Some Thoughts for Pantsers
You’re a pantser. I get that. Life would be boring if you knew the ending of your story before you wrote it. Your characters need some space to grow and develop on the page as they’re doing in your mind. The story is unfolding under your very fingertips, you write as it happens. That’s fantastic.
Except when it doesn’t work.
The more authors I work with the more I’m realizing that for some people, even though they are committed to pantsing, so many times it just doesn’t work.
Does that mean it won’t work all the time? No! Not at all! Some of the greatest writers are pantsers: Stephen King, Grace Burrowes to name just two authors who I know are most definitely pantsers. And there are so many more.
The thing is, even they need to do some planning beforehand. Whether it’s a very general, extremely broad outline of the book or just the beginning of the book (because some people just hate to know the ending before they’ve gotten there) or some rough character sketches, you need something to start out with.
You need to also have a basic—even if it’s a subconscious level—understanding of story structure. You need to know and understand Freytag’s pyramid:
Or the Three Act Structure:
It’s easiest if you write down the main turning points of the story:
The inciting event – what starts off the whole shebang
The first major turning point – what really gets things going and moves your protagonist into the story.
The climax or point of no return – a moment of realization that things aren’t going the way the protagonist expected them to or a point where something major changes in the protagonist’s life (they go from alive to dead (fantasy), married to divorced, sad to happy… whatever).
The black moment – where all is lost… but wait! The protagonist does something to make sure the story doesn’t end here as a tragedy.
The resolution – happily ever after/the murder is brought to justice/the adventurers get home safely…
Just knowing these things will help guide you through the writing of your story so that you end up with a story and not just a bunch of sometimes related, sometimes disjointed scenes.
It’s also very helpful if you have at least a basic understanding of your main characters – their goal (what they want by the end of the story), motivation (why they want it), and conflict (what’s stopping them from achieving their goal. Some idea of the character’s background is helpful so that you will know how they view the world and how they’re likely to act in a difficult situation (will they face it down or turn and run away so they can figure out the best plan of attack).
But along with these really big picture ideas of your story and characters, when it comes down to actually writing the story, the scenes of the story, you need to have exactly the same sort of understanding. Each scene within a book is structured pretty much the same way as the story as a whole: there’s an inciting event (which is frequently not shown in a scene or it’s at the end of the previous scene, that’s fine), there’s a climax or major turning point where something happens to change the direction of the scene (someone shows up, someone leaves or someone says something important), and then there’s a resolution (which really shouldn’t be where you end your chapter because then your reader will happily close the book right there). This resolution, however, needs to lead us into the next scene which needs to follow logically from the previous (or at least the one before that – this is especially true when you’ve got more than one protagonist and you’re following the actions of two different people).
Just like with your story as a whole which needs conflict and plenty of it, your scene does too. And as I wrote on this blog just a few weeks ago, it’s important for you to know what your purpose in writing the scene is and what your protagonist’s goal is for the scene. Without these things you may end up with a scene where the protagonist walks down the street… and that’s it! (Yes, I’m sorry to say I just read a scene in a client’s work where that happens. The scene is one paragraph long and that’s all there is. I think they meant for it to be a world-building scene, but there’s no conflict and nothing happens. I suggested they delete the scene and show us the world in other scenes.)
So, it’s great that you’re a pantser. Honestly, I am in awe of you being able to just sit down and write a book like that. But no matter how devoted you are to writing that way, you still need some guidance, some guidelines to move you forward so that you are writing a complete story. Good luck with it!