Taking Off the Pants by Sonia G. Medeiros

Not long ago, I considered myself an inveterate pantser. The very idea of an outline gave me hives. I couldn’t think in outline form. My words had to be free to roam. Free I say! In grade school, when I had to write a paper and *snort* show my work, I wrote the final draft (or the next to the final draft) first and worked my way backwards through the rough draft, outline and clustering (what the heck is clustering anyway?).

So, when it came to writing, naturally I carried that aversion to outlining with me. I’d heard of folks outlining stories but that was just too terrible to think about. And the whole lack of outline thing seemed to work fine for short stories and flash fiction. Heck, Stephen King pantses the bulgogi out of whole novels.

Yep, the pantsing thing was totally gonna work for me.

Except it didn’t.

In short order, I found myself with a 2/3 – 3/4 of a manuscript and no idea how to bridge the gap from where I was to how I wanted the story to end. Worse, I was starting to suspect there were bigger problems with the story. And then I started to worry that maybe my whole concept was a steaming pile of giraffe excrement. Would I have to throw away a year’s work? Maybe I didn’t have what it took to sustain a novel. Maybe I wasn’t even meant to be a writer at all.

Yep, my inner moppet really knows how to throw a tantrum.

I wanted to curl up with a bucket of mint -n- chip ice cream, drowning in hot fudge and self-pity.

Instead, I put my manuscript down and took a deep breath.

"I find your lack of pants... disturbing..." by leg0fenris at Flickr

Then, as often seems to happen when we step back from a disaster, several ideas came together and beat me over the head. There were the character profile and outline worksheets from Victoria Schmidt’s Book in a Month that I’d partially filled out while writing my MIP (the only way I thought I could stomach an outline at that point). I read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering and was grudgingly beginning to accept his ideas. Then I heard about Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method for outlining.

Bada bing bada boom. The light bulb (energy-efficient, of course) went on over my head. Maybe outlining didn’t suck all that much. Maybe I could do it in a free-form kinda way. Maybe plotting could save my novel. Maybe.

I started outlining the scenes I had already written while thinking about what Brooks had said about plot points and what makes a scene. As I watched the scenes stack up in the outline, I began to see how the story fit together and what was missing. As I filled in the missing scenes, I discovered new things about my characters and story world and new directions for the story. Sometimes I even branched off and followed several different story possibilities until I found the right path.

I discovered I loved outlining. It didn’t fence me in but let me see the big picture. It actually freed me up to explore my story without having to write draft after draft. But the most important thing I discovered was that, whether or not I have a King-sized talent, I have what might be more important for a successful writer: I’m willing to learn, try new things, and work my pants off.

What do you think? Where do you fall on the pansting-plotting continuum? If you’re a diehard pantser, would you ever give plotting a try? If you’re a confirmed plotter, how do you plot? Do you think talent or hard work counts more in the writing game, or are they equal?


Sonia Medeiros


31 thoughts on “Taking Off the Pants by Sonia G. Medeiros

  1. Wow, I needed this reminder! I started a rough outline for my novel a few months ago and have also accomplished several character questionnaires, but now that I’m writing scenes I don’t even refer back to them anymore. Silly, silly me! Plus I’m not exactly helping myself by writing my scenes in no particular order. Direction-less much?

    [taking off pants now]

  2. I have to plot the end or I never get there; I usually plot the beginning too but less so for the middle, this is where I get a little bit more ‘pantsy’ but hopefully not too much.

  3. It took me a while to realize that when you have the end of your story, you have the greatest freedom to write. So I always start with how it ends, and then try and play with several arcs to get there. I use the simple beginning, middle, end plot point with turning points between the beginning and middle section and then again between the middle and end. Then, depending on the story, depends on the amount of detail I fill in from there. I am amazed again and again and again how much freedom there is to writing with a plan. It is very underrated.

  4. Sonia, I, too, would “pfft” at outlines. I don’t need no stinking outline…until I had probably four (maybe five) unfinished books. Anytime I get an idea for a new work it comes at me in a complete scene — and I run with it, smack into a wall.

    I have bitten the outline/plotting bullet and am writing a YA with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shocking. It’s sloppily outlined, but that’s so much more than I’ve ever done — this allowed me to see a problem with one of the plot points before I was writing it. The snowflake method sounds interesting, on a purely pretty level.

  5. I’m such a pantser! The only time that’s ever gotten me into trouble is when I’ve forgotten something I wrote earlier, then I contradicted that later. And none of my beta readers caught it, but luckily I did in the final read through.

    I almost always know the ending (although I’ve surprised myself a couple of times). And everything I write works toward that end. I’ve seriously considered “loosely” plotting the next book. My characters usually end up doing things that surprise me, but that totally works. But I think I need to start at least making notes on what I want to happen. My biggest problem? I usually don’t even know what I want to happen until it happens. It’s like my brain can’t think of anything while I’m trying to outline, but when I’m actually writing the story, the ideas start flowing. Maybe I’m just weird. LOL

  6. I think I’m kinda both. I plan a bit until I just can’t go any further and then I write and discover my story and characters and ideas are flowing and my characters are talking to me. Then when I hit a brick wall I stop and outline/brainstorm some more, write, rinse, repeat. However, so far I’ve always known the ending. This is just how I get through the middle.

  7. I’m a plotter. Always have been.
    I do let the story stir away if it nags me for long, see where it goes and study the new route.
    I’ve tried being a pantser once or twice and, like you said, it didn’t go too far. I got 2/3 or 3/4 into the story and didn’t know what do to with it, how to tie the lose ends.
    So, I stuck with plotting. Even if I don’t plan every single thing, I have to have a quick timeline and see the end =)

  8. I will kinda sorta have a plan / plot before I go into next month’s NaNo. I wrote last year’s NaNo by the seat of my pants, as I had every other story I’d written. So this will be an experiment. Writing experiments are good for writing, I say!

  9. It sounds like we had similar experiences! My second novel was so pantsed, and when I look at the final product, I saw it had slacked off (pun!) in several places. I used Larry Brooks’s story structure to break it into the parts and see what was missing. I’m in edits now and feeling better about the book. Next time, I’m going to plot a bit more. I already have novel ideas in general outline form. Best wishes with the process!

  10. Well, see, I don’t think of that as outlining or pantsing – that’s taking a draft and editing/revising it (albeit using an outline-y technique). I do that too.
    It’s the true pantsters, those who get an idea and instead of beginning to write, leap right into *planning* an *outline* that boggle my mind. Not a lick of story written! Just a plan!
    I doubt I could ever do that…

  11. I went through something similar. The funny thing was that my words were flowing like crazy and I was writing insanely high word counts each day. And then when I read it back, it didn’t go anywhere. Like all my words were lemmings falling off a cliff. So I started to look at structure and how I could use that to my advantage. I do have to say that sometimes the word counts come slower, but they all have a defined direction. I guess I’d rather write 500 words with a purpose than 5000 words I have to delete, ya know?

    So, I’ve turned into a plotter. Not necessarily in super-duper detail, but I do like to know all of the major plot points and pinch points and milestones in the book. It really helps keep you on track.

    I’ll have to try this Snowflake Method, it’s the third time in 24 hours I’ve read about it now.

  12. @thewriteproject: It made all the difference for me to make a complete outline. Looking back, I can’t believe I was so opposed to outline. LOL
    @Mrsbongle: I never realized how helpful it would be to plot those big moments. I love it now.

    @Scribla: I love the way outlining lets me play with scenes before I write them out completely. It ends up giving me more room to play around and not less. 😀

    @Amy: The outlining definitely let me see the big picture. Instead of writing page by page, I could see the way all the scenes fit together. It really blew my mind (which sounds kinda dorky now LOL).

    @Lauralynn: When you have a strong grasp of story structure, even if it’s subconscious, it’s so much easier to pants. I think that’s what held me back with my novel. I could write a short story of flash fiction but the structure of a novel felt so murky to me…only I didn’t know that until I got stuck.

    @Angela: I think my outlining definitely reflects my pantsing roots. LOL. I followed ideas wherever they went until I found the right one. For some reason, I never realized outlines could work like that. I always thought you had to know exactly what happened next and stick too it. Silly me. 😀

    @Juliana: I love that, if I get stuck on a scene, I can look at the outline and see where I’m headed or where another scene is needed before where I’m at. Very nice!

    @Cynthia: I’m definitely planning to plot like crazy when I do NaNo (thinking probably next year). It is fun to just pants it though, especially when the words are flowing.

    @Julie: “Slacked off.” Love it! It makes all the difference when you can look at your story with its structure in mind.

    @Deniz: I didn’t think of it that way. The kind of outline I’m using does seem a lot like a draft in short form. It just lets me see the story so much easier than in manuscript form. Plus, it’s easier to rewrite an index card description of a scene than a whole scene. I am enjoying the planning process though.

    @Erin: I didn’t realize I was missing the story structure when my words were flowing either. It’s definitely slower work to outline, then write…but I’m thinking the actual writing will go much faster once I know where I’m headed. 😀 LOLabout hearing about the Snowflake method over and over. That’s the way it was for both Story Engineering and the Snowflake Method for me. I kept hearing about them in different places within a day or two. Figured it must be a sign. 😀

  13. I follow my nose…but, once the first draft is written, the draft becomes my outline. So my first draft is a collection of sketches with loose transitions.

    It helps that my software (Scrivener) allows me to move things around the storyboard at this stage.

    I really enjoyed reading each comment and getting a sense of different working methods,

  14. I plot major events and scenes that further the goal or conflict of the story, but I leave space open for the character moments and development. Even though I’m a planner, my method is weird. I use a notebook and it starts out neat and organized, but then as ideas come and go and change, new colors get added, scribbles in the margin, scribbles going sideways, diagonally, arrows. It’s a good thing I don’t take a break from a book until it’s finished, because if I were to go back to my “outline,” I wouldn’t be able to make sense of it.

  15. Fantastic post. I am just starting out with my first WIP and plotting. I spent hours this weekend working and reworking three of four story ideas. I’d get stuck on one, feel like there wasn’t enough meat for a novel, and I’d move on to a different one and round and round I went. At this point, I am not entirely sure where I stand but I know I won’t give up on plotting. I think I’ll try to “stick” with one idea and try reading some other plotting techniques – any suggestions on great reads/techniques to follow? Thanks for paving the way!

  16. I do have an unfinished work that is brilliant, but not finished because of “pantsing” I am still a “partial pantser” though. I like the fun of the journey. I usually at least know how the story will end, but traveling there is just so much darn fun! Eventually, once the creative juices start flowing, I do a little bit of an outline… just because I think up ideas faster than I can write them, and I don’t want to forget. That is usually 100 pages or so into the story, though.

    I don’t think I could write a story that was completely outlined. What’s the fun in that? I want a little adventure along the way.

  17. I have a vague outline, but I am a discovery writer (isn’t that nicer than saying I’m a pantser?) largely because my characters refuse to play nicely with my outline. Darn them! I can’t hold a grudge though. Always my characters have an idea for a much more complex story than I had. I redo the vague outline, it’s less vague, and then I begin discovery writing again.

  18. Great post Sonia, I’m going to check out the various ‘how to outline’ guides you mentioned as I have never managed to write one! My stories have always been organic, and I’ve experienced many of the same issues you talk about.

    I think the biggest reason I’ve stayed away from outlines is because I get into a panic if I can’t see the ending at the start (perhaps because I’m so used to letting the characters/stories write themselves?) and then never get started on writing anything! So my outlines are as incomplete as my novels!

  19. Yay! Another Snowflake girl. You know the issues I’ve had with plotting, outlining, etc. I discovered the Snowflake method last week and had a big breakthrough in figuring out the new book. For whatever reason, things clicked and made a lot more sense to me.

    Glad you got things figured out, and thanks for sharing with us.

  20. I just recently started writing my first real novel, so I don’t know for sure. I’ve been all over the place, but I guess I’m a daily plotter/overall pantser thus far. (Does that sound back-asswards?) I have the Overall Concept, which I would say is “the plot”. It doesn’t really work out all the details of the story though-it’s really vague. But when I’m writing, I do have what next point in the story I’m working toward. I see my first draft as a skeleton; there are bones, but no muscle or fat. I’ll go back and infuse more sub-plot and character development after the final structure gets worked out. I’m not afraid of editing (says the first-time novelist)!

    All that to say, I have no idea really. I’m kinda wingin’ it. I enjoy reading everybody else’s methods/madness though. I liked hearing how you’ve been converted too, Sonia. I’m trying not to be opposed to any suggestions if they’re helpful. I’m going to look for the Snowflake book now. 🙂

  21. GREAT post. I’m a plotter. Even before I started writing, I made outlines for everything. LOL

    Now, I like to draw a large story arc across a big piece of paper (okay, it’s a semicircle) and drop in hash marks for each scene. It really helps tell my story before I start writing….plus, I can alway go back and make the necessary changes. If I’m writing from two different POVs, I can also do a story arch inside the story arc. I learned this method from Candace Havens at DFWcon. She mentioned that she learned it from Jim Butcher, the author of The Dresden Files. I liked it and went with it!

  22. I may be a half-pantser. (Would that be a capri-ser?)
    I always know how a story begins and ends. I may have a major events figured out, so I’ve got at least a crooked line drawn between point A and B. But if I write them down, I have a disclaimer written in fine print underneath: Story line subject to change.

  23. Great post! I’m a crazy pantser who is learning how to plot. 🙂 Winging it works for me when writing short stories. If something goes off, I can easily go back and flesh it out after the first draft. Now that I’m starting my first novel, the thought of rambling through a first draft of that and getting lost freaked me out. I knew I’d get myself twisted and end up not finishing. I’m also checking out the snowflake method.

  24. WOW what a post! A term I never knew existed, a dichotomy I’d never thought about, but all along it turns out there’s a word for me. I’m a panster, absolutely. And it’s failing me! I’m in the same exact same position described above — I have a huge chunk of a novel written and I’m completely trapped in the mire, all because I panster at every turn. I can’t seem to cozy up to an outline, even though I’m fanatically organized by nature and I most definitely need to create an outline. THANKS for the post, I already know it’s going to be quite helpful.

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