Columns > Published on August 16th, 2022

Story Development for Pantsers

Original image by Hamed darzi via Unsplash

You’re either a pantser or a plotter. You have to pick one, according to the conventional wisdom of modern writing. The term "pantser" comes from the idea of “flying by the seat of your pants.” It describes a writer who starts with minimal story or character detail—no formal outline, nothing written down—who just makes things up as they go. A plotter is the opposite. Plotters utilize outlines, character sketches, and all manner of organizational tools prior to starting the story, and tend to follow predetermined beats from beginning to end while fleshing out the narrative.

More recently, however, people have recognized there is a range of styles between these two ends of the spectrum and the term "plantser" has come into use, a blend of plotting with a little bit of flying by the seat of your pants. There is even a plantser badge available on the NaNoWriMo site for writers there. “Plantsing” is one way to mitigate the development of the story while still holding onto the spontaneity of the moment, the way pantsers do.

So how do we develop a story and create coherent narratives if we lean closer to the pantser style of writing, or are pure pantser at heart? There are a few approaches.

Pros and Cons of Pantsing

There is no objective measure of whether plotting or pantsing is a better approach to writing, or whether one consistently results in better work. The issue seems to be choosing the style that best matches the writer.

There is no objective measure of whether plotting or pantsing is a better approach to writing, or whether one consistently results in better work. The issue seems to be choosing the style that best matches the writer. However good that match is, there are pros and cons to any style.

Pantsing allows a discovery process during the drafting of a story. Even the best outline is ultimately a “guess” at how a story should flow. Character tendencies can change as a story progresses. Once a pattern of behavior develops organically, sticking strictly to the outline instead of paying attention to who the character has become can wedge them into a series of preordained choices that read false. Pantsers have far more room to use their imagination in moments like this. They can change course easier because their course isn't set. They are more likely to be surprised by where the story is going, which may mean readers will be surprised, too. For some writers, pantsing helps keep the writing process exciting and fresh.

There are some inherent risks to pantsing, though. It is easier to get lost or paint yourself into a corner. There is a risk of writing too many bridge or filler chapters while you "search" for the next story beat. With no notes or outline, it’s possible to forget plot points or character details hinted at or established early in the story. You run the risk of contradicting yourself or leaving certain threads unresolved. Some of these continuity issues can be easily fixed in the editing, but other times may require a complete rewrite. Some genres that do not lend themselves as well to pantsing, such as mysteries or thrillers that rely on a complex web of interconnected secrets that come together perfectly in the end.

These issues will compound when dealing with longer works or a running series of books. I know an author with a successful series who was writing a sequel deep into the run of the books. He’d completed a draft and then one of his beta readers asked, “Didn’t this guy die at the end of the last book?” The guy in question was the main character and focus of the drafted sequel. The author literally resorted to adding a scene of magic at the beginning of the book to resurrect this character, in a series that had no prior examples of magic.

Stream of Confidence

There is a lot to be said about the idea of writing the first draft without fear. As writers progress, there is a mental accumulation of formal and informal rules about writing that cover everything from basic grammar to story development and genre expectations. Then, there is the process of learning the “right way” to break the rules. All of this knowledge develops over time, but there can be a weight to it all, and a potential paralyzing effect. Would the audience like this? Is this the right time to break this rule? Has this been done before?

In the process of becoming a better writer, authors can lose some of the raw qualities that drew them to writing in the first place. Often, a writer looks back on their old stories while cringing at how amateur they read. At the same time, there is a certain abandon to them that contains so much potential. Some of this wild storytelling style can be tempered by learning how to write better by conventional standards.

Throwing out the rules is not what I’m suggesting here, but for the pantser, especially in the first draft, the sky is the limit. Anything can happen. And with the moment by moment unfolding of the story, there is great potential to create something truly unique.

A Running Story Bible

This technique is a good idea for pansters, plotters, or plantsers writing any length of story. You don’t have to start with an outline, but as you do discover details about the characters, the world, or the story, make a note of it. The more organized this running story bible is, the better. Having the details written down somewhere to reference again is valuable. It can be a jotted map of recurring scenes or something as simple as bullet points about a character’s appearance. You can list phrases that characters tend to repeat as a way of keeping their speech consistent. It can be little details about their past that come up casually during the course of the story, that you can reference to inform their future choices. The running story bible helps you keep track of who has the gun, who has already met, where the house is located, which plot points need to be resolved, and who has died. It can save you from story-breaking contradictions. It can help with continuity during the drafting, but is also useful during the editing and revision phase. This is especially helpful with novels and series, but even a couple Post-It notes for a short story can help you track characters and keep the spelling of their names consistent.

Editing and Revision

The best way to write any first draft is to finish it. For some new writers trying to compose the best story they can, finishing the first draft is the biggest hurdle. Once you have a finished draft in hand, there is a lot that can be done in the editing and revision phase to improve it. An unfinished draft or a drawer full of unfinished drafts aren’t of much use, ultimately.

For some new writers trying to compose the best story they can, finishing the first draft is the biggest hurdle.

You can pants your story boldly and fearlessly through the first draft with all the raw abandon you have within you, as long as you are willing to put in the work during the editing and revision phases to bring the story together. Beyond just consistency, continuity, and assuring that every plot thread is tied up, you want to achieve coherence, where it appears that you knew exactly where the story was going the entire time. Certain reveals or conclusions that crop up at the end of a pantsed story will land better if details or hints about them are introduced earlier and are peppered throughout the story.

A professional editor is a vital tool for any story by any style writer. This individual can be particularly helpful to pantsers by helping them see the loose ends in their drafts they might be blind to. If you are submitting stories to publishers after doing all the self-editing you can, then upon acceptance, embrace the help of their professional editors during that phase. You don’t have to accept every suggestion, but you should strongly consider each one before rejecting it. If you are self-publishing, your story will be exponentially better by seeking out and paying for a good editor to do the same thing for you. It might be tempting to bypass the cost by relying on friends or beta readers, but you are sacrificing quality and will likely add to the bad reputation of self-published work in the process.

Good beta readers are useful to every style writer. These are individuals of various backgrounds who look at the work as a reader would. They can tell you what does or doesn’t make sense to them. They can tell you what lands or misses for them in the story. Some of them serve a similar role to a developmental editor, but they are no replacement for professional editing.

There is a limit to the editing and revision process. I firmly believe there comes a point where a writer is no longer improving a story with subsequent drafts, but is just making it different over and over without resolution. It is important to recognize that point and move on. I believe pantsers tend to get caught in this trap less often than other types of writers, but anyone can get caught up in perpetual editing and rewriting.

Pulling Out Themes

During the second and third drafts of a story, there is a potential for discovery process that can be just as exciting as the initial drafting phase. Rediscovering the beginning of the story and revisiting the characters’ development from the long view can reveal a lot.

Stephen King, upon rereading his first draft of Carrie, saw the theme of blood and the connection to adolescent development for the first time. He had not repeated those beats as a conscious choice, but upon identifying that theme, he pulled it out and added in more purposeful connections so the theme was consistent throughout the book, as if he intended it all along.

I’ve been pantsing short stories live on stream for a while now. Often, I start with nothing but a title and write the stories from scratch all in one sitting. Not all of them turn out great. Even the really good ones aren’t completely together after that first draft. Often, it isn’t until the second or third drafts that I really get what the story is about, and can connect all the action and themes from beginning to end in a way that works.

If you are a pantser, certain patterns will manifest themselves as you go. You might be partially aware of them or you might be creating them organically just by riffing on the fly. Once you restart your finished story from the beginning, more from the standpoint of a reader, you will see these patterns and can reshape them into something stronger. Some throwaway line or action near the beginning of the story can resonate with how the story ends. This happy accident is something you can use to create a real and purposeful connection between the beginning and ending of the story. By massaging that theme, you can develop it into something truly great.

Conclusion: Responsible Pantsing

If you find that pantsing is the style of writing that best fits your storytelling, you should run with it. Don’t be afraid to employ the tools mentioned above or the tools of other styles to improve or streamline your process. As you find places where your storytelling falls short, you don’t have to abandon the story or your style. You can look for ways to address blind spots to improve your work in progress and every story that follows. Lean into the things about pantsing that make it fun and exciting to write. Readers will pick up on that enthusiasm as they read.

About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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