Lately, it seems like pansters have been getting a bad rap. Since my husband had no idea what a panster is, I’m going to offer a quick definition. A panster is a writer who writes by the seat of their pants. They don’t plot. They just start writing. That aside, let’s get to my very long post. You can tell I’m passionate about this topic. 🙂
I don’t now what it is, but it seems that over the past few months, almost every week I come across a blog post or You Tube video that basically say if an author wants to write a good story, they must plot. Otherwise, they will have a book that isn’t worth reading because it’ll be full of plot holes, endlessly run off on a tangent that has nothing to do with a story, or won’t have a satisfactory ending.
From the first story I wrote back in the 5th grade, I didn’t plot. I continued writing books through high school and college that I completed from start to finish without even knowing what plotting was. I hadn’t even terms like story arc, character map, or story beats. (I didn’t even know the term “story beat” existed until last month.) I recently heard someone pin down every single plot point that should be in a story and felt like all the fun and enthusiasm in writing had just been drained out of me.
And I think other pansters feel the same way. The minute you start dissecting a story is the minute all the fun goes out of writing Now, I understand that some authors need to plot. But not all authors need to plot. I did a ton of reading from the 6th grade on. I read a lot of fiction (mostly romance). And after a while, I realized there was a formula to the stories. Every genre has its own formula. It’s like a math equation that you plug things into. Once you figure out the formula, you don’t need to plot things out because the framework is in your mind.
Every Story Has a Basic Formula That is Easy for a Panster to Navigate
Here is the basic formula to any story: Show character’s normal world. Character has a goal that will change their normal world. Something prevents character from getting goal (this can happen as many times as needed to make the story complete). Then, finally, the character either gets what he wants (happy ending) or he doesn’t (sad ending).
That is it. It’s very simple. It’s what the writer does with the formula that makes the difference between a compelling story and a boring one.
Just throwing in “problems” doesn’t make the story interesting. This is why (as a romance reader), I get bored with the constant misunderstandings between the hero and heroine. If you can resolve an issue in one or two conversations, then please just do it. Part of what motivated me to start writing romance was wanting something different from the whole “I guess I’ll keep my mouth shut because I don’t want to be hurt by what he/she might or might not say” setup that spans an entire book. So the characters aren’t really communicating. They’re saying stuff, but nothing (absolutely nothing) is resolved. They cry. They get upset. They agonize over not having the love of their life (who wants to be with them, but they are also too afraid to come out and say it). To me that is generic. Surely, there can be more exciting things that can happen to characters in a romance novel than that.
Other genres have their own generic setups that don’t do much to actually advance the plot. Science fiction and fantasy can have fighting scenes that don’t do anything but fill up pages. Thrillers can be filled with running scenes or a series of killings that don’t really lead to anything. Horror can be a series of spooky things that don’t help wrap up the ending.
These are all filler scenes. They take up pages, but they don’t advance the plot or make the character grow. If you can throw a scene out without changing the course of the story, you should. That scene does not need to be there. Every scene must have a purpose. It must either develop the character as a person or get the character closer (or further) from the goal. It’s that easy, and yet, it’s also that difficult.
Another thing I noticed in fiction is there are a series of rises and falls in intensity during the course of the story. You start out the story at a base level. It’s flat. The character’s normal world is boring because there is no story there. Nothing has gone wrong yet. When something goes wrong, the emotional intensity rises. Then there is a moment of peace, which brings us back down to the base level. Then something either goes very well or very wrong (another emotionally intense moment for the character). Again, you go up. Then there is a moment of peace. Again, you go back to base level. I like to think of this as a series of hills as we approach our ending. The end is when all is back to the base level (except things are now better or worse than at the beginning of the book). Real life is like this, by the way. No one has all great days or all bad days. The good and bad are spread throughout our lifetimes.
Now, when I write, I don’t think of the formula. They are in my subconscious mind, but I don’t consciously think of them.
Right now, you may be wondering, “How on earth can anyone write without being conscious of the formula? How can they do this without a plan ahead of time?”
Here’s how pantsers do it:
For the most part, I write romance, so I’m going to use that as my example.
When I start, I know who my hero and heroine are. (In romance, the hero and heroine are your main characters.) I know they will end up happy. I have a one idea in my head that is very simple: “This is a marriage of convenience story.” That is it. If the main characters were secondary characters in another book, I know something about their personalities, but I don’t know them until I write in their point of view. Pansters learn their characters as they write them. The characters end up telling us who they are.
Okay. So now I’m sitting at the computer with nothing written on my Word document yet. This is what happens next….
I have the setup for the first scene in mind. It’s like a play in the theater. I can see the stage. (This is setting.) Then I put the actors (characters) on the stage and position them where they best fit. Someone on that stage says or thinks something, and that is the first sentence. From there, the main character tells me what to write. They lead the way. All I do is follow. Then the story takes on a life of its own, and I start recording what I see in my mind.
I let the reins loose on my creativity and let the characters do whatever they want. Sometimes what they say or do in the course of the story doesn’t make sense to me. But I go ahead and keep it in to see if anything comes of it. (I can always remove it later in edits. I don’t edit until I’m done with the story, and for the most part, my first drafts are pretty clean with no rewrites required.) Most of the time, when a character is leading me off in a direction I didn’t expect, it makes the story better because it connects with the plot.
I’ll give you an example of this. In Eye of the Beholder, my initial idea was for Neil Craftsman to marry Mary Peters. His brothers would think he was crazy for marrying someone who wasn’t their idea of beautiful. That was my sole idea for the book when I started. But at chapter 2 into the book, this other character named Dave Larson appeared in the scene, and he wanted to be the hero. I was like, “Whoa! What are you doing here?” But then, I thought, “Wait a minute. This could be good. Let’s have Neil reject Mary, so she marries Dave instead.” So I went down that rabbit trail. That rabbit trail led me to Neil posting another ad for a wife. That is when Cassie showed up.
If I had plotted Eye of the Beholder, I would have forced myself into a corner because Neil would have had to marry Mary. Cassie would not exist. And the essence of the entire story would have been ruined. So when the story ended, Neil realized he should not have given Mary up (a sad ending for him), but everyone around Dave realizes Mary’s worth AND Mary realizes her worth, too. Mary’s goal was to feel like she was beautiful. (It wasn’t until she looked at herself in the mirror and actually found herself attractive that she got her happy ending. Dave’s love and her son’s birth were just icing on the cake. Though she never would have gotten there if it hadn’t been for Dave’s love, which is why this is a romance.) The story is much better because I let the characters lead the way.
This is what writing as a panster is like, and a lot of cool twists and turns pop up that make me glad I never plotted the thing out.
So if you’re a writer who plots and you’re happy with it, by all means, do so. The important thing is you get the story done. But if you’re a panster, know that it’s okay to write this way and that it doesn’t mean your story is lacking something. Being a panster works for some of us (including me). In my opinion, it is the best way to write. I wouldn’t want to know everything that happens in a story before I write it. I want to enjoy the adventure of discovery and learn things about my characters I didn’t know going into the story. I want to be surprised along the way. I love the thrill of going through uncharted territory, and that is what every new story is to me. So to all the pansters out there, let’s embrace our creativity, and if someone tries to tell us to plot instead, know it’s okay to say no and do what works best for us.