The Perils of Pure Pantsing

James Scott Bell

There are pansters. And then there are pure pantsers.

Pantsers (derived from the idiom “seat-of-the-pants,” as in performing an act solely by instinct) are those writers who do not plan (or plan very little) before they write. These folk love to frolic in the tulips of the imagination. “We get to fall in love with our words every day,” they say. “We are intuitive. Don’t rain your outlines on our parade!”
Okay, well, that’s one approach to writing a book, and there is nothing sinful about it. Get that? I am not saying to you that this is in any way an invalid method of finishing a manuscript—so long as you recognize the hard work that must follow to shape a readable novel out of this mass of pantsed material. But to any writer or teacher who says writing this way is not only best, but easy, feed them this phrase: Pants on fire!
Then there are the “pure pantsers,” a more radical ilk. These are the ones who want to throw away all thought of structure, whether at the beginning or the end of the process. They find structure formulaic and offensive to their artistic sensibilities. They stand on their tables and shout, Off with the shackles of what’s been taught all these years! Throw away the tools of the craft! We are the true writers around here! We laugh at you structurally imprisoned slaves! Join us! (Perhaps we should call this the Occupy Storytelling movement?)
So let’s have some plain talk about pantsing.
In The Liar’s Bible, Lawrence Block recalls writing one of his Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries. Larry wrote and wrote without an outline or even the thought of one, then looked up from his manuscript one day and observed:
I had incidents. I had plot elements. I had characters in search of a story. But all manner of things were happening in my book and I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on. Why had a man named Onderdonk inveigled Bernie into appraising his library? What were hairs from a golden retriever doing in the cuffs of a corpse’s pants? Who was the young woman Bernie ran into in the Kroll apartment, and how did she fit into what was going on? Who had stolen Carolyn’s cat, and how, and why? What connected the Mondrian in Onderdonk’s apartment, which someone else had stolen, with the one in the Hewlett Museum, which Bernie was supposed to steal in order to ransom the cat? If I couldn’t answer any of these questions, who could? And if nobody could, how could I keep on writing the book?…
For a time I persisted, telling myself to Trust The Process, and feeling all the while like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis. Then, with 175 pages written and a maximum of 75 left in which to Wrap Things Up, I stopped writing and threw up my hands. And my lunch.
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. But if they have been told to “forget about structure” they are lost at sea in a leaky boat with no navigation tools.
Sometimes I have to fire up my rescue dinghy and motor out there with a life jacket.
The other day I consulted with a #1 New York Times bestselling author. She called on me because she’s a fan of Plot & Structure and needed help getting a novel idea into shape. The book was fighting her and she had pages due her publisher.
So we sat down for three hours and hashed it out. It was easy duty for me because she gets structure. She’s studied it. She’s used it. She knows it. And her book is going to be killer because of it.
After that meeting I had another consultation, this with a new writer. He has a pantser’s mind, and it shows. He writes reams and reams, and his imagination soars . . . but he keeps going off on tangents (a fancy term for rabbit trails to hell). Ideas burst out of him, but he has no idea what to do with them, how to form them into a coherent story. When I sat down with him he said with obvious frustration, “I know I can write, but I don’t know where this story is going!”
So I walked him through some key questions, based on what I call “signpost scenes.” These are key scenes in a well-structured story, scenes you can write (even pants!) toward as you move along. After I prodded him with a few “What ifs,” he started to get it. He began to see the structure of the whole laid out in his mind. He was excited. He could feel the strength that structure gave him, and the direction: he now knows what kind of scenes to write so they are organic and related to the plot. He is not just spinning his scribal wheels. (And he really can write. His story is going to be killer, too).
So, dear friends, I am not telling you not to pants your way through a manuscript. I am telling you that at some point you’ve got to face structure because if you don’t, you’re going to end up with a novel that doesn’t sell, except by accident. (Yes, accidents happen, but that’s no way to build a career).
Sure, there are some writers who say they don’t ever think about structure and they do just fine. I believe about ten percent of them. The ones I believe are the lucky ones. They can intuit their way to a novel that works. Maybe even on the first draft (you can choose to hate Lee Child at this point). But the structure is always there, even if they don’t plan for it. They’ve simply got it in their writing bones.
But the overwhelming majority of authors need to study and utilize structure and technique. I recall a sad story about a talented writer (his prose was superb) who inked a deal for a three-book thriller series. The first book came out and bombed, and as a consequence the big publisher let the other two “die on the vine.”
I read that first book and my heart just sank for the guy, because his structure was off. He made some obvious craft mistakes up front which resulted in a dull first act (which you really want to avoid in the thriller genre). I wish I could have been his editor, because with a little help so much of the trouble could have been avoided.
Here’s the key to everything: you must put your original voice and vision and style and spice and characters and love and passion into a story that, structurally, helps readers feel what you want them to feel.
That’s what the craft of structure is about. It’s not to limit you, the artist. It’s to set free your story so an actual audience can enjoy it.
So go ahead and pants your way through a first draft if you like. But after that put on bib overalls and get your tools out and start working on the structure.
You may wish to ignore this advice. You may seek to pitch a tent in Occupy Storytelling Park, grow a beard, and rail at the passing pedestrians. But understand this: several of them will be writers who know structure and are on their way to the bank to cash their checks. 

40 thoughts on “The Perils of Pure Pantsing

  1. After I read a Writer’s Digest article written by Patricia Cornwell I was relieved to hear her use the term organic instead of pantser. The seat-of-the-pants thing is so . . .uncool. I think I’ve heard the term, flying into the mist also, which sounds infinetley more dangerous. Anything other than pantser is better IMHO. I consider myself an organic writer but I think about structure all the time. I’ve never sat down and plotted out an entire novel. I know where I want to go in the beginning of a story and I have a good idea of how I want it to end. I have some ideas for the middle but not always. I’m certainly not purely organic. Heck, I’ve only published 3 novels. I’m still finding my way.

    However, I’m beginning to think I could be a much faster writer if I found someway to plot a bit more and still hold fast to an organic style. With all the opportunity out there in writing land now I have to think about what I want to accomplish and the fastest way to do that. Jim, I’m sure you can come up with a class that will help us organics find a fun way to accomplish just that. Let’s see. How about Organic Plot and Structure, or Plot and Structure for the Organic Writer. There’s and e-book idea for you. I’ll be looking forward to it.

    • There’s an alternative to this debate which I use, and it works quite well. I study books in the genre and come up with a plot progression template. They are reusable for different books in the same genre.

      Instead an outline of plot points, I outline the highs and lows of the movement of the plot. For example, points might include “intro action”, “character development” (usually building a relationship with another character), “rising action”, “minor conflict”, “major conflict”, “climax”, “resolution”, etc. While reading other authors in the genre, I just sum up each chapter with what I think the author was attempting in that chapter.

      I found that templates end up being fairly similar within genres. Then, I take them, and I write what I want to fit the tone of that chapter. You can Google “plot graph” and get a similar idea. It allows the pantser the freedom of developing their story as they go, with story structure intact, and keeping the focus on moving the story to it’s climax.

    • Jillian and Lynn, this is what I do with my “signpost scenes.” It enables an organic writer to write toward a known beat, and even if it’s only a fuzzy idea it beats wandering around in the dark. The “in betweens” can be mapped out as fully as one wishes. All subject to modification based on the discoveries you make.

    • They’re not the same in terms of experience. I’ve done that, too, but knowing to what plot point you are heading isn’t the same as discovering the plot as you go along, similar to the way a reader would. Having a structure without plot points allows a discovery writer to still “find out” what happens, and that’s at least what I, myself, enjoyed most about pantsing. I don’t want to know what happens and where I’m going. I want to experience it when I get to it.

      Not to say that having a loose outline of signpost scenes isn’t a good way to write, because it can be useful. But it’s not quite the same experience as pure pantsing, and it really still is an outline.

      Having done both, I still prefer discovery writing, but I’ve found in writing series that I have to outline, because I’m not smart enough to keep everything straight. For standalone books, it’s a lot of fun. I realize that a lot of people don’t find it fun, and that’s fine.

  2. This is something I’ve had to learn the hard way. Even worse, I just pulled out an old mystery I’d written and, based on the advice of a well-known author, changed up some plot elements. Much like a panster, I find myself re-writing most of the novel. It’s hard work! And it’s easy to get stuck and frustrated. A well thought out outline, even if it’s barebones, can make the difference between a rambling, but well written, manuscript and a fantastic story.

  3. Jim, Well put. Although I classify myself as a seat-of-the-pants writer, I always have in mind a lead and second lead who will capture the reader, know the story arc including the surprises I’ll put into the middle, and a killer ending. (Wonder where I got all that?) Then, with that in mind, I engage in what one of Block’s friends, Donald Westlake, called “push fiction.” I don’t mind not knowing exactly how a character reaches a point, so long as I know the point to which they’re headed.
    I agree–we can take pantsing too far. Thanks for the explanation.

    • Thanks for mentioning Westlake, Doc, and that idea of “push.” It’s similar to the “headlights” idea, driving in the dark, etc., getting to the next turn, then seeing the next bit. If you add to that a sense of structure, the turns won’t be off a cliff.

  4. Great advice, as always, Jim! My co-writer Lynn Sholes and I are working on our 7th thriller. We recently finished the first draft of our outline which we started in December. This involves daily conference calls where we take turns telling the story from beginning to end. While one of us tells the story, it gives the other time to visualize the scenes and develop new twists and turns. Once we feel that the outline has a solid 3-act structure, we create a detailed narrative synopsis of the entire story.

    This drawn-out exercise is the secret to fiction collaboration. It allows us to retell each other the basic story dozens of times. So when we begin drafting the chapters, we already know the story well enough to be in sync. Without this process, we would be two individuals battling to write a dysfunctional manuscript. And we always know how the book will end before we begin drafting the chapters. All elements are subject to change, but I firmly believe that if you don’t know where you’re going, you will rarely get there.

    • Right on, Joe. Collaboration needs that synergy. When I co-wrote some historical novels with Tracie Peterson, we brainstormed the broad outline of a plot, then I wrote the first draft “lean.” She then added to it, and I wrapped up with a polish. That worked wonderfully for us, and when I went on with the series solo, I found I had a “voice” that we’d developed together.

  5. I had a merry time writing my WIP. Characters kept showing up, wanting to join in, and I let them. Came up with some very innovative ways to weave them together and feeling very writer-like, I sent the ms off to an editor.

    Editors must have to attend tact school. She was very polite. And after pages of plot problems, I realized the suggestions my editor was making, were really kind of obvious.

    I could have saved myself so much heartache if I’d only scribbled a short map of where I wanted to end up and the paths on how to get there. Instead, I’ve been re-writing and killing characters and I would have chucked the whole thing out but now I have so much time invested…and the very polite editor stressed the ms was worth saving.

    I’ve downloaded a couple how-to books, studied them, and even made notes. The next book in my series will be so outlined it should be done in a week.

  6. I’m struggling between organic writing and outlining. If I could, I would outline EVERYTHING. I love outlines. But every time I outline the entire book from stem to stern I immediately loose all interest in the plot.

    Usually I outline the major plot points and I have some idea of the stuff in between.

    However, every time I am in the middle of a first draft, I get an amazing idea that will completely revolutionize my idea. It’s like the stuff that I came up with before was just a spring board for this much richer, deeper idea.

    Of course, this always requires major changes to the plot, so I have to decide between starting over or pressing on, knowing the first half of the book doesn’t match up at all.

    I did a hybrid approach this last time, but sweet baby kittens it’s made revision a nightmare. I wish I could figure out how to incorporate the new ideas into what I have already, but at the moment there’s no good options. I keep telling myself trial and error is the way to go here.

    Awesome post as always!

    • Elizabeth, your experience is not uncommon. It’s definitely one of the “stress points” in the plotter/panster continuum. May I suggest:

      1. Don’t start changing things immediately. Sometimes a new idea seems wonderful just because it’s new. Let it sit for a bit.

      2. Step away from the MS and write up a 2 – 3 page synopsis, incorporating the new material.

      3. Revise this a couple of times. Add new stuff to it, too.

      4. Assess whether this synopsis is truly stronger than what you’d been working on.

      Giving your writer’s mind a few days to stew like this can help make the decision. Then make one, and plow on to the end. Trust your judgment.

    • That is wonderful advice!

      It actually dovetails in with what I am doing for this current revision. I have the 2nd Edition of Revision and Self Editing, and I’ve been having so much fun with the Summary Method you talk about on page 219.

      I get a lot of ideas, and most of the time I stress about which is the best route to go. With doing the Summary Method, I can try these different ideas out for size in a much safer environment than a 90K novel.

      It never occurred to me to do this while in the middle of the first draft. I also think the extra steps you added above (especially 3 and 4) will be helpful during the first draft stage.

      You just saved my first drafts! Thank you so much!

  7. I write short fiction in a sitting with no structure and I have no problem. With longer fiction, I tried twice and failed. This go around, I actually sat down and had fun plotting out my story. I’m beginning chapter 10 now, whereas with the prior two attempts, I’d only gotten as far as chapters 4 and 5, respectively.

    I’m all for plotting, and I understand how to sustain a full-circle story for a longer piece. If I can’t sit down in one sitting to write a story, it needs to be plotted out and outlined. It’s my A.D.D.

  8. Jim-
    Great post.

    Wneh I began writing and pursuing instruction in the craft I was impressionable. An individual with much more experience addressed the “outline vs freestyle” debate.

    He represented freestyle as conducive to maximum creativity, the ‘natural’ birth of the best story and the most unfettered expression of a writer’s talent. Who would not want that?

    It was implicit in his representation (and many others) that “outlining” did not allow the same artistic platform.

    Guess which method he favored?

    Years later (and one book finally near completion after I wrestled the wild-child of a tale into shape)I’ve come to believe in the position you outlined above.

    Beware ye, novice writers! Heed not the Siren song of zero structure. Strap yourselves to the mast or prepare to spend vast time and energy freeing a compelling story from the wilderness of your aimless drafts.

  9. This should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to write a novel. Without structure, without thought, you end up with something akin to Truman Capote’s famous barb about Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” (yeah, I know…we can debate Jack’s writing some other time!)

    One point about outlines: New writers might have to produce them whether they like it or not because often editors require them to go to contract. Your first book is easy in one important way in that you can take YEARS to finish and polish it. But what happens after you sell it and the editor asks “So what exactly is book 2 about? Oh, and by the way, it’s due in eight months.” If you don’t have a track record, chances are high that a publisher won’t invest in you based on an idea alone. We had to outline for at least four of our early books, as I recall. After that, our editors let us off with 1-page concepts that gave a basic rundown of plot and main characters.

    That said, I hate outlining. But I hate flossing my teeth too.

  10. In my younger days, I used to be able to pants write all the time. I also lived at home and had lots of free space in my mind which with to fill with plot. I had my key scenes, as Jim says, and I worked within a framework that I never wrote down.

    Then I moved out, got married and had kids, and my brain capacity shrank considerably. In order to keep track of stories, I had to outline. But as someone earlier said, I lose interest if the outline is too rigid. So I’m careful to tell myself that the outline is more like a guideline than actual rules, and I can deviate if the plot requires it.

  11. Brilliant as always. I am doing a bit of both with this WIP. I know where it starts and ends up, but there is no straight-up outline.

    Life is uber-chaotic right now, so I am concentrating on the first act. With a rough 20K “word-allowance” I wrote out a list of what I need to accomplish:

    Main character – check
    Secondary character – check
    Some colorful walk-on characters – check
    Two of three primary settings – check
    Backstory tidbits (often via walk-ons) – check
    Elements of primary conflict – check
    Hints of secondary conflict – check
    Signs that things are going sideways – check
    Ends Act I with a bang – check

    I keep my list of overall elements of Act II on hand to make sure Act I is setting those up.

    So, it is seat-of-pants, but I’m sitting on a notebook. 20K for Act I isn’t carved on a tablet, but it helps keep me on track and making sure I am using my word count to forward the list.


  12. Great post Jim, and I loved the last paragraph—I know many people camping out at the Occupy park you describe, many of them NaNoWriMo word count achievers who won’t hear a word about structure! And the comments are just as informative as the post. Thanks!

    • Hi Kathryn….I’m a big NaNoWriMo advocate, so long as one sees it as either a way to do a month of brainstorming, or to get to a very ragged first draft. I’ve written a post on how to approach NaNoWriMo so you achieve something close to a workable plot. Then comes the self-editing….

  13. Two thumbs up for the book “Plot and Structure” I applied the scene card lesson not the six novels, but to ten. Used those scene cards to outline eight of the ten and studied those outlines, read them each night for a week. Then I began the very difficult task of putting my thoughts in an outline form for the first time.

    I’d started 6-7 novels w/o an outline and all collapsed into a steaming pile at some point. Some at as many as 50k words, others at 10k.

    Don’t know how much the outline will help in my writing but my productivity has soared. W/O an outline I struggled to put out 4-500 words, with an outline I’m hitting 1200 words daily in half the time.

    Thanks for the book James and your prompt and helpful responses to my email questions.

  14. Loved your post today Jim. It comes at a very good time for me. I am re-plotting an ms at the moment with your book, “Plot and Structure” as my guide. I come to this gig at a later age. I have a tutor who is somewhat new and writes in another genre. I know, be afraid, be very afraid. A little bird did tell me that you will be at the OCCRWA in April. I’m trying to figure out a way to attend, yet I am allergic to perfumes, colognes, etc., which makes going to a writer’s conference a bit difficult. Do you know anyone who tutors new writers privately, online or by phone? With so much out there on the net, it’s hard to know who to trust. I would really appreciate your input. Thanks! 🙂

  15. Great article, Jim! I’m a little of both. I’m a pantster who believes in structure. I have to know my characters and some of the key points of plot, but I don’t want to be married to an outline.

  16. Even Lee Child says he has what he calls “The Thing” before he starts a book. It’s the twist or gimmick or what have you that he writes toward. (Though it sounds more like a 50s horror trope.) For me, I find it helps to remember to focus on torturing the main character. If each scene/chapter contributes to making his/her life and problems worse, structure tends to take care of itself. Usually.

  17. Thanks for reinforcing this issue for me. Long after I finished my first draft, I wound up making oodles of changes to my story in the rewrite. I realized I didn’t really plan that first draft as I should’ve. So, I’ve had to outline this rewrite and as new ideas and people try to finagle their way in, I can better determine if they have a place. I’ve found the rewrite to be more difficult but if I’d planned the whole thing better in the first place, it may have been ready to publish by now.

    On the other side of the coin, the best news is that all the new ideas and people are set aside for their own stories.

  18. I am a pantser Jim, however as I am gaining ground on 55000 words, I need some kind of outline.
    Going back and forth through all of those words is making me crazy, and it is only the first draft.

    I hope that you have considered placing your Plot and Structure and other how to books in audio format.

    I really like your “Kill Zone”, it’s Dead On

    Dave Powell

  19. Great!
    I purchased Tom Sayer’s book on audio as you had suggested.

    My house was burglarized Monday and they took my new i-pad.
    Audio books were my inspiration for the treadmill.

    I now have time before I can begin again with the “Bell Collection” of serious writers strategies 🙂

  20. I realized the need to outline when I had a dramatic car chase that ended with a crash, and then realized I’d already burned that car – that one special car – many chapters before. I think that’s called pulling an Atlanta Nights. 🙂

    And thanks for the tip on Block’s latest – his Telling Lies is one of my top three favorite books on the craft.

  21. I’ve had to write synopses as a selling tool for option books and so I am accustomed to doing a synopsis before beginning the writing process. It acts like a guideline for me. I like to have a plan to follow even if the story deviates from it. Then I revise my synopsis to match the story at the end.

  22. Excellent post. I, too, am a big fan of Plot and Structure. I bought two copies and gave one away.

    I find that a great outline with plenty of room for seat of the pants writing my best way to go. I begin with my main characters. I learn what they are capable of and not capable of. From there I create a three point outline: opening, closing, and a high point to avoid sag in the middle. Then I write a first draft of the first 20%, usually 8 to 10 chapters. Then I take a break from writing. I do a rather complete outline of the physical action leaving room for emotion to be spontaneous. I ponder things like cause and effect, what actually advances the plot or understanding of the character. I place special emphasis on those signpost chapters. Then I finish the first draft. I usually take a break here and write a short story or two. Then back to the novel where I spend twice the writing time polishing and fitting the pieces together, and most importantly I take Donald Maas advice – tension on every page. I spend time doing that. I’ll change “she didn’t see me” to “she did, and I wiggled out of it.” It seems to work for me.

    I wasn’t this tidy about things for Plot and Structure. Thanks for the book and the great ideas.

  23. Excellent advice, Jim, as always. I write by the seat of my pants. But I always ALWAYS know where I’m going. Not a flippin’ clue how I get from Chapter One to The End, but structure is still my compass. Closest I’ve ever come to having an outline is using Susan May Warren’s “10 Beats of a Romance”.

    Structure gives me the freedom to follow my muse wherever he leads. And yes, I call it a he because it’s the only explanation for why this romance writer ends up with a 60-40 split in the hero’s favor.

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