As some of you may have noticed, a certain Seekervillager has given me a lot of flack about my proclivity for pantsing. For anyone who doesn’t know what a “pantser” is, it’s a writer who runs away screaming at the very mention of outlining a book scene by scene, chapter by chapter. In other words, planning in detail exactly what will happen in the story before actually sitting down to write the book.
But that doesn’t mean pantsers don’t plan. It also (usually) doesn’t mean we randomly open a blank document on our computer, wait for inspiration to strike, and then simply let the words pour forth. (Okay, occasionally some of us might try that, but I venture to say it isn’t the norm for most working-writer pantsers.)
So let’s talk about the kinds of things pantsers might need to know before we type that first line of the book. This, of course, will be from my personal perspective and may not apply to every pantser out there.
A vague story idea. Okay, that’s a given. I begin with at least a very general concept of what and/or whom this story will be about. Will it be contemporary or historical? True romance or romantic women’s fiction? Lighthearted or serious? Or sometimes I figure out this stuff later, after I’ve written a few chapters. Well, except for the contemporary/historical aspect, obviously, because I’d better know right away whether my characters are using quill pens or smartphones.
A central story problem. Something in real life from my own experience, something I saw on the TV news, or maybe read about in the daily advice column often sparks thoughts on a situational issue, which in turn provokes story questions along the lines of:
- What type of person would be most affected by this problem?
- How would a story character deal with the issue?
- What related problems might arise?
- Is there enough potential conflict around which to develop a complete novel with all the requisite twists and turns?
A little about the main characters. As I ponder the conflict possibilities, the protagonist and supporting characters begin to take shape in my mind. Right away these characters need names. Part of my character creation process involves exploring books and online sources for names and their meanings, both first names and surnames, until something clicks. The names must not only suit each character I have in mind but must also be appropriate for the era and setting.
Then I’ll start looking for visual representations of my central characters. Sometimes a celebrity image comes immediately to mind, and as my story’s “casting director,” I’ll mentally plug that actor into the role. At other times, I comb the web for people photos that come close to the mental images I’m beginning to form. For instance, maybe I’m picturing a tall, willowy brunette as my heroine. Using descriptive search terms, I may find images on photo sites like Getty Images or Bigstock. Another favorite source is the Hallmark Movie Channel, or sometimes I browse IMDB.
What’s the setting? I can’t get too far along without knowing where the story will take place. I’m more comfortable writing about locales where I’ve actually lived or at least visited. Yes, there’s a lot you can learn about a place online and in books, but nothing quite takes the place of seeing and experiencing it firsthand. So I start thinking about what setting would best fit the story problem and the characters involved. What makes sense for the characters’ backgrounds and current situation? How might the environment (climate, terrain, etc.) play a role in how the plot unfolds?
What are my central characters’ GMCs? (If you need further explanation about GMC—goal, motivation, & conflict—visit these posts in the Seekerville archives.) I don’t spend as much time as I once did making charts and filling out character questionnaires, but I do think through each primary character’s backstory, current situation, and future goals, along with why these goals are important to them and what kinds of obstacles might stand in their way.
Another step in this part of my process is working through both the character development and plotting sections from The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit (which I blogged about here.) This basically involves letting the cards fall where they may—literally—and then using the prompts to spur further thinking about each of the characters and where the story might take them.
In the meantime, I’m probably doing some preliminary research and determining what types of information (historical, occupational, etc.) I may need as the story unfolds. So by now, I’ve set up my book project file in Scrivener, where all this information is being collected and organized. As character, setting, and other details come to me, I add them to the appropriate folders within the project. My research folder is also beginning to grow as I import PDFs and web pages and transcribe notes from hard-copy research material.
I may also continue my brainstorming in Scapple, a fun and flexible mind-mapping program that I’ve started using alongside Scrivener. It helps me collect ideas about possible obstacles to the characters’ goals, their relationship issues, any specific scene possibilities that come to mind, etc. Scapple’s visual connections between characters and events help me to imagine the various directions the story might take.
How will the story end? Yes, even though I don’t plan out every scene in advance, I do have an end goal in mind. Naturally, in a romance, the conclusion will be the happily-ever-after for hero and heroine. I might even have a few ideas about what those final scenes might look like and how any subplots or secondary characters could potentially play into the resolution. Nothing is ever set in stone, though, so between page 1 and the ending, anything could happen!
When does the actual writing begin? That’s one of those things I just know. When my fingers are itching to get to the keyboard. When an opening scene starts forming in my imagination and I can’t wait a second longer to write it. When I know without a doubt that no amount of brain-straining and advance planning is going to make the story any clearer in my mind and the only thing left to do is give the characters free rein to act and think for themselves and live their stories on the page.
Because the joy of writing for me is all about the discovery. The surprises along the way. The little (and sometimes big!) secret things my characters don’t tell me until the very last possible moment.
And, contrary to popular belief, my seat-of-the-pants style generally doesn’t mean I end up doing tons of rewrites. When I allow my characters to act, speak, and react consistent with who they are, there’s an inherent logic and inevitability in the scene-by-scene progression. At worst, something I learn late in the story may mean going back to add in some foreshadowing during the revision stage, but typically I write a pretty clean first draft.
Remember, what works for me may not work for you. Every writer must find his/her own best process, and it can be a years-long journey of discovery. I’ve tried all kinds of plotting systems—believe me, I have! And ended up beating my head against the wall and screaming in frustration when I just couldn’t make them work for me. So, through trial and error, I’ve culled the most helpful tips and tricks from a variety of sources and shaped a (sometimes more, sometimes less) seat-of-the-pants system that gets my story written. A system that continues to evolve, by the way, because surely—surely!—the elusive Holy Grail of Quick-and-Easy Book Plotting is still out there to be found!
Writers, are you a panster, a plotter, or something in between? Talk about your struggles and triumphs in the comments. Readers, share your perspective on the subject, too. Let me know if you’d like me to drop your name in the hat for a chance to win one of two giveaways of the Audible audio edition of my novel One Imperfect Christmas.
Graphic designer Natalie Pearce faces the most difficult Christmas of her life. For almost a year, her mother has lain in a nursing home, the victim of a massive stroke, and Natalie blames herself for not being there when it happened. Worse, she’s allowed the monstrous load of guilt to drive a wedge between her and everyone she loves—most of all her husband Daniel. Her marriage is on the verge of dissolving, her prayer life is suffering, and she’s one Christmas away from hitting rock bottom.
Junior-high basketball coach Daniel Pearce is at his wit’s end. Nothing he’s done has been able to break through the wall Natalie has erected between them. And their daughter Lissa’s adolescent rebellion isn’t helping matters. As Daniel’s hope reaches its lowest ebb, he wonders if this Christmas will spell the end of his marriage and the loss of everything he holds dear.
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