How To Pants A Novel

man flying by the seat of his pants

Writing by the seat of your pants — aka “pantsing” — doesn’t necessarily mean you go from Chapter One to “The End” without a break. So what does it mean to “pants” a novel?

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

In “How To Outline A Novel,” I detailed the reasons and ways a writer can put an outline to use. Now, I’d like to explore another approach to writing a novel: writing by the seat of your pants, aka “pantsing.”

For some, the idea of sitting down, writing “Chapter One,” and typing away at the story until you reach “The End” is too daunting. How can you possibly figure out your character arcs, plot, subplots, and plot twists while you’re writing?

But sitting down and writing a novel from beginning to end is not the only way to pants a novel. Even though I consider myself primarily a pantser, I have only ever done that for one book: the Audible Original Mutually Assured Detention (which, I’m pleased to say, just won a “Best of the Year” award — so maybe I should do it more often).

In the previous post, I addressed the outlining process in a way that even pantsers could appreciate and learn from. Here, I’ll demystify pantsing to help new writers give this approach a go, and perhaps offer up some tips that can help plotters liven up their next novel.

The advantages of pantsing

Aside from the romantic notion of quickly dashing off a novel, why would someone plunge into writing a novel without first creating an outline? Aren’t they potentially wasting a lot of time writing, only to wind up stuck in a creative dead-end?

Well, first of all, some people find that outlining zaps all their creative energy. Once they have an idea, they would rather use their creative energy to just start writing and see how far they can get rather than spend time figuring out backstories and examining structure. Their brain is just wired to pants (or so they think).

But here are some other advantages to pantsing a book.

Characters shine

When I’m pantsing, my books become much more character-centric. Because I’m focused on writing first and not planning my plot or structure, I find myself wanting to give personalities to all the characters who show up so I can make each scene as memorable as possible. And ultimately, memorable characters are why people love the books they love. People might read your book for its plot, but they’ll reread it for your characters.

Pantsed books are funnier

If you write humor, pantsing a book is going to work out much better than plotting. First of all, as a pantser, you’re going to be more focused on character, and I find the best humor is character-based, rather than situational. But also, your primary goal will be to make each scene as funny as possible. This is harder to do if you start out with an outline, where you’re having to worry about how a scene fits into your narrative structure.

Happy accidents

When I’m pantsing I always inadvertently create random characters or insert objects that aren’t inherently important to my overall story but are often the best part of whatever scene they’re in. And what’s more, these characters/objects often prove to be just what I need later on in the story. For example, when I wrote Mutually Assured Detention, I needed my protagonist to interview someone about something. Now, I could have just had the interviewee be a bland, CSI-type eye-witness, but I had a sudden inspiration, and this eccentric skater kid named Blake was born.

Blake was only supposed to be in this one scene, but later on in the book, I was looking to make a different scene more memorable, and I remembered Blake, who made a comeback and wound up being an important part of the story. (For my money, he’s the best part of the book.) I doubt Blake would have become such a memorable or important part of my book had I plotted it ahead of time. And Blake isn’t the only “happy accident” that has improved my books. This happens every single time I write.

Cockroach races

I find that too much plotting ahead of time can really strangle a book. I wind up making the mistake that Hollywood makes all the time these days: I create a book that is perfectly structured and completely lifeless. Personally, I find the best books (and movies) have scenes that aren’t strictly necessary to the structure, but give the characters a chance to breathe. I call these cockroach races — you can read more about them here.

Unpredictability

This is perhaps the best reason to pants. Because you are writing first and not conforming your story to a commonly used structure, your books will often go in directions that surprise your readers.

Of course, you can be a plotter and still create memorable characters in hilarious, unpredictable adventures. These things are not mutually exclusive, it’s just that pantsed books tend to be stronger in those areas.

The disadvantages of pantsing

Yes, there are reasons why pantsing isn’t always or exclusively the way to go when writing a novel. In fact, some of the aforementioned pros can also be cons.

Unfocused character arcs

The Do's and Don'ts of Planning a Book LaunchEven though you may know how your character walks and talks because you’ve written several scenes with them, you may not know their wants or needs (i.e., their character arc). This can lead to major plot problems down the road that are hard to fix without completely rewriting your book.

Stories that meander

As exciting as it can be to write a story that is unpredictable, it can be very easy to fall into the “and then” problem (where an event happens “and then” another thing happens, etc.) rather than writing a story that drives towards a destination. Pacing can also be a problem for pantsers.

Getting stuck

It happens all the time. You’re writing your book, loving everything you put on the page, and then… you find yourself stuck with no idea how to advance the plot or to fix the situation your character finds themselves in. Typically, if you are stuck or you find your ending just isn’t working, it’s because your beginning has a serious flaw, but you were unable to see it at the time because you were pantsing. (Gah! If only you had plotted your book ahead of time!)

Creating darlings

You’ve probably heard the expression “murder your darlings.” (In case you haven’t, the expression means to delete scenes, characters, or lines, that — as much as you love them — detract from your book.) When pantsing, you are going to have a much higher chance of creating the very darlings you’re going to wind up killing in your rewrite. (Especially characters. Pantsers tend to create too many tertiary characters that seem great at the time, but who ultimately weigh down their books.)

Again, I know this from experience. I’ve had to slash some of the best things I’ve ever written because it just doesn’t work for the book. And it’s painful. You can try to console yourself that you’ll be able to repurpose these darlings in other books, but I’ve found that too often they only really work in the book I was writing at the time.

Can you avoid these problems?

Some of these problems can be avoided, or alleviated, by taking a page from the plotter’s guide to writing, and that is to have a proper understanding of structure and character. And no, this doesn’t mean abandoning pantsing, you just have to focus on the things a story needs: an inciting incident, a protagonist with clear wants and needs, etc.

In general, these problems are essentially the cost of pantsing. Pantsers simply shrug their shoulders at the problems, understanding they’re likely to happen and knowing they’ll just have to deal with them in the rewrite.

How to pants your novel

As I mentioned above, writing a book from Chapter One to The End is just one way to pants. When I write a new novel, though I do tend to start at Chapter One, I don’t usually keep writing in a linear fashion. Once I’ve established the setting and decided that I like this world enough to keep working on it, I usually pause the narrative and get to know my characters and see how they interact so I can get a sense of their banter. (I write humor, so banter is perhaps more important than if I were writing thrillers).

To do this, I often write random scenes, with no worry about how or if any of these scenes will fit into my book. When I’ve collected enough of these scenes to feel like I know where the story is going, then I’ll dive back in to my novel, placing the scenes in order and fleshing out the rest of the story.

When I get stuck, it’s usually around the halfway point. If so, a quick glance at a structural template is enough for me to get back on track. However, if I haven’t properly done my structural and character arc homework ahead of time, I’ll get so stuck, it may take me months or even years to figure out what I’m doing wrong.

When this happens, it’s usually because I don’t truly understand what my book is actually about, or I’ll be too attached to my darlings and I just don’t want to murder them. It can be frustrating, but if I ever do get that stuck, I just set the book aside and work on the next one, knowing at some point that I’ll figure it out.

Keep writing!

The most important part of pantsing a book is to write and keep on writing. If you are feeling energized about your book, that enthusiasm will bleed into your prose, but the opposite is also true. Focus your energy on writing for as long as you can.

  • Don’t stress names or details. Every author knows how hard it can be to name your characters or places, so my advice is to use placeholders for now and fret about the permanent names later on. Don’t waste your energy on minutiae.
  • Don’t stress over research. We know you want to get the details right: what kind of gun CIA field agents use, how many miles it is from Berlin to Budapest, etc. But unless these details are vital to your ability to write the scene, it’s better to not get distracted by doing a lot of research in the moment.
  • Skip to the good bits. If you’re stuck in a scene, unsure how to get from point A to point B, my advice is to skip to the scenes you’re excited about. In my experience, I am usually able to fix those problematic parts after writing the scenes I really care about.

Pantsing is rewriting

Pantsers tend to produce their first drafts very quickly, which is great and can fill you with a well-earned sense of accomplishment. But because of all the problems inherent in pantsing, producing a second draft is often challenging and can take months. My advice: complete your first draft and put it away for a month. This will give you some much-needed distance from it so you’ll be able to more clearly see what’s working and what isn’t.

Whether you think you are a pantser or a plotter at heart, I encourage you to try both approaches, as they both have their advantages, and perhaps you’ll find a hybrid process is the best for you. Whatever you do, just keep writing and experimenting.

If you have any pantsing tips, feel free to share them in the comments below.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. I recently finished my first version of my manuscript…panic: my word count is 33000. My target audience is Fiction Genetics enthusiasts wondering about the existence of the Courage Genome . Yes, there is such a genome found in the National Human Genome Project…few know about it or talk about it. Circassian people are often described as highly courageous. I developed the novel through the lens of Circsssia traveling through their age old history since Eve. But wait I only have a novel of 33000 words. Shall I quit my project?

    • No, do not quit. If your work is finished and you’ve got something of value to present, bring it to the world and let potential readers decide. Word counts are guides — you can call it a novella if you want — it’s no reason to abandon your work.

  2. I recently finished my first book because I was almost forced to do it. It turns out that I have a hyperactive imagination and this particular story wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote it down. About 126k words later I have a novel and a ‘bonus novelette’.

    As to method, yes I pantsed it as I didn’t really know any better. I would have these scenes playing out in my head like a movie and just wrote them down and started connecting them. It wasn’t until I was a quarter of the way through when I realized I had neglected a major character. That was the first major edit and rewrite. Most everything fell together after that. Hopefully what I’m saying makes some sense.

  3. YES! Thought I was alone in the “handling it as it comes up” approach to writing that I employ in my life. My life is not outlined. Monday 10am looks every different than Monday 9am, and the JOY of thinking my way out of a character problem is THE POINT of the writing. And I can’t agree more with the idea of skipping around – sometimes even writing backwards with the ending first and then figuring out how to get there- blast that first draft, walk away for a month and then read it fresh and get into the weeds to polish things. I find this especially enjoyable when doing a series because you may land in something 1-2 books in that you want to dangle and tease and resolve 1-2 books later. For me the process becomes an epic A-HA moment from start to finish. And honestly, what’s the point if you’re not doing it to give yourself kicks.

  4. Awesome article Scott! This is very helpful even to non-fiction writers such as myself. For my normal day-to-day writing requirements, I have very defined limits on the scope and content I write (in the US Navy as an Analyst). For my personal writing I love to rant (not the same as rambling) a lot… to express my analysis in exuberant detail. The topics I care about whether I write an article or a book do come full circle – after I take my readers for a scenic tour, but that is my writing style. What you point out in your article expanded my mind exponentially. Thank you so much!

  5. For a writer with a contract and a short deadline for that novel, pantsing is a fast track to an ulcer and gray hair. Many of my professional writer friends who were pantsers learned that the hard way.There’s also a third method which is a mix between outlining and not outlining which keeps the novel on track but allows for some intuitive bursts of pantsing.

  6. As a pantser, I find it useful to use this approach when I need to get the first part of the story down on paper. Point of view character, setting, and a few sentences to begin the story. Once I have that, I usually write a brief outline beneath that regarding what I envision for the story going forward. Then I type it up. Once I have that framework, I research what comes next, find names appropriate for the setting and time period, and do a deep dive into who my characters are.

  7. I’m a pantser / Discovery writer. I’ve finished 3 novels so far. Every one started with a short story that I like so much I wanted to continue on with the characters and world I’d created. While my first 2 novels were written in a liner fashion, my 3rd started with what became a middle chapter. I then wrote earlier and later chapters in no particular order. Just when I though I was done, I wrote a new chapter 1. I find when I write what I like, I have no problem finishing it so it doesn’t matter what order I write it in.

  8. For what it’s worth, I write gay (MM(M)) romances, mostly fantasy, including fairy tale retellings, but not the best-known ones, plus a recent “alternate history urban fantasy” trilogy. For the most part they’re in the 100-150K range. I’m definitely a pantser. But when I start writing, I always know how the book is going to open and how it’s going to end. Usually, I’ll write both beginning and end first. Sometimes just the last scene, sometimes the whole chapter.

    From there I start working on how to get from A to Z, but I’ve never written a book linearly. I’ll do B, C, and D, skip to R, back to L, back to E and F, etc. But I also edit as I write, re-reading often, sometimes just to get into the mood, so if I’m at R, and something has to be there, but it’s inconsistent with something earlier, I finish R and then go back to wherever it was and tweak to create consistency.

    Given that I write non-linearly, but I know the basics of how I’m getting from A to Z, I could probably do an outline, although I think I’d then feel “bound” by it. However, when I do it my way (yes, that’s a Frank), I find I have at least one moment of: “Oh, wow! Yes! That’d be really good to add!” (Yep, with the exclamation points.)

    Just my USD .02.

    Eric

  9. Madeline L’Engle was famous for saying to her students “Don’t think! Write!” When I took a class from her, she had this rule whereby you had to finish whatever you were writing for her class in half an hour. If your timer went off in the middle of the last or some other sentence, you were just supposed to stop and hand it in. I told her this bothered me and that half an hour wasn’t nearly enough time. She told me, “Think about it for as long as you want all day. Then, just before you go to bed, set a timer and start writing. Do your best to forget about whatever you were thinking before.” To my astonishment this technique still works.

    • Some people have a way of puting there thought on paper and some enjoy to read it , as for me as i like reading books ,I also like listening to mini books called music , And love to hear other people stories couse I never judge a book by the cover Book is afterwards quick read – depending how quickly u read :-) it’s shapes you’re imagination My grandma made stories for me ; read baby books ,
      my grandpa though me history as he told stories as well
      ,inside family stories are memories shared for generation to come
      , my mom read books

      and if you take time to listen you realize everyone is a book writer of there lifetime story
      as long as they find a person who won’t judge by the cover but will be patient enough to listen :-)
      Post scriptum
      So how much do you charge ? Good read my English not good enough to understand fine print missing glasses :-)

  10. I’m writing my third thriller, all pantser method. I love the thrill of seeing where my characters go. Sometimes in a scene, an actor shows up to produce an action…I’m not certain why. I find out later that they fill in a need that I’d not even anticipated. It all just works out. It does.
    CJ Knapp

  11. I’ve got a lot of novel starts that didn’t go past the 20k mark. The only narrative I’ve got in print right now stalled several times because I knew what I had to put in it, but couldn’t decide what order (it was a non-fiction disaster with several side stories to provide comparison, and I had a hard time figuring out when to break away from the main narrative). Pre-writing exercises were an excuse to procrastinate. The closest I got was an idea for an SF trilogy involving high-tech armor; the setting of a weekend tournament provided an outline of sorts ( a timeline, anyway), but by 30k, I was losing steam (and still only had a fuzzy notion of what needed to happen in #2 and #3). Then I started writing fanfiction scenes that popped into my head, without regard for whether they even related to each other, much less in any chronology, and not only did I rack up over 70k, but most of my “chunks” turned out to fit into a single narrative. With that experience, I jumped into a superhero saga, which is currently at around 140k, with 101k of that in an 85% -complete first book.

    And no, I don’t anticipate heavy editing when I have a complete manuscript. Each “chunk” (which may be a chapter, a part of a chapter, or broken up into different chapters) is lightly edited individually before it goes into the compilation, and when I’m stuck in my word-smithing, I edit the compilation, which keeps things in memory so I know if a new addition requires adjusting something already in the compilation. So by the time the last chunk gets slotted in, earlier parts may already have four or five editing passes, and the whole is ready for typesetting and proofing in a week or two.

  12. For a writer with a contract and a short deadline for that novel, pantsing is a fast track to an ulcer and gray hair. Many of my professional writer friends who were pantsers learned that the hard way.

    There’s also a third method which is a mix between outlining and not outlining which keeps the novel on track but allows for some intuitive bursts of pantsing.

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