Some plot their stories in advance, while others write by the seat of their pants (known as pantsing or pantsers). Unlike many, I never question whether pantsing is the right method for me.
I’ve plotted a novel before (because I thought that’s what “real” authors did) and ended up with a voiceless, lifeless, paint-by-numbers story. I then went back to my pantsing method and have never looked back.
Hey, Pantsers! Get Your Free Insults Here
Unfortunately, not all pantsers are as secure in their methodology, even when pantsing works for them. For them, blog posts about drafting can be a minefield leading to self-doubt.
For every blog post about pantsing, there are ten posts about plotting—with at least one of those putting down pantsers as:
- Hacks who can’t succeed.
- Lazy writers who want to take the easy way out.
- Authors who ramble due to being in love with their own voice.
- Spoiled authors who don’t want to do hard editing to make a “real” story.
- Clueless writers who wouldn’t know story structure if the story beat left a bruise.
Yes, I’ve seen all these insults, veiled or overt. Often these put-downs come complete with a patronizing attitude from the plotter-author that they’re “just trying to save pantsers from themselves.”
Experts Agree: Pantsers Are Losers
Sometimes the negativity toward pantsing even comes from authors I respect. Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, one of my favorite story structure books, is strongly anti-pantsing. James Scott Bell has implied that all pantsers end up with a mess at the end of their stories:
“All pantsers face this at some point. They have to wade into that mass of verbiage and excreta and figure out what’s good, what’s dreck, what fits, what doesn’t, where the story is going and how to help it get there.”
A typical quote from these sources would say that pantsing very rarely works. And as Lisa said:
“In the rare case when pansting does work, it’s still not a great process: it adds years and years of rewriting.”
It’s enough to make those of us who pants feel like we’re doing something wrong. We’re losers. We’re breaking “the rules.” We’re dodging lightning bolts eager to smite us for our blasphemy every time we sit at a keyboard.
Pantsing Can Succeed, Really!
Now I don’t mean to pick on Larry, James, or Lisa. They’re all brilliant at writing craft and instruction, and they all make good points about what can happen to pantsers.
Some pantsers do struggle with tangents, with scenes or even whole stories that go nowhere. But not all do.
Some pantsers, like me, have never faced that issue. I’ve also never faced “years and years of rewriting” on any of my 4 pantsed novels or my 2 pantsed short stories/novellas. (That honor goes to my single attempt at plotting. *smile*)
I write solid first drafts with an arc and beats in the right place. On my latest pantsed novel, completed a few weeks ago, the furthest a beat was off from where it “should” be was a whole 1.8%. (ETA: This was a check I did after I finished writing.) The Midpoint hits at page 181 instead of page 188—on my first draft. *gasp* The horrors.
(And unlike screenplays, beat page counts for novels are guidelines and not rules anyway. I’ve seen advice that within 2-5% is okay for most novel beats, maybe up to 10% for the minor beats.)
The point is that pantsing has never created a mess for me, and I’m sure others can say the same. Pantser Mindee Arnett writes connected stories in a series, complete with foreshadowing, by following her instinct but using sanity checks. Like one of the methods I teach in my Lost Your Pants? workshop and my post about how to avoid a “hot mess” with NaNoWriMo, Roni Loren plans her characters but doesn’t plot the story.
I could name many, many more successful pantsers. So rather than laying the blame on pantsing, let’s look at the real cause of randomized stories.
Pantsing Is Not the Cause of the Problem
Being a pantser does not mean I don’t know story structure or can’t write beats. (Look at my worksheets page for proof of that. *smile*) One does not cause the other.
Being a pantser does not cause
an author to be clueless about story structure.
Maybe I’m in the .1% of “natural storytellers” the naysayers point to when trying to justify how some pantsers manage to stumble their way into success. Or maybe—just maybe—the problem isn’t with pantsing but with the lack of understanding story structure or ability to apply that knowledge.
Any author—a pantser or a plotter—will struggle with a story if the structure isn’t sound. If there’s a premise but no plot. If the plot arc isn’t solid. If the emotional growth is stagnant. If the stakes don’t increase. If the scenes don’t have goals. Etc., etc.
None of those problems are limited to pantsers, so why—when panters run into those problems—is their pantsing method blamed rather than the underlying structural issue? Yet when plotters run into those same problems (and they do), their plotting method somehow escapes blame. Why is that? If the plotting method isn’t to “blame,” the pantsing method shouldn’t be blamed either.
Rule #1: Discover What Works for You
Does pantsing work for everyone? Absolutely not. Should authors have a strong grasp of story structure before pantsing a novel? You bet!
If we understand story structure and can apply that knowledge, any drafting method could potentially work for us. With that skill under our belt, we can focus on the method that enables our writing to exhibit smooth story flow, natural dialogue, deep characterization, etc.
Some will find that plotting works for them, while others will discover that pantsing keeps them in touch with their muse-subconscious. For pantsers, stories will sometimes almost write themselves, right down to subtext, foreshadowing, subplots, character arcs, and themes.
Insinuating that writers should change their methods with insults or assumptions doesn’t solve an author’s underlying issues with structure. Pantsing isn’t broken or wrong if it works for you. And no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise. *smile*
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Have you seen or experienced this negative attitude toward pantsing? If you’re a pantser, have you ever felt that others thought less of your method? Do you agree or disagree with my statement that pantsing isn’t the cause of messy stories? Have you struggled with story structure as a pantser or as a plotter? If you’re a pantser, does the method work for you?Pin It