Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Can You Structure if You’re a Pantser?

By K.M. Weiland, @KMWeiland

JH: Please join me in welcoming author-blogger K.M. Weiland to the blog today, to chat with us about structure for pantsers. She has four tips to help writers who prefer to wing it first and ask questions later.

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

Take it away K.M....

Writers often equate the idea of structuring with that of outlining or plotting. As such, it doesn’t offer much surface appeal to pantsers (i.e., those who prefer to write “by the seat of their pants” without a preconceived idea of the story’s plot). And yet, we’re told time and again that structure is crucial to a solid and saleable story.

That’s all fine and well if you’re a plotter. But what if you’re not? What if outlines just don’t work for you? What if you lose all interest in a story whenever you try to plan ahead? In short, is it possible to structure if you’re a pantser?


Structuring as a Plotter vs. Structuring as a Pantser

Structuring isn’t as straightforward for a pantser as it is for a plotter, but, in some respects, it will actually be more organic and instinctive. A plotter sits down and maps out his entire story (to one degree or another). Before he even starts writing his first draft, he knows what his major plot points will be, how his character’s arc will progress, and where the story will end. With this information in mind, he can write his first draft methodically and deliberately. Because he has a roadmap, he’s able to steer his story down precisely the road he wishes it to take.

A pantser, on the other hand, often has no idea where his story will end up. He doesn’t know the major plot points, and he may not know how his character’s arc will evolve. The bad news is that this lack of story awareness can cause you to take wrong turns that will force you to rewrite your book in order to find and balance your major plot points. But the good news is that most writers (indeed, most humans) have an innate understanding of story. It’s hardwired into our brains. And that means that even as you may not know what will happen in your story, your subconscious will almost certainly help you to achieve a rough structure.

4 Approaches to Structure for Pantsers

Let’s take a look at how you can deepen your purposeful application of structure without sacrificing your spontaneity.

1. Identify your plot points before you write the first draft.

The easiest way to approach structure is head on. Before you sit down to write, consider what you already know about your story—whether all you have is a general “feel,” a handful of scenes, or perhaps a theme you can apply to the protagonist’s arc. Can you sift your major plot points out of this early info? If you can at least identify your Hook, First Major Plot Point, Midpoint, Third Major Plot Point, and Climactic Moment, you’ll know what needs to happen in your story while still leaving yourself free to fill in the blanks as you go. For some pantsers, even this may prove to be too much pre-plotting. But if you can start with this foundation, you’re almost guaranteed a solid structure.

2. Identify your plot points after you write the first draft.

If you prefer not to do any pre-plotting, you might instead choose to go ahead and write your entire first draft. Once you’ve finished and you’re ready to start revising, take a moment to consider the story and identify the major structural points mentioned above. Are they all there? Are the major plot points appropriately timed at roughly the quarter, halfway, and three-quarters marks? Now that you know where your story ends up, how can you strengthen these story girders to provide a more solid foundation for your structure?

3. Learn about story structure.

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, the best thing you can do to strengthen your storytelling skills is to deliberately study story structure. Once you have a firm understanding of how story structure works, you’ll not only have strengthened your own innate understanding of story, you’ll also be that much more aware of the plot points as you’re writing (and, therefore, that much more likely to identify and solidify them when they pop up in your first draft). For starters, you might find my new release Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story helpful. I also recommend grabbing copies of Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering, Syd Field’s Screenplay, and John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story.

4. Absorb story structure through osmosis.

Most people have a strong inherent sense of story structure thanks, in part, to the sheer number of movies and books we absorb during our lives. For writers, an intensive application to reading is important for so many reasons. But one of the most critical is that of story structure. Particularly after you’ve gained a basic understanding of proper story structure, you’ll be able to pay attention to how your favorite (and not-so-favorite) stories are structured. The more aware you are as a reader, the more purposeful you will be as a writer.

Structure is important regardless your chosen approach to writing that first draft. If pantsing is the road that will lead you to your best story, then don’t let a need for structure pressure you into changing that. Embrace both, and learn how to work structuring into your pantsing routine.

About Structuring Your Novel

Is Structure the Hidden Foundation of All Successful Stories?

Why do some stories work and others don’t? The answer is structure. In this new guide from the author of the bestselling Outlining Your Novel, you will learn the universal underpinnings that guarantee powerful plot and character arcs. An understanding of proper story and scene structure will show you how to perfectly time your story’s major events and will provide you with an unerring standard against which to evaluate your novel’s pacing and progression. Structuring Your Novel will show you:
  • How to determine the best techniques for empowering your unique and personal vision for your story.
  • How to identify common structural weaknesses and flip them around into stunning strengths.
  • How to eliminate saggy middles by discovering your “centerpiece.”
  • Why you should NEVER include conflict in every scene.
  • How to discover the questions you don’t want readers asking about your plot—and then how to get them to ask the right questions.


  1. Thanks so much for having me today, Janice!

  2. After reading K.M.'s book, I've been thinking how the structure can help me as a "pantser", so this really firmed up some of the ideas I already had. Thanks!!!

  3. Glad it was useful to you! It's always important to remember that there's no "right" way. A lot of pantsers seem to feel that plotters are very exclusionary (and, granted, we can be sometimes). But the truth is, the only right way to write a book is whatever works for the writer.

  4. I pantsed my first novel, but am interested in having a bit more structure for the sequel. Thanks for these great tips!

  5. Every novel requires a slightly different approach. Some lend themselves to pantsing better than others, no question.

  6. I am looking forward to reading this book I am a pantser and before I go any further with any of my novels I will be reading it thank you great post!

  7. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed the post - and I hope you enjoy the book as well.

  8. I feel like I'm in some weird AA meeting... "Hi I'm Harry and I'm a panster"....

  9. I pantsed my most recent book, and now I am reaping the hurricane of rewrites. When I was done the first draft, I did what you suggested and went back and made sure I'd covered my major points - which I hadn't. For my next book (waiting in the wings to be written), I've already written a wafer-thin set of plot points. I don't like over-outlining; thanks to my background in writing scientific journal papers, i have a bad tendency to write the shortest line from point A to point B. An outline, for me, is novel death. But hopefully having that tiny skeleton to work around will make this next book easier. Thanks for the great tips and reminders!

  10. @Harry: Pantsing is only a bad thing if it's not what works best for you. Some people find pantsing much more effective than outlining.

    @Amy: A skeleton is exactly what an outline should be. Then, in the first draft, we get to add all the fun blood, flesh, and guts stuff.

  11. Love your work KMW, just bought the Kindle version.

  12. Thanks so much! I hope you enjoy the book.

  13. Very good article BTW! I did forget to mention that while I was being an S/A.... sorry.

    I pants away to get all the ideas barfed out. Then I use some form of outline to tighten the flow out of what I've done. This is often where I find POV shifts and info dumps that need conversion or cutting.
    Oh, and what typewriter is that in your shot K.M> Weiland? I have a few...

  14. Hah! :p Glad you enjoyed it.

    The typewriter is an L.C. Smith Super Speed. My brother found it for me at a Goodwill shop last Christmas. I love old typewriters!