The Pitfalls of Pantsing

The first question in some people’s minds will no doubt be, “What the hell is pantsing?”

Pantsing is a colloquial term sometimes used to refer to writing without an outline.

Have you ever read a story that was a work in progress and the author just kept throwing obstacles at the characters? The further the story goes, the less and less likely things are going to be fixable. At least, without a magical plot left turn that makes no sense. Suddenly, the author throws a juggernaut at the story…

And then they vanish and the story is abandoned.

I’d bet anything that this story was written by a pantser who introduced elements into the plot they had no idea how they were going to handle, and ultimately wrote themselves into a corner. What seemed exciting and action packed becomes a trap the author can’t get out of.

The other manifestation of this is when the juggernaut lands, and then something weird happens that makes no sense in the story in order to solve the problem. And the reader is left scratching their head going, “Huh?”

There can be a certain level of criticism of authors who write without a formal outline and/or character profiles, but I feel you need to write in whatever way suits you best. There are pitfalls to either mode, and to refine your craft, it’s important to know: what they are, are you the type who’ll fall into them, and how can you mitigate your risk so you can actually get to the end.


Scarlett O’Hara – “I’ll figure out how to handle it later…”

If you’re going to introduce elements or obstacles, most of the time you need to know what you’re doing with them later. You can be a free form writer who works without an outline and still discipline yourself to never introduce an element that you don’t know how you’re going to resolve. If you’re putting an obstacle in your character’s path, know how they’re ultimately going to get around it.


Pretty Little Bow – “But there are loose ends…”

This is the detail-oriented pantser who won’t end their story until every little hanging thread is tied up. And yes, as a reader we’re curious about whether tertiary OC named Bob finally did come out to his uncle, but the story shouldn’t keep going because Bob is still in the closet.

It’s okay to leave some things for the reader to infer. Or even for a future story. This also ties in with a problem many types of writers have, which is how to find an end for your story. Mostly a subject of a different article, but see The End below.

The biggest problem for Pretty Little Bow, is that unless you’re writing a short epilogue where you just address loose ends (which is usually weird and clunky), you can’t write more in the story without introducing new plot that needs to be tied up later. This creates a never-ending cycle. More story in order to tie up loose ends, creates more loose ends, creates more plot… etcetera ad infinitum.

Say it with me: “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”


Gone Walkabout – “I don’t know where I’m going, but hopefully I’ll know it when I get there.”

This is where you never figure out where you’re going. You left home with no map and no destination and hope it doesn’t rain.

So you keep writing. And that may be okay for a while. But if you’re half a million words in and your writing feels like torture and you still don’t know what your end game is, that’s a problem.

It’s okay to set out on a journey and not know your destination. To a point. Eventually you need to know where you’re going and why. Every writer has their threshold for what they can write without knowing those details. For me, that threshold is about 20k words. If your threshold is a million words and you still don’t know where you’re going… well, you’ve gone too far.

Remember, it’s okay to give yourself limits. Saying, “I’m only going to give myself 10,000 words to figure out where this is going,” is not stifling your creativity.


And Then… – “And then…”

It’s all in the name. And Then…

This is related to Walkabout. You don’t know where you’re going and you can’t seem to stop writing so you keep going and next thing you know your story is so big it scares you and yet you keep going and you can’t figure out how to end it. It’s a big old run-on-plot.

Sometimes even when you know where you’re going, you can’t seem to stop.

There’s a subset to And Then… where you missed the end of the story in your haste to add more.

You ever gone to a movie and you hit that moment of satisfaction and, “Wow, that was really good,” and yet the movie keeps going for another half hour and you’re left scowling?

This is why at some point you need to identify where your story is headed. If you’ve reached the climax of the story and already resolved things and you’re still going… you need to take a step back and figure out how you missed the end.


The Whispered Words – “Wouldn’t it be cool…”

If you’re the sort of pantser who publishes as they write, you have a host of additional complications. You’re more likely to fall into plot holes that could have you pulling out your hair, but you’re also going to be more susceptible to everyone’s opinion.

So you’re writing along and you may have even figured out where you’re going; yet people are musing in your comments about wouldn’t it be cool if…

Don’t fall into this trap. If you’re finding yourself really inspired by what your readers are saying, take a step back and carefully consider your story, then make a judgment about whether you want to go that direction.

This is a clear sign that you need to pause the pantsing and think it through.

Because in the next chapter someone could muse on wouldn’t it be cool if… that would have taken you in a different direction, and then you create contradictions. You may even start to hate your own writing, because it’s not what you envisioned.

It’s your story, it’s your vision. Of all the pitfalls, to me, this is the most dangerous.


Possible Mitigation Plans

Depending which of these traps you’re most likely to fall into, a risk mitigation plan is a good idea.

  • Take notes! This is so important for a pantser. You need to keep track of what you introduced and what needs to be resolved. If you don’t remember that you put in a plot twist in chapter two, you could give yourself a plot hole.
  • When introducing elements, especially obstacles, know how you plan to resolve them. And write that plan down. If your story is long, you could forget. Notes, notes, notes.
  • Set a limit on how long you can write without determining the end game of your story. Stick to it.
  • Not every loose end needs to be tied up. Be prepared to keep assessing your ‘loose ends’ list and be critical of it.
  • Decide ahead of time if you’re going to take plot advice, and decide who that person/people is going to be. Nothing wrong with having a sounding board, but plotting by committee (meaning, your comments thread) rarely works.
  • When you get to the end (whether you finish the story or abandon it), look back at your process, figure out what worked, what didn’t, and what might make it easier next time.
  • Determine if there’s a hybrid model that will work for you. Maybe you don’t plot every scene, but are you able you determine the major points and the end game?


The End

This is a whole other subject in many ways, because often writer interest wanes after the climax of the story, and so we see many unfinished and abandoned works. This is an issue for the plotter, too, but it’s especially difficult for the pantser. You’ve been relying on inspiration to keep you going through the writing process, and that’s why it’s sometimes easier to keep adding more plot elements rather than find The End.

How to combat writer fatigue after climax is really another topic…

One Comment:

  1. As usual concise words to write by. You are very insightful and the more of these you write the better my writing has become. Because I have a bad habit of abandoning stories I made the conscious effort years ago to only post when the story is complete.The outline idea is new to me and I had already decided to give it a try this time around, with the addition of Character bios. My problem… I co-write and it’s my turn to lead the story. I told my co-writer we would outline the story and do bios for the 4 main characters. So far I am having a problem getting her to do either the bio she is responsible for, or using an outline. I really hate to tell her that this time it truly is my way or the highway but her passive/aggressive posture on this is beginning to make me find ways not to contact her. I’m being a chicken shit I know in just hoping she fades into the background. But I have discovered the value of an outline and bios and I’m not reverting back. So thanks again.

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