How to “Pants” a Novel: Tips for Writing as Pantser
“Are you a plotter or a pantser?” If you’re a new writer, it won’t be long until someone asks you this question. While the word “plotter” might be easy to figure out, you might wonder, “What is a pantser?”
Pantsing and plotting are two different methods of writing a novel. While both are valid, figuring out which one you are can help you approach your writing project in the most efficient way.
So what does it mean to pants a novel, and how does a writer learn to do it? In this post, we’ll share some strategies for those taking the pantser route for the first time.
What is a pantser?
The term “pantsing” refers to the phrase “fly by the seat of your pants.” Pantsing is simply writing a novel by making it up as you go— without an outline. This kind of writer is the exact opposite of a plotter, who may use an outline or a beat sheet to plan their novel before they start writing.
To better understand plotting and pantsing, imagine the writing journey as a cross-country road trip. A plotter is someone who maps out the entire journey from start to finish before they ever start the car. The plotter knows how far they will drive every day, where they will stop to eat, and where they will stop to refill the gas tank. The pantser simply gets in the car and starts driving, knowing they will figure it out as they go. Even if they take a few wrong turns, they know they'll eventually reach their destination.
Some writers consider themselves a "plantser," or a mix of a plotter and a pantser. To continue our road trip example, a plantser might pin down out a few key stops along the way, but will figure out the rest as they go.
Just because a pantser doesn’t outline before they write their first draft doesn’t mean they don’t know where their story is going. While it may sound disorganized, many of the most famous, best-selling authors use the pantser approach, including Meg Cabot, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King, to name a few.
The benefits of writing as a pantser
One of the biggest benefits of pantsing is that the writing process feels much less rigid. If you’ve crafted an outline, you might feel compelled to stick to it, thinking you have your story mapped out and you can’t change directions along the way. This rigidity can destroy the creative process and might even prevent you from following through on new ideas that inspire you and could lead to a more compelling story.
When pantsing a novel, there’s more room for inspiration to roam. Writing without a roadmap allows you to turn down hidden paths and flip over rocks to see what is underneath. It’s stopping into a new store that you’d never noticed before. When pantsing, you never know what you might uncover that you wouldn’t have if you had stuck to an outline.
Even more so, pantsers allow themselves to be surprised by what they cover as they let the story unfold on the page before them. This creates an organic flow that allows the story to tell itself. It is flexible and surprising, and the reader will benefit from the organic nature of the writing.
Now that we’ve compared plotters and pantsers, let’s look at some easy steps for writing without an outline!
The writing process for pantsers
Start with an idea
Start with an idea and then think about where you want to take that idea. You might not know where you’re going with the idea, and in order to figure that you, you must simply sit down and write every day. The more consistently you write, the more the idea will reveal itself and develop. You’re winging it and allowing inspiration to find you along the way simply by showing up to the blank page with your idea. The idea can come from anywhere: a newspaper article, a story on the evening news, or a conversation you overhear at the airport.
When you have an idea, explore that idea with curiosity. What might happen next? Don’t overthink it too much. This will impede the flow of creativity. Just go with the flow; start writing your thoughts about the idea and let the story take shape. Write quickly and don’t edit your thoughts. All thoughts and ideas are worth considering. At this stage, the idea doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be discovered and captured on the page.
Know your characters
Pantsers don’t always start with an idea: they might start with a character and build a story around a character. Some characters are so compelling that it’s impossible for a pantser not to sit down and try to figure out what their story is.
In an interview at the end of the audiobook version of The Four Winds, author Kristin Hannah explained, “I like to put my characters in the darkest possible moment of their lives and ask them to not only survive, but also thrive somehow.”
If you are inspired by a compelling character, ask yourself what their conflict will be and then build your story, letting the details of the story unfold as you write.
Be open to new inspiration
Following a new idea is an intrinsic part of the pantser’s creative process. When plotters are struck by a sudden brand-new idea for their story, they may fear it will lead their novel off course. But a writer who is discovering the story will be more open to following the idea to see where it leads. The pantser may soon discover that the novel they thought they were writing is not the novel they end up writing at all. Following inspiration often leads you to an even more compelling story. When you allow yourself to follow where the plot threads (or characters!) want to lead you, you may end up with a great story you wouldn’t have otherwise written.
Create a simple organizational system to track your story
While pantsers don’t follow a rigid outline as they write, it’s still a good idea to keep track of important events, plot points, or character arcs in some sort of simple format. Just because you’re a pantser doesn’t mean you can’t keep notes!
Even if you are a firm pantser, you may find it helpful to keep some sort of system that allows you to take a quick glance back at your work. This allows you to track your progress and makes the revision process much easier.
There are a few ways this can be done:
- Create a second document in which you can jot down the highlights of that day’s writing session to help you keep track of where you are in the story.
- Jot down ideas, notes, and changes on index cards you can easily move around and review as you write. You might even record ideas for future writing sessions on index cards to keep in mind as you write.
- Make a list of key points, subplots and character arcs in your novel to help keep you on the path you want to follow.
- Keep a bulleted point list of what is happening in your story as you write it.
Keep your end goal in mind
As you pants your novel, keep in mind your end goal. What transformation do you want your hero to make by the end of the story? How do you want the reader to feel when they turn the last page? What is the purpose of your story? Keeping your end goal in mind as you pants your story will help you stay on track even as you are figuring it all out as you go.
Are you ready to try writing as a pantser?
Now you know what it means to pants a novel, and you have a better idea of how the pantsing method can benefit your novel. Start with an idea or a character. Create a simple organizational system that helps you stay organized as you follow rabbit trails along the writing journey. Remember to always keep your end goal in mind. Using these tips, you’ll easily master the art of writing by the seat of your pants!