In Defense of the Panster

panster post

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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

once upon a time

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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:

hiking

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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.

Final thoughts

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.

About Ruth Ann Nordin

Ruth Ann Nordin mainly writes historical western romances and Regencies. From time to time, she branches out to contemporaries romances and other genres (such as science fiction thrillers). For more information, please go to www.ruthannnordin.com or check out https://ruthannnordinauthorblog.wordpress.com.
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20 Responses to In Defense of the Panster

  1. G M Barlean says:

    For me, pantsing is the most fascinating way to read a book…. yes, I meant “read.” Because as I’m writing it, I’m “reading” a new story. It’s an exciting process. Right now, I’m writing a book that I’m afraid to write because I know the next part will be difficult scenes, but I’m not sure what they’ll be. But I do know, after I write them, my mind will need a rest, just like in a story, the reader needs a rest after tense chapters. It works itself out like magic. I agree with you 100%. When I plot, I’m bored with the story because I know exactly what’s going to happen. Then writing becomes just a job to do. The thrill is gone. I know so many who write from an outline using the three act structure, etc… and yes, all of those things can be incredibly useful. I do keep them in mind. But I like to become the characters I write. I like to experience their stories right along with them. Either way gets the job done, but for me, when I write from the seat of my pants, it doesn’t feel like a job as much as a entertainment.

    • I agree with you! It is like we’re “reading” it while we’re writing. (I can imagine the plotters thinking we’re crazy to say that, but it’s exactly how it seems while we’re writing.) The story takes on a life of its own. It is exciting, and I think it’s also magical.

      Having read your books, I say that writing by the seat of your pants works great! You have a very compelling voice.

  2. I write like this, too. I tried plotting for a while, and I was miserable. I hated it, and I felt my creativity was gone. However, I do understand that plotting works better for many writers, and that’s their right. Most writers who have been doing this awhile, have the story structure in their heads anyway and don’t even realize it. What really upsets me is that plotters can be such snobs about it. They often think their way is the only way. But pantsers rarely act the same way toward plotters.

    By the way, Stephen King (my author hero!) is a pantser. In his book, “On Writing”, he talks about how the characters are so much more important that the plot. The characters DRIVE the plot. And I found a quote by him about plotters. (Please excuse the “to God”. I don’t talk that way, but this is a direct quote.) He said, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

    What it comes down to is that authors should write the way that works for them, and other authors shouldn’t criticize those who write differently from them.

    • “They often think their way is the only way. But pantsers rarely act the same way toward plotters.”

      Yes! This is what inspired the post. I’m tired of hearing how pansters are doing it wrong and how their stories won’t make sense because they’re not plotting them out. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like a couple of times over the last few months, this is the message I keep hearing over and over.

      I completely understand what Stephen King means when he says that characters DRIVE the plot. That’s how it is for pansters. If I were to plot and stick to it, then I would be forcing the characters into a direction that they don’t like. I have tried plotting, and the characters will either give me severe writer’s block or the story will end up sucking because it wasn’t what the characters wanted. The characters need to lead. Just today, I thought I was going to start a story in the heroine’s hometown, but she decided she’d rather start on a train. As soon as I went in her direction, the words just flowed out. If I had insisted she start in her hometown, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in more than a couple of sentences.

  3. Stephen King is a pantser. He just writes and sees where he goes. Sure, sometimes that leads to a few issues with his stories, but he’s become as big as he is for a reason.
    Now personally, I prefer to plan, especially for longer works. But for people who write without a plan, if it works for you, go for it. Who am I to tell you how to write? I can suggest, but I can’t tell you what to do.

    • It’s ironic that you should mention Stephen King. Just the other day, I saw an interview with him where he said he starts out with a blank piece of paper and stares at it for about ten minutes (or so). Then he starts writing, and there’s a sentence or two at first. Then all of the sudden, the story just takes over and it’s like a flow. (If this wasn’t Stephen King, I apologize. There were several authors in the You Tube video, and he was one of them. I think this is what he said, but I could be wrong.)

      Some people need to plot. Some do a detailed outline and others put down a few notes. I have no trouble with the method someone uses. I just get upset when I’m told that my method is wrong and that I should do what works for them. If I were to tell writers that they need to drop the outline and be a panster, I doubt the plotters would be very happy to hear that.

      I know you don’t tell writers what to do. I’m thinking of a couple of bloggers who make it sound like their word is final on the topic, and I was blowing off some steam. 🙂

      • I have a couple of friends who have really given me a hard time for pantsing. One of them said they can tell a pantsed book by reading it. These friends are the reasons I’ve tried to plot, but I just hate it. HATE it. But both of these people write VERY good books. Plotting works great for them.

        • Sorry to say it, Lauralynn, but I think your friends are full of crap. 😀 I usually find writers making that assumption because they know the author pantsed the book, they decided that they did because the author didn’t do a structurally edit when they were done with the book to make sure they tied up all the plot threads, or the book really wasn’t ready to publish but the author was too excited to get it out there and published it anyway.

          • I don’t know if someone can tell if a book has been pansted or not. I can’t tell if an author plotted a book first. I think the only way you can know for sure is if the author told you.

        • You know, I hate it, too. To me, there is nothing more boring and dull than knowing what is going to happen before I write the scene. If I already know what is going to happen, then what’s the point in writing? I know that makes plotters eyes twitch, but the fun in writing is not knowing what is going to happen next. There’s a rush whenever I come across something unexpected. I know you know what I’m talking about. 🙂

  4. OMG! Yes! yes! Yes! This. All of this. I can;t even add anything because this says it all.

  5. Loved your post, Ruth! Thank you for sharing your process. 😀

    I agree that pantsers get a bad rap for having plot holes in their stories by plenty of plotters, which is completely unfair. But I’ve also heard plenty of pantsers give plotters a bad time about their stories being flat and lifeless because they plotted it, which is just as unfair. Plotting a story will no more make a story good then pantsing the story. Only a good storyteller can make the story come alive for the reader.

    Some writers just need to get over superior attitudes. There is no “one and only way” to write. Just like people, every writer is different and they should write the way that works best for them. If they don’t know what there process is, then they can try adopting techniques from other writers to see if something works for them, but if something isn’t working they shouldn’t feel like that have to keep doing it. And I say shame on the writer who condemns another writer about their writing process, regardless if that way is pantsing the story, plotting the story, or something in-between.

    • I haven’t heard the “plotters will be flat and lifeless” thing, but I have heard is said that writers who rely on critique groups to help them write their stories end up with flat and lifeless tales. I must only be following a bunch of blogs written by plotters. 🙂

      I agree that every author has to find the method that works best for them. If an author is having trouble figuring out where to go next in the story or if they can’t decide how to end the book, then I have recommended plotting. It depends on the situation.

      • You might be, but I’ve noticed that plotters are more vocal about “plotting being the best way to write a book” then pantser being “pantsing is the best way to write a book.” As Lauralynn says that could be because pantsers get more flack and who wants to write a post that might turn into a fight on their blog. 😀 Although I would love to see more writers talk about their writing and editing processes. I find it all fascinating and I always learn something new that can apply to my writing method.

        One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that people are more likely to notice what someone says when it relates to them personally then when it doesn’t. The exception being those people who see someone agreeing with their belief and remembering it for later so they can point to it and say “see, I was right! This person said so!” LOL

        • I like hearing how writers best write and edit, too. Sometimes I walk away with an idea that I can use. One is writing a note ahead of time on what I would like to write in the book tomorrow before I stop writing for the day. Even if I don’t end up using that note, it does get my mind working on what should come next in the story.

          The best posts are those that resonate with us. 🙂

    • I will say I do think Stephen King was being kind of a jerk about plotters. However, pantsers take a lot more flack, so it’s good to see that some well-known authors do come down on the side of pantsers.

      • Maybe a little, but can you imagine how many times he was told that he should plot his novels by some well meaning author? 😀

        I’m sure that it becomes annoying to hear plotters tell you guys that you should plot your story before you write it.

        • I suspect Stephen King did put up with something along those lines, or else he wouldn’t have come up with that statement. I think plotters are more vocal because they have plans on how they write, so it seems like a more logical approach. All pansters got it, “I write where the story takes me,” and there are no worksheets on something like that.

          I’m currently reading a book by Steven James who believes that being a panster makes the story far more authentic than plotting it out. He isn’t mean toward plotters or anything. He just feels that the story has more heart and depth when it’s written from the creative side instead of the more logical (plotter) side. I’m sure the argument could be made that plotting a book does not mean it loses its creative edge, just as being a panster doesn’t mean you end up with a poorly written story full of loose ends.

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