare beforehand with extensive outlines, but pantsers can learn to write like plotters.

The word pantser comes from the saying about doing something “by the seat of your pants” as writers who work without an outline are doing. Most pantsers find working out plots ahead of time uninspiring, and doing so leaves them without motivation to actually write the book.

Why would a pantser want to write like a plotter? Even the most dedicated pantser will admit that while writing in this way can be exhilarating, it can also be terrifying, and it can waste a great deal of time. The pantser may end up following a number of blind alleys and having to rework large portions of the manuscript. Pantsers can also get bogged down at certain sections in the book and lose a sense of narrative drive.

While many experienced pantsers develop a good instinctive sense of structure that makes it possible for them to avoid these pitfalls, this is usually a skill that must be developed. For pantsers who lack this instinctive sense or even those who have it but would like a little more control over the process, it is possible to become more of a plotter without losing the sense of spontaneity and discovery that characterises writing like a pantser.

Most pantsers fear losing that sense of spontaneity and discovery. Below are a few approaches pantsers might try out that could give them the best of both worlds.

Examine your process

begin doing - walt disneyIf pantsers think back over their process, most will find that they do some preparatory work. Few writers sit down with no thought at all in front of a blank page and begin writing a story.

While a few writers do all the prep work in their heads, most writers make some notes. Whether your preparation has been mental or you have written some things down, consider what your starting point for a story tends to be.

Do you begin with a theme, a character, a situation, a setting or something else? Figuring out what moves you to begin telling a story will give you information about how you might approach planning your project more extensively.


Experiment with types of outlines

The thought of outlining sometimes conjures memories of dull school assignments and essays, but there are many ways to do an outline.

Some writers find it helpful to write a synopsis ahead of time. A synopsis is just a few pages describing everything that happens in your story.

However, this may be too specific for pantsers in the early stages. Consider writing about your novel in the form of interviews with your characters, journal entries from your characters or even a fake book review. Experimenting with various ways of telling the story may help to loosen up the block you have when you try to plan ahead and give you some insight as to how you might best approach more detailed plotting.

Another thing to keep in mind about your preparation is that you are under no obligation to stick to it. Your outline is not really like a road map because you cannot change a map. Think of the outline as more like a flexible recipe that you can alter as you go along.

Focus on arcs

At this point, you may have a better sense of where your strengths and weaknesses as well as your interest lie. One way to approach plotting that gets you away from listing plot points is to think in terms of story arcs.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of story arcs, it may help to think about some of your favourite television shows. Many television shows have season-long story arcs. Individual episodes within the arc may significantly move the story arc forward or may only have small relevance to the overall arc.

However, story arcs are not the only kind of arcs that exist. Characters can have arcs as well, and characters can drive your plot just as the story can. This is why we refer to some plots as being character-driven. It means that the actions of the character drive the progression of the story more than external influences.

Pantsers may feel more comfortable working with one or the other type of arc. Keep in mind that this does not involve making an entire outline but instead is about considering the main points of the story. Here are a few questions a writer working with story arc might consider.

  • What initial event will compel the character to become involved?
  • What events will raise the stakes and complicate the plot and the situation for the character?
  • What challenges will the character face at the climax?
  • What happens at the end of the story?

A writer working with character arcs might consider these questions.

  • What is the greatest fear and desire of the character?
  • What is standing in the way of the character’s desire?
  • What type of event would cause an enormous change in the character?
  • What is the character like at the end of the novel? How has the character changed?

Notice how the first set of questions focuses mainly on the movement of the plot as a series of events from outside the character while the second set focuses on how the character changes the plot.

Focus on structure

This is similar to focusing on story arc, but the difference is that rather than naming specific events, you will instead plan for certain points in the story. Some novel writers use a structure adapted from screenplays known as the three-act structure to plot their novels.

In order to use the three-act structure as a pantser, you need to make a list of the main points of the structure and the approximate word count at which the event will occur based on the projected length of your manuscript. As a pantser, you might even hesitate to pin yourself down to a specific word count, but if that’s the case, working from the assumption that your novel will be around 100,000 words will put you at the typical length for a book aimed at adults. You can always make adjustments in a later draft.

As you write, keep the list handy. You can work to the generalities of the structure while still discovering the specifics along the way. For example, if you know that you need a revelation at a certain stage, you can work toward a revelation scene without knowing ahead of time what it will be.

Here is a simplified version of the three act structure you can work with.

  • Act one is the first quarter of the book, so in a 100,000 word novel, it will be roughly the first 25,000 words. In act one, you need to set up the characters and background. It also needs a call to action or inciting incident that first draws the character into the main story. It should end on a turning point or a point of no return for the character.
  • Act two is the middle section of around 50,000 words. In the second act, there is rising action as the character attempts to solve the problem from act one and the situation worsens. The tension must rise throughout this section as further complications challenge the protagonist. Like act one, this section should end on another major plot point.
  • Act three will roughly be the final 25,000 words. Here, the final action of the story will build to a climax and then a resolution.

There are many variations on the three-act structure including the hero’s journey. By using a few key points from this structure, you can ensure that your novel stays on track as you write it.

Write a reverse outline
pantsingSome pantsers may find that they simply cannot create anything substantial unless they are writing the story itself. This can lead to an unwieldy and overwhelming first draft.

If you find yourself in such a situation, you can try a reverse outline. This simply means that you make the outline after you have finished writing. Try briefly summarising each chapter and considering whether or not the chapter pushes the story forward and in what way. Writing a reverse outline can help you pull back from the novel and see which sections are working and which are not.

Both planning ahead and writing by the seat of your pants have advantages, and there are techniques that can help you combine the best of both worlds. Examining what kind of preparation you do as a pantser before you sit down to write and then experimenting with different methods of planning can result in

As a pantser, what are some ways that you have learned to use planning that does not interfere with your enjoyment of discovering the story as you write?


Images from here, here and here


  • Donald Miller

    I like making the story up as I go along. At least that’s what I did in the first two novels I wrote. But I found, the hard way, that if I’m not doing some planning ahead, it will come back and bite me later. One reason for this is that if I get too specific about something on the first draft and later discover that it needs changing, there can be quite a bit of annoying rewriting.

    • You’re totally right, Donald – that is one of the major advantages of a little pre-drafting footwork. Thanks for sharing your process.

  • fi

    I’m definitely no professional, but I’ve always fancied myself a planner. When I get a good idea I’m excited about I write a detailed outline about it, but when I do that I find myself losing steam. I usually write a lot more when I pants it, my story just won’t be quite as coherent.

    • Hi fi – that’s totally fine, of course. It’s best to use the method that allows you to be the most productive. And there’s always revision (and a good editor) for trimming and pruning what you have into a more coherent shape.

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