Hi. My name’s Emily, and I’m a pantser. Unlike many of my critique partners who plot their books chapter by chapter then write from start to finish, I’m more likely to leap on concepts like a cowboy on a bucking bronco and hold on tight for a wild ride. I tend to draft fast and dirty, often getting 70,000-90,000 words down in 6-8 weeks. Then I step back to admire my masterpiece and realize that it is, as always, a lopsided, erratically-paced, not-masterpiece at all, with oodles of witty banter but not enough plot.
And that’s okay. I call myself a writer, but I should really call myself a reviser. Revision is where I find the backbone of my story, snap it into pieces, and patch it back together.
Why yes, I did just finished ruthlessly paring down any metaphors from my ms and now they’re bursting free everywhere else. Sorrynotsorry.
You may be asking yourself, “Why is this plotting post not actually about plotting? This person clearly does not plot before writing.”
True. Sort of. See, a plotter, well, plots (obviously) and then writes. A pantser does not. Or so the idea goes. But even pantsers have to, you know, eventually have a plot. So there’s some element of organization involved in crafting any good manuscript, whether the writer figures it out before drafting, mid-way through, or after they have an entire draft in place.
If you plot ahead of time, good for you, but this post may not be useful. Or it may. Honestly, your organized, linear brains are a mystery to me so you do you!
Plots. Story beats. All that.
First of all, who decided we should break stories into 3 acts when the key stuff happens at the 25%, 50%, and 75% mark? I’m sure it was someone brilliant, but whatever. My brain says NO to multiples of 3, especially when it seems pretty obvious that books can be chunked into 4 Acts, and four is so much easier to manage! And yes, I know that has been done before, too, but 3-Act is still the usual go-to and it hurts me deeply.
So, how can pantsers learn from plotters without forcing our creative process to fit into someone else’s mold, which is a terrible idea. If you can outline and plot, go for it, but if you can’t, your process is just as valid. I promise. Still, we can save ourselves some work by identifying aspects of other writers’ processes that do work with our own.
When I sat down to draft my very first manuscript, I knew nothing about plots, arcs, beats, etc., except for an instinctive sense of story that most of us gain from years of reading and watching movies.
Once I realized that yes, in fact, there are guidelines and expectations for stories, I found the resources on Jami Gold’s website very helpful, especially the worksheets and Beat Sheet calculators. They made my brain hurt when I first found them, but they gave me something to hold onto. To some extent, I had to accept that I had to read and research for a while without truly grasping it all. I was simply in over my head. But, everything I read was going into my head where it could simmer and gradually turn into something I could work with.
By manuscript 2, I had an easier time revising with my newfound grasp of story structure. Manuscript 3 was born when I woke up at 3 am and stared at the ceiling for hours, my synapsis firing at lightning speed as inspiration combined with the building blocks of plot I’d been studying, and in the morning, I (*gasp*) outlined an entire book. Six weeks later, that manuscript got chosen for Author Mentor Match. Soon after, I realized I’d put half of my plot points in the wrong spots, and I spent another 8 months on structural revisions before it was query-ready. Still. Nice try, brain.
Someday, I may be capable of speed-brainstorming/outlining a novel so I can outline before writing, but I don’t know. I usually begin drafting before I know the entire plot, because I’m a very character-driven writer, and my characters refuse to reveal themselves to me until I’ve played around with them a bit. To me, plot is a direct result of specific characters’ choices and I cannot know what they would choose until I know them, so I can’t know the plot until I know them.
Once I’ve chased my unruly characters around for a book’s worth of words, though, it’s time to corral it into an actual story, and THAT is when I plot and outline.
I recently discovered the 3 Act/9 Block/27 Chapter plotting method by Katytastic, here: (HERE) The multiples of three melted my brain, but it helped me to move scenes around after I had a rough draft of in place. Then, I spent way too much time trying to convert it into a 4 Act Framework because, like I said, my brain hurts. Still working on that. Stay tuned.
I have a tendency to realize after drafting that I misunderstood my own story beats. As in, the scene I thought was the inciting incident is actually the big push into act 2, or the OH NO event that originally felt like a darkest moment should actually be the midpoint (and the darkest should be even worse) and this framework helps me scoot things around and see which areas are lacking or overdone. It also forces me to take a hard look at my many many banter scenes and accept that they probably need to be pared down and scooted around.
To recap, my writing process:
STEP 1: Frantic 6-8 week bronco-ride of a rough draft with all the witty banter and angst my heart desires.
STEP 2: Go to every office supply store in town and stock up on dry erase markers/wet erase markers/post-its/notecards/cute magnet
STEP 3: Spend too much time writing out the 27 scenes in order on my big white board.
STEP 4: Arrange sticky-note scenes where I think they should fit
STEP 5: Call my lovely CP, Allison Dillon, who is a meticulous plotter, and cry my way through frantic explanations that it just doesn’t WORK, while she calmly assures me it will, even though she is very (justifiably) confused by my brain of chaos.
STEP 6: Duplicate my entire manuscript in Scrivener and drag one version down to the Notes section so I can mess around with it and still have the old version safely preserved if I screw everything up.
STEP 7: More crying? … okay, skip ahead to the lightbulb moments. The 3am, sit up in bed, “OH THAT’S WHERE IT GOES!” moments.
STEP 8: Repeat the sticky notes. Move scenes around in scrivener.
STEP 9-12: Revise, polish, get readers, see how it feels, then eventually it’s time for a brutally honest look at pacing.
Back to my big white board.
STEP ?: How long is my MS? Is it at a good word count? It is! Great! Now I use the 27 blocks to help me break down how long certain parts need to be, and I cut and tweak accordingly.
So I highly recommend sitting down with this (or another) story plotting framework after your first draft, but don’t be afraid to play with it. For example, Fun and Games does not have to exists solely within the “Fun and Games” chapter–this is just a place to start! I tend to combine “Fun and Games” with “Old contrast” so I don’t obsess over exactly when my main character realizes how different life has become. And fun and games is FUN so don’t try to contain it in one 3000 word chunk. That’s just tragic.
This rough framework is great for figuring out where your manuscript may be lacking or overly wordy, though. And while I usually can’t start my drafts with an outline, I strongly recommend trying to outline and map out plot beats after you have a full draft. You can trust your gut all you want, but it’s valuable to cross-check your story with the general expectation of how stories should unfold. Remember, it’s not a prison. It’s a framework. Play with it.
Happy revising, friends!