Yes, I’m back.
After several months away from non-fiction blogging, it had to take something really special to bring me back. And while there’s a whole host of things I could say about the current Amazon/Hachette war occurring, instead I’m going to focus on something more lasting: the craft of writing. Or more specifically, the act of planning for pantsers.
Full disclosure: up until 2011, before I got to work on my first novel, I was a pantser. As in, I never planned ahead. I loved the act of creation, seeing where characters took me, even though I didn’t really understand the process myself. Around 2012, I started reading a few books on novel writing. And it seemed to me the overwhelming majority of these writers recommended detailed planning. Like, every scene, every beat — the lot.
Now that method is fine, IF IT WORKS FOR YOU. I tried to write some books that way, believe me I did, but having a detailed plan actually felt like writing in a prison. My character was on a rollercoaster, stuck in a cart, every peak and valley ahead for them to see. And they couldn’t just get off the rollercoaster, even if they really wanted to. So they just had to ride with it.
That’s how detailed planning feels to me.
That said, I do think SOME planning can help a novel. It’s all easy to go off on a subconscious journey, but every novel needs a STORY. Otherwise writing can be like running in a woods in the middle of the night. So my pantser self has come up with a good way to plan. For pantsers. Yes, it is possible. Bear with me.
I call this method the torch in the woods method. As you’ll know if you’ve ever been through a woods in the middle of the night, a torch doesn’t reveal the whole way. It just reveals the important things. The things immediately in front of you. The safe left steps, right steps, alternate routes.
Every step you take leaves footsteps in this woods. And those footsteps form a path. And eventually, you know these woods come to an end. You might have an idea where one exit is, but there are other exits too. Ever seen a woods?! There are exits all over the place.
Now let’s apply this to writing. The woods is your writing. The torch, limited in its view, is your plan. The path beneath you is the trail of story, and the exit to the woods is your ending(s).
Plotters would know exactly where they’re going in this woods. They stick to a path already laid down before, ending up at their known ending. Pantsers, on the other hand, would ditch the torch and have a nice stroll in the dark, seeing where it takes them (and trying not to bust their nose on trees).
The torch in the woods method, however, only reveals the immediate path.
In other words, when I sit down to write a new story, once I have an idea in mind, I start by writing a scene. A scene exploring a character, exploring their world, their problem, and the rest.
And then after that scene, I close my eyes and imagine where my next scene might go.
And then I write the next scene.
Maybe the scene will end up completely different to how I originally imagined. That’s fine. I just close my eyes again, imagine the next scene, sometimes imagine the next two or three or eight scenes, all in my mind.
I shine the torch ahead and get walking.
Now I will say I usually have an idea of my ending beforehand. Just like you’d have an idea of your exit when walking through the woods. And I think knowing an ending is good. It means you immediately know what drives your character, and propels the rest of your story. But that ending can be reached an infinite number of ways.
Or it can even be changed. The choice is yours.
The key to planning for pantsers is knowing your character. Knowing their motivations, their desires, their wants and hates. That way, your mind automatically knows what bad things it can throw at them along the journey.
Planning a few key beats/turning points along the way is handy for pantsers too. Knowing you’re going to come across a rickety old fence in the woods at some point, you’ll know then where you are at and feel more confident moving forward.
So if you’re a pantser and struggling to keep a story under control, or a plotter tired of the constraints, spend some time planning your characters. Spend some time even just thinking about them. Think about where they might be at the end of your story, and whether they’re going to get there.
When you have a clear image of them and a clear idea of a few landmarks along the way, give them a torch and send them off into the woods.
You’ll be amazed at what they find along the way.
Image of woods courtesy of Vinoth Chandar at Flickr.
Awesome post! I’m the epitome of a pantser, but I feel my method is similar to yours. I sort of know where I plan to exit, but I never have a clue how to get there. Forget using a compass…I rarely even look at a map prior to my hike to see if there’s even an exit, which means that sometimes, I run smack into an impossibly high stone wall or fall off a ravine, hoping that I at least remembered to pack some flint, protein bars, and water purifier in the event I’m stuck there long. I’m at least crafty in that way, meaning I keep all my life-saving tools nearby.
When that happens I reread my last few chapters and do as you suggested, close my eyes and imagine a way to get out of my hole.
Thank you again. I loved your post, as it made me realize I’m not alone. I’ll definitely bring a torch with me today as I go for a hike. No really…that’s what I’m doing today, hiking up a small mountain in PA. I reread the first 32k words of my WIP last night, and I plan to have my notepad ready, so that when my characters point to the correct path, I’ll be ready.
Thanks, Carmen. Glad you enjoyed the post!
Looking at your books, it seems like the method is working great for you too and really connecting with readers. So keep going, and best of luck with the current WIP.
I plan. Boy, do I. A detailed map. Then characters happen and mess it all up. *sigh*
It’s like that military quote, “No plan of battle ever survives contact with the enemy.”
Sound similar to my attempts to plan! That’s why I just learn to look a few steps ahead instead of the whole picture now (with the ending always in mind, however).
But what works for the individual works for the individual. Beauty of the game!
I was horribly guilty of Pantsing in my early days, which is why I still have a string of ‘never-ending stories’ in my archives. But knowing the ending of my debut novel was the key to completing it. My method was a little like your torch in the woods, except my batteries were a little worn out. However, I did have a clear picture in my head of my destination, plus there was an illuminated beacon somewhere in the distance. All I had to do was navigate my characters toward it – whatever jumped out at us from the woods!
I’m the same, Andrew! I’m a pantser at heart, but I’ve started to plan a little more nowadays, and I find myself being more productive as a result.