The 9 Pros of Pantsing: Story Over Structure

Writing a poem is discovery. -Robert Frost

Here’s another session recap for the Writer’s Digest Conference 2017 about the pros of pantsing! And man, if you ever get the chance to see Steve James speak, jump on it. What a fun ride!

The Cons of Plotting

  1. Your number of “Acts” does not matter. There is really no such thing as a concrete “beginning, middle, and end.” The three-act structure is bogus, in a way, because a story can have any number of acts. Is your middle going on too long? Have four acts, with two being the “middle.” That ultimate “decision” your character must make? It can take only one act, or it can take four. You get the idea. Be malleable.
  2. There is no such thing as a character- or plot-driven story. Story is driven by tensionnot by plot or character.
  3. Characters don’t need to “change.” Sherlock Holmes never changes. Batman never changes. Characters can also be revealed, not changed – and sometimes that’s what keeps readers coming back.

The Pros of Pantsing

  1. Orient your reader. Your opening must make a promise of what is to come. It must introduce a character, a crisis or calling, and make the genre clear.
  2. Tension is a story’s backbone. Every scene should have some small conflict of desires between the character’s wants and some outside force. Leave room for surprise as well as inevitability. And tighten, tighten, tighten as the story moves along!
  3. Trust the fluidity of the process. Don’t get stuck writing a scene because your outline says the “meeting with the goddess” must come next. Write the scene because it is what happens next naturally, rather than what needs to happen to reach your endgame. You don’t want your readers asking, “Why didn’t the character just…?” Let narrative force, not formula, drive the story. Be willing to abandon parts of your plot if needed.
  4. Follow rabbit trails. Make yourself curious as you go along. Discover new paths. These “serendipitous discoveries” can prevent a “prepackaged feel,” according to James.
  5. Write obligatory scenes. Remember the conventions of your genre. Spy thrillers have intense chase scenes, thief tales have heists. Give readers what they want… or something better!
  6. DO write yourself into a corner. Don’t be afraid to get “stuck.” This is where you can get the most creative. If this is troublesome, print the pages out, and view them through a reader’s eyes. You’ll notice things you didn’t see before, and be able to brainstorm your next scene.
  7. Make a promise or keep a promise. All the time. In almost every scene. Every word can be an assurance that something is about to happen or some information is about to be revealed. Be sure you deliver.
  8. Characters need an attitude, not a history. Take time to meet your characters, to let them come into themselves. You don’t need to know their favorite color. You just need to know what lies at the heart of them. Character sketches are not required.
  9. Fall into your story and characters. If you are immersed in your own story, you’ll actually allow it to fully form.


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