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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Cartwright

Plotting Techniques for Pantsters: How to Add Structure Without Losing Spontaneity

Writing by the seat of your pants, or "pantsing," can be a thrilling and creative way to craft a story. It's an approach that allows your imagination to run wild, leading to unexpected twists and turns. However, for many writers, the fear of losing structure or winding up with a disjointed narrative can be a real concern. In this blog post, we'll explore plotting techniques for pantsters to add structure to their writing process without sacrificing spontaneity.

Before we delve into the world of plotting, let's acknowledge the magic of spontaneity in writing. It's the kind of creativity that flows effortlessly, the moments when your characters surprise you, and you feel like you're merely the vessel for their story. Writing without a strict plan allows for unique, unscripted plot developments that can captivate readers and breathe life into your narrative.

However, we must also recognize the potential pitfalls of pure pantsing. Without any guidance, you might encounter writer's block, struggle with plot inconsistencies, or even leave your story unfinished. As a pantster, you may sometimes find yourself wandering aimlessly through your narrative, unsure of where to go next. This is where a little structure can be a lifesaver.

That being said, here are some guidelines you might choose to keep in mind to give some method to your madness.

1. Character-Centric Outlining

One of the key principles of successful pantster plotting is focusing on your characters. As Pierce Brown aptly puts it, "The point of a novel is taking a character through a journey and have them change based on events they encounter." Start by understanding your characters inside and out. What motivates them? What are their goals, fears, and secrets? Knowing your characters well will help guide your story even as you write by the seat of your pants. Here's a list of questions you should be able to answer about your main character before you start:

  1. What are the character's main goals and desires?

  2. What are their fears and vulnerabilities?

  3. What motivates them to take action?

  4. What is their background and personal history?

  5. What are their strengths and weaknesses?

  6. How do they react to stress or conflict?

  7. What are their values?

  8. What relationships are important to them?

  9. What secrets or hidden aspects of their life do they have?

  10. What is their role in the larger story world or setting?

  11. How do they communicate and interact with other characters?

  12. What are their long-term aspirations and dreams?

2. A Loose Story Arc

When we talk about a "loose" story arc, we mean a flexible, adaptable framework that offers some guidance without imposing rigid constraints on your creativity. While you may not want to outline every detail, having a general story arc in mind can provide your narrative with a clear direction. It's about striking a balance between letting your characters and plot evolve naturally while also having a general direction in mind.

Consider the classic three-act structure, a well-known storytelling framework. The three acts consist of the setup, confrontation, and resolution, each with its own purpose:

  1. Setup: In the first act, you introduce your characters, their world, and the central conflict. This is where you establish the foundation of your story, setting the stage for what's to come.

  2. Confrontation: The second act is where the core of your story unfolds. Characters face challenges, conflicts intensify, and the narrative takes unexpected turns. It's the heart of your story, where characters undergo transformation.

  3. Resolution: In the third act, you bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. Loose ends are tied up, and characters' arcs find closure. The reader gets a sense of resolution and fulfillment.

While this classic structure is a powerful tool, it's not the only option. Depending on your genre and storytelling style, you can choose other frameworks that suit your narrative. What's crucial is that you have a sense of direction without feeling confined by a strict outline.

3. Setting Milestones

As a pantster, you value spontaneity, so don't limit yourself to a rigid outline. Instead, set milestones. These are pivotal scenes or turning points you want to hit along the way. Milestones keep your story on track and maintain the reader's interest.

But how do milestones differ from a story arc? I hear you ask. Well, milestones involve identifying specific scenes or turning points that you plan to reach during your writing, offering flexibility for spontaneous creativity between these points. Using a story arc, on the other hand, involves adhering to a predefined narrative structure that outlines the entire story's progression. In a sense, a story arc is more rigid but at the same time more vague if you choose not to detail what goes on within it.

When setting milestones, consider the key moments that will drive your plot forward and resonate with your readers. As you write, stay open to your characters' impulses and let them lead you through the uncharted territory between milestones.

Here are some examples of key milestones that you might consider:

  • Character Transformations: Milestones that revolve around significant changes or growth in your characters. For example, a character might transition from being a reluctant hero to embracing their role, or they might overcome a deep-seated fear that has hindered their progress.

  • Key Discoveries: Milestones related to important revelations or discoveries in your plot. This could include uncovering a hidden truth, solving a mystery, or decoding a critical clue that propels the story forward.

  • Climactic Confrontations: High-stakes confrontations, such as epic battles, emotional face-offs, or intense verbal clashes, can serve as milestones. These pivotal moments often define the story's turning points.

  • Turning Points in Relationships: Milestones that mark changes in character relationships, such as the beginning or breakdown of a friendship, the start of a romantic relationship, or a betrayal that alters alliances.

  • Dramatic Twists: Unexpected plot twists that challenge characters and push the story in new and unexpected directions. These could include the arrival of a new antagonist, a sudden betrayal, or a shocking event that reshapes the narrative.

  • Moral Dilemmas: Moments when characters are forced to make complex ethical decisions that reveal their values and character. These dilemmas can be defining moments in your story.

  • Symbolic Events: Milestones that involve symbolic events, such as a recurring motif, a powerful symbol, or a ceremony that carries deep cultural or emotional significance. These can add depth to your narrative.

  • Emotional Peaks and Valleys: Milestones that evoke strong emotions, such as moments of intense grief, joy, anger, or despair. Emotional roller coasters can engage readers and create a memorable impact.

  • Pivotal Discoveries or Artifacts: The unveiling of crucial artifacts, objects, or knowledge that propel the story's progression. These might be ancient relics, scientific breakthroughs, or powerful weapons.

  • Transitions Between Acts: Marking the transitions between acts or major story segments can help ensure a sense of structure. These milestones signify shifts in the story's focus, themes, or pacing.

4. Flexibility is Key

Being flexible is essential when you're a pantster. Keep an open mind and let your characters guide you through unforeseen twists. Here's why being adaptable is essential for pantster writers:

  1. Embracing the Unexpected: One of the joys of pantsing is the element of surprise. Your characters might take you on unexpected journeys, and plot twists can emerge naturally. Being flexible allows you to welcome and explore these surprises, enhancing the authenticity of your narrative.

  2. Letting Characters Lead: Characters in a pantster's story often have a life of their own. They make choices, express their desires, and react to situations in ways you might not have predicted. Flexibility means allowing your characters to guide you through their experiences, even if it means deviating from your initial plans.

  3. Adapting to Changing Ideas: Your story might evolve as you write, and that's perfectly fine. Flexibility enables you to adapt to changing ideas, character arcs, or themes. It empowers you to pivot your narrative to better suit the emerging story, ensuring that it remains engaging and coherent.

  4. Remaining Open to Inspiration: Inspiration can strike at any moment. A seemingly insignificant detail or a moment of insight can lead your narrative in an entirely new direction. Flexibility enables you to embrace these bursts of creativity and weave them seamlessly into your story.

  5. Staying Engaged and Excited: The freedom to discover your story as you go keeps the writing process engaging and exciting. It prevents burnout by ensuring that you, the author, are just as invested in your characters' journey as your readers.

5. Consistency in Writing

Consistency is key for both writing and maintaining reader engagement. Ensure your writing style remains consistent throughout the story. When your writing style remains consistent, it helps readers establish a connection with the story. Sudden shifts in writing style or tone can confuse readers. They might wonder if the story has taken an unexpected turn or if there's a change in the narrative's focus. Consistency provides clarity and structure, preventing reader confusion.

Also consider your characters. Obviously you need to ensure their hair colour doesn't randomly switch halfway through the novel. But focusing deeper than that, for your them to evolve authentically, their dialogue and actions must align with their established traits and personalities. Consistency ensures that your characters' development is logical and that their choices remain true to their nature.

To maintain consistency, consider a few key practices:

  • During the editing process, dedicate a pass of your work to ensuring that the writing style aligns with your established tone and voice.

  • Keep character profiles and story notes handy to reference character traits, goals, and other key details. Update these notes after ever writing session, if necessary!

  • Stay mindful of your story's overall atmosphere and mood, adjusting your writing style as needed.

  • Seek feedback from beta readers, an editor, or writing peers to identify any inconsistencies in tone or character behaviour.

6. Reverse Outlining

Reverse outlining is a post-drafting process that allows pantster authors to review and refine their narrative's structure and thematic consistency. It involves identifying major plot points, analysing their alignment with the story's theme, and creating an outline to evaluate and revise the story's flow and structure.

Here's a brief guide on how to create and work with a reverse outline:

  1. Read Your First Draft: Start by reading your entire first draft from start to finish. This comprehensive overview helps you familiarize yourself with the story's progression, including its major plot points, character developments, and thematic elements.

  2. Identify Major Plot Points: While reading, make note of the significant plot points and key events in your story. These are the moments that drive the narrative, impact the characters, and contribute to the story's overall theme.

  3. Analyze Theme and Structure: Once you've identified the major plot points, take a step back and consider the theme or central message of your story. Reflect on how each plot point aligns with or contributes to this theme. Ensure that the narrative remains focused on conveying the intended message.

  4. Create a Reverse Outline: Using the major plot points as your foundation, create a reverse outline. This outline should summarize the key events and developments in your story, providing a clear structural overview. You can use bullet points or a simple list format.

  5. Evaluate Flow and Consistency: With the reverse outline in hand, evaluate the flow and consistency of your narrative. Check if the plot points align logically and whether the story maintains a coherent structure. Assess whether the theme remains prominent throughout.

  6. Refine Content and Structure: The insights gained from the reverse outline will guide you in refining your content and structure. You can make necessary adjustments to strengthen the narrative's thematic consistency and overall impact. This may involve rearranging scenes, revising character arcs, or expanding on key plot points.

This method ensures that the spontaneous creativity of pantster writing is channeled into a cohesive and engaging narrative!

7. Seek Feedback

Getting feedback on your writing is invaluable. Joining writing groups or beta reader networks can provide fresh perspectives on your story's structure, ensuring it appeals to a broader audience.

8. Update and Adapt

As a pantster, your story is ever-evolving. Be open to making updates and adaptations based on reader feedback and your own ideas.

In conclusion, as a pantster, you can embrace spontaneity while maintaining a structured and engaging narrative. Let your characters lead the way, create a loose story arc, set milestones, and remain flexible. Consistency is essential, and don't forget to reverse outline and seek feedback. By adapting and updating your approach, you can have the best of both worlds – an engaging, evolving story.

Happy writing, pantsters! And if you need further assistance, remember, a novel editor is just a click away.


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