The methods for planning a novel are endless: character questionnaires, structure templates, prewriting, outlining. Some writers fall into the camp of plotters, where warm-up work is second nature and vital to racking up a word count. But how are those of us who approach the process by the seat of our pants supposed to write amazing stories?
I’m a pantser, and for years I believed I had to force myself to complete all the fillable worksheets to write a solid story. Almost every time, I burned myself out before I even started the project. So I ditched plotting and just wrote. That worked temporarily, until I reached my story’s middle. Fifty different plot elements tangled together, eighty side characters crowded the scenes, and everything lacked direction. After returning to the drawing board, I came up with some simple tricks to help me merge plotting with pantsing and produce a coherent story.
1. Delay Writing
When we’re hit with a shiny new idea, our knee-jerk reaction is to race to the nearest computer or notebook, but pantsers need to resist that urge. Without a formal outline to guide us, we might get lost after pounding out several pages.
I once heard about a man who decided to follow a historic pioneer trail across the United States on horseback. Due to the building of new towns and roads, he had to take occasional detours. That’s similar to how pantsers function. We don’t draw or consult a map as we’re exploring a story. But does that mean we don’t prepare? Nope. That man spent a year training his horse to ford rivers and ride in traffic without panicking. Since he didn’t know his exact route, or whether a store would always be available, he also packed the necessities.
Before writing, we need to develop our ideas further. Though I rarely record my thoughts during this stage, by the time I touch pen to paper, I have a clear image of my character and what he’s going to do. Imagining how your story might play out will provide you with plenty of creative fodder to fuel your momentum.
2. Keep Notes
I’m not referring to lengthy outlines and descriptions of every character and location, so don’t get scared. But if an interesting possibility pops into your head, jot it down somewhere. Never, ever assume you’ll remember.
Your notes don’t have to be extensive, or even make sense. Right now I have four on my phone that say, Arke Jenks (the name of a Civil War soldier from Nebraska), Gore of Glory (a concept I wove throughout my dystopian), Dermott draws on Cole first (my story’s climax), and Middle Sixes (a possible tavern name). Without the explanations in parentheses, I’m sure you’d be confused, but those tiny scraps jog my memory months later. Character names, bits of dialogue, and setting possibilities all need to be tucked away.
3. Collect Inspiration
Pantsers need a backup source of inspiration, such as a Pinterest board. Start one and save any image or quote that’s even remotely related to your story. You probably won’t use most of the material. But if you ever struggle to move your story forward, you can scroll through the board. A creepy picture of a castle or a quote about a green-eyed girl might get you typing again.
Music is beneficial too. I’ve often gotten an idea for a character or scene from a line in a song. Create a playlist that reminds you of your story, and listen to it either before or during your writing sessions. Instrumental pieces can set the mood for an intense or romantic scene, and you won’t be distracted by lyrics.
These resources help me resurrect old ideas or invent new twists, and since I don’t have a full outline to rely on, they’re crucial to my progress.
Though this may sound like a stab against your pantsing nature, I’m going to tell you to sketch out a timeline—but only a basic one. A skeleton without nerves, muscles, or skin.
Even if you’re a hardcore pantser, you probably have a handful of scenes in mind, so list them in chronological order. Don’t worry about filling gaps. Focus on what you know.
The timeline for my Alice in Wonderland spinoff includes three scenes that my imagination will expand when I’m at my computer:
- Molly’s dad shows up and wants her to get a drug test.
- Malec comes back while Matt is gone.
- Matt finally believes her.
A timeline gives you goals to aim for. Whenever I write without a plan, I always run into a spot where I become disoriented. So I write garbage until I figure out the character’s next step. With a timeline, you can hopefully avoid straggling. Building a bridge from Point A to Point B is easier when the destination is in sight.
Outside the Box
Neither plotting nor pantsing is better or worse than the other. Each one has advantages, and you should stick to whichever system works for you. But I think pantsing is definitely the hardest. Persevering when we could instead bounce to a new project requires commitment. And we have to invest more time in editing to ensure that our stories flow.
Pantsing also demands twice as much creativity—in writing as well as staying on track. Most pantsers feel that outlining and plotting stifles their creativity, but unfinished stories aren’t strokes of genius. We need to think outside the box.
Find avenues of exploring your story that don’t bog you down. Maybe you could invite your blog followers to interview your characters, or you could try roleplaying to develop your hero’s voice. Do whatever is necessary. Don’t let uncertainty prevent you from finishing those masterpieces. Write them.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 15, 2019. Updated August 30, 2021.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and children. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.