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Between Plotting & Pantsing

Between Plotting and Pantsing – Book planning and structure on a level you can live with. (Newbies to Mid)

Does your creativity dry up if you know too much about where your story is headed? Or perhaps you’re worried about veering off course when there’s no guidance at all. Let’s look at a hopefully happy in-between to keep you on track and moving forward with your story.

First up, let’s talk a bit about pantsing. What is it? Are there rules involved? I mean, all of the learning and teaching seems to be directed toward plotting so is pantsing just a really bad idea? And how do you tell if you’re a good pantser? Do scenes tend to write themselves and characters seem to start taking over the story? Do you realise when you read back over your work that there are themes wearing through areas of your story? God there’s a lot of questions. Let’s start here with the Queen, Nora Roberts.

“Anyone who tells you there’s a right way to write is a lying bitch.” Let’s get that clear, there are no set definite rules for writing. There is no proper way to write. There is only what works for you. So you’ve got a smorgasbord worth of advice available to you via online articles, podcasts, books, you name it. But whatever you decide works for you is good. And tinkering and updating your process as your knowledge grows and changes is great. That’s what I love about writing, there’s always more to learn. I figure if I can improve on one thing in each book…characterisation, motivations, whatever…if I improve a little bit with each book then I’m doing well.

When I first started writing, I was a pantser. Totally organic. No rules, no nothing. Just a bare notion of what I wanted the story to be about. So there I was with the wind flowing through my hair, my fingers racing across the keyboard, chasing down every and any thought that occurred to me, and committing it to paper. It was glorious and a lot of fun. The first book I ever wrote came in at around 150 thousand words and in all honesty, it was pretty bad.

I blathered on about things that no reader should ever have to wade through. I dedicated pages to describing the contents of the heroine’s closet. You see, it was basically my dream wardrobe. I used to want to be a fashion designer before I realised I didn’t have the patience to properly learn how to sew. Now I just shop hard core. But considering this book that I’d written was a paranormal romance and had nothing what so ever to do with the fashion industry, those pages were pretty unnecessary, right? They definitely slowed down the story to a grinding halt. I was also prone to going on tangents that made little sense and didn’t actually develop the over-riding story arc whatsoever. But I was a beginner and I finished the book, so I count it as a success even if it never sees the light of day.

A year or two down the track…when I was writing, Flesh, the first book of mine to go onto be published, I kept an off-cuts file. Any chunks of writing that I decided didn’t fit or simply weren’t going anywhere got dumped into that file. By the time I was finished, there was roughly thirty thousand words in that file. Thirty thousand wasted words, because the bulk of it couldn’t even be used as deleted scenes. I’m not the fastest writer. I’m easily distracted by the internet and shiny things. So that was a huge amount of time and effort for me to be wasting if I ever actually wanted to function as a full-time writer. My process needed a kick in the butt.

Now, disclaimer time. There is nothing wrong with being a pantser and having your writing process be as organic as possible. This is purely personal choice. I know plenty of writers who are pantsers and are doing great work and are really happy and successful. There is nothing wrong with pantsing if that’s what’s working for you. It all kind of depends on your own unique approach to the book you wish to create.

That sounds vaguely mystical, I know. But the thing is, we’re basically dealing with heightened daydreams and imaginary friends, and they’re not always interested in toeing the line or doing what seems to be the sensible course of action to you. Creativity is a fluid, wonderful, and strange thing. Going with the flow might be the best way for you to develop as a writer. Also, keep in mind that the more you read and the more you write, the more writing courses and conferences you attend, and the more you discuss various practices and spend time with a critique group and everything…the greater your feel for story becomes. Experience begins to point you in the right direction so that the drama can unfold in a way that will keep your reader hooked and turning the page. So there is never really such a thing as wasted time or wasted labour – just because the copy goes in your trash doesn’t mean you weren’t picking up important skills and wisdom along the way.

So yeah, my problems and frustrations with pantsing may never even affect you. But I personally needed more structure so I wouldn’t go off into the wilds and get lost.

Now for the warning. You ever hear about those writers who have a hundred and ninety-two page document summarising what’s going to happen in their book? And the font size is seven and it’s barely even single spaced? This thing is huge, right? It rivals the bible. Well you don’t have to do that either if you don’t want to. When it comes to plotting, there is plenty of room between nothing and everything for you to find your comfort zone. The question is, what do you need to constructively move forward with your story? What are the sorts of things worth plotting out, in order to give a little structure and direction to your pantsing?

I present to you now, my process….

First, I work up a logline.

I’m assuming you already have a story idea in mind. Now, what is the situation that you’re going to do your utmost to convince your audience as to the reality of? What is at the heart of your story? Try summing up your story idea using ideally only one sentence. That’s called a logline and you need one. Whatever level of preparation you’re happy with, I highly suggest you include a logline into your process.

It’s a very brief synopsis of your tale used to interest readers, editors, and anyone else who crosses your path and asks about your book. Because inevitably, it’ll happen. And it’s never a good look if you’re standing there umming and ahhing or taking an hour or two to explain the gist of your story. And in any case, it’s helpful for framing your story in your head, and hammering home to you why it is dramatic and interesting.

The logline’s job is to impart the absolute essentials: who, what, and why. It’s similar to a movie listing and it can form the basis for your blurb. Remember, it needs to intrigue people, this baby is your first sales tool.

Who are these people? (use descriptions, not names)

What is going on?

Why should I care? (Otherwise known as: What is at stake?)

I find it useful to go over movie or TV blurbs to get a feel for what I’m trying to achieve. While short and snappy is the ideal, they help me get on the right wave length. The following examples are all from the IMDB website.

The Notebook: A poor and passionate young man falls in love with a rich young woman and gives her a sense of freedom. They soon are separated by their social differences.

Casablanca: In Casablanca in December 1941, a cynical American expatriate encounters a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

Deadpool: A fast-talking mercenary with a morbid sense of humour is subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers and a quest for revenge.

Home Alone: An eight-year-old trouble-maker must protect his home from a pair of burglars when he is accidentally left home alone by his family during Christmas vacation.

Pretty Woman: A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets… only to fall in love.

Or one of mine…

Lick: A naive young college student goes to Vegas to celebrate her 21st birthday and wakes up married to a rock star.

Maybe you only have a vague idea of the tale you’re longing to tell. Give it a go anyway. No matter how rough your logline might be, it’ll give you a starting point to steer the way.

Next, I identify my tropes.

Some people think trope is a dirty word, but I disagree. I’d say those people are trying to suck the joy out of life. But how are tropes useful to our process? As I’m sure you all know, a trope is a common device or cliché such as a surprise baby, the innocent virgin, a trophy wife, pretend boyfriend, fish out of water, a woman scorned, a tortured hero, brother’s best friend, unrequited love, ugly duckling, love at first sight etc.

The whole reason that tropes became clichés is because they are oft-used. And the whole reason they are oft-used is precisely because they provide a fertile source of action and drama, often exploring interesting themes and developing rich characters, and capable of being transposed onto different settings, times and environments. They come replete with their own inherent plot-points, climaxes, showdowns, revelations, ticking clocks and HEAs.

Just out of curiosity, what’s some of your favourite tropes? Let’s do a show of hands. Billionaire. Friends to lovers. Friends with Benefits. Grumpy hero. Mistaken Identity. Forbidden love. Celebrity falling for a commoner. Boss and employee.

Alrighty, let’s check out a few tropes as they apply to stories:

The Notebook: Opposites attract
Coming of age
2nd chance romance
Pretty Woman: Opposites attract
Fish out of water
Pride and Prejudice: Enemies to lovers
Opposites attract
Lick: Waking up married in Vegas
Opposites attract
Coming of age

Not only do tropes help you to recognise what your passions are so you might want to shape your story in that direction, but they’re a big indicator of reader expectations. When readers persevere and invest in your book, it’s often because they are looking forward to their favourite payoffs. Your job is to know what these are, and to provide them.

If it’s “fish out of water” then we need to see the characters floundering their way through awkward and overwhelming situations, all the while striving to stand tall. Think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman being chased out of the posh boutique and then returning the next day to snub them in return, all glammed up and triumphant. Ha! Take that mean girls.

If the trope is “opposites attract” then we need to see the characters butt heads because their perspectives and experiences of life are so different. Or how about the lovers’ reunion in The Notebook when Ali returns to Noah’s now completed dream house all of those years later. Instead of a teenager she finds a fully-grown man who’s lived through a war. Watching her deal with the changes and realise that the spark between them still lingers sends her reeling. It’s that sort of emotion that your audience craves.

By identifying your tropes and the situations that can best let you explore and make the most of them, you’re giving your plot a way forward. Thereby reducing any chance of you wasting precious writing time. Readers want to experience the highs and lows of each situation. More than that, they’ll mightily resent their absence. And if you want your book to appeal to the widest possible audience, you need to write with your reader in mind.

But my delicate artistic sensibilities! My freedom of artistic expression! How could you compromise me so, you cruel beast? It’s true, I am telling you to toe the line . . . to a certain extent. For it’s true that readers don’t want a simple rehash of terrain they have already been over a million times. Novels have to be novel, after all. As the saying goes, you have to fulfil readers’ expectations – but in a way they don’t expect.

Whilst your readership may expect some story elements be adhered to, how you approach those elements, is entirely up to you. There are few wholly new storylines out there. I certainly wasn’t the first to write about a surprise wedding in Vegas and I sure as heck won’t be the last. For certain, lots of tales have already been told, but they haven’t been told by you, your way.

Maybe the novelty will come about organically, as you explore the trope from your own perspective and in your own voice. Alternatively, you may want to consciously inject some new factor at the outset, varying the stock character in a novel way, or placing the story in an entirely new setting with its own challenges and demands. Perhaps you will try to weave two tropes together.

Coming at situations from your unique point of view is your story telling super power.

You and your voice are your secret writing weapons. Feel free to swap your ratty old writing cardigan for a cape if you like. Some examples of fresh perspectives on tried and true situations would be the modern retellings of the classic Cinderella story in the form of films like Pretty Woman and Working Girl. There is always a new and unique way to come at a situation. You just have to find it.

Third, I start sorting out my Internal and External Conflicts.

Why can’t your characters have what they want? What is keeping them apart? Internal and external conflicts are what drive the action in your story and motivate your characters. If you don’t want to risk wasting words and time, then you need to know your conflicts.

Internal conflicts are the emotional and mental struggles going on within a character. It’s the character vs her own heart/mind. Did an abusive ex-boyfriend make your protagonist reluctant to trust again? Or perhaps her parents’ divorce made her jaded and wary of love.

External conflicts are the character’s struggles with outside forces such as other characters or the world at large. Maybe she’s about to move countries for a job, putting the pressure of a ticking clock on their budding romance. Or is he from a rival family and therefore risking the wrath of his own by courting her? Perhaps she’s in dire need of money to get Uncle Bob the medical treatment he’ll die without. The best stories have both internal and external conflicts, with each conflict enriching and complicating the other ones.

  Internal Conflict External Conflict
The Notebook:





Pretty Woman:





Pride and Prejudice:





Elizabeth’s initial dislike and then distrust of Darcy. Poverty and limited options for women.

Elizabeth’s misunderstanding and misinformation about Darcy.

Care for her sisters.

When Harry Met Sally:





Are they sacrificing a great friendship for a love that may not last?

They’ve both been burnt by love.

Lick Parents expectations

Her insecurities

Fans and publicity.

Fitting in with the band.

Fourth, let’s extend that logline and all the rest out to roughly identify our story arc.

Right, now let’s take our story idea dissection further and write a more involved synopsis of sorts. This time we want to map out the main plot points to be sure we’ve got enough to make it to the HEA with our readers intact.

The set-up:

  1. Naïve young college student, Ev, goes to Vegas to celebrate her 21st birthday and wakes up beside her new husband, rock star David Ferris, whom she has no memory of wedding.

The big ole middle section:

  1. They agree on an immediate divorce, but news of the marriage has already leaked. Their forgotten romance is rekindled when Ev is forced to spend time with her husband whilst hiding from the press and they decide to give their relationship a go. A jealous old flame of David’s, however, causes trouble – leading to misunderstanding and a separation.

Ruh roh, he’s lost the girl. What’s going to happen now? The last bit:

  1. David follows Ev back to her home town of Portland to woo her back to his side. They both realise compromises will need to be made to give their love a chance. Ev stands up to her controlling disapproving parents and asserts herself as an adult, declaring her love for her husband in the process. Happy ending time.

Now for the actual character and scene map.

This is the process that I’ve found useful for structuring a book and getting it done. It doesn’t mean that I don’t inevitably change things, but it lets me move forward with confidence that I know the basics of where I’m going. The funny thing about writing a story, you often don’t understand exactly what’s going on for those characters until you’re neck deep in their world. I find characters reveal themselves to me as I write, they grow in my mind and I understand them better. Therefore, the story needs to be able to change to accommodate that new information. So the scene map I begin with with is not set in stone. Also, often I only write up the next couple of chapters if I’m not sure where it’s going to go or I’m worried I’ll get bored if I know too much about the path ahead.

Picture of character Name:


Physical description:

Personality/attitude/character traits: (strengths, weaknesses, optimist or pessimist, brave or timid)


Background/history: (religion, education, previous romantic interests, experiences that have shaped this person)


Home/dwelling description:

Setting for story map and pictures Population:




Links to articles regarding place on the internet.


Scene 1 Setting: Cheap hotel room in Vegas

Time and date: Sunday morning

The day after her twenty-first birthday, Evelyn wakes up hungover on the bathroom floor with a handsome stranger next to her and a ginormous diamond ring on her finger. The handsome stranger tells her that they got married the night before and she throws up. They agree to immediately start divorce proceedings and she hopes to hide the disastrous happenings of the night from all of her friends and family. When she tries to give the man his obviously expensive diamond ring back, he storms out. Throughout all of this, her butt cheek is stinging. She checks it out in the mirror and discovers there’s a name tattooed on it: David.

What’s established: She got wed to a stranger while drunk in Vegas.

What changes: Her neat orderly life is thrown into chaos, but she believes she has it under control.

Research: Any links to articles from the internet. For instance, the drinks menu from a bar in Vegas, a hotel to help with room descriptions, care for a new tattoo for redness, swelling information, etc.


Whether to pants or to plot – or to pursue something in between – depends on you. In particular, it depends on what works for you as a writer. Writing a good story requires drawing together a whole gamut of creative skills and intellectual qualities. By the time the reader turns the first page of your book, you need to have it all: a coherent plot, strong characters with meaningful journeys, intriguing sub-plots, a rich and well-developed world, deep themes, well-crafted prose and snappy dialogue. But when you attend to each of these things as a writer is up to you. You can plan out some of them before you begin. You can deal with some of them as you write. And you can put off dealing with some of them until you have your first draft in hand, and fix up everything remaining in edits.

Having the log-line, knowledge of your tropes, and your main internal and external conflicts should be enough to guide you as you pants your way through the story, at least to the extent where you do not wind up with thousands of words in your trash file.