Pantsers love the freedom and flexibility of diving into a story without knowing where the characters or their problems might lead, but coming up for air can be a huge buzz-kill because of the tangled mess they created.
While pantsing isn’t the most effective approach to writing a quality story that readers will devour, it is a useful process in one specific way. In this article I talk about how you can use “pantsing” to get to the heart of your story so that you’re clear on what your story is about without drafting or outlining.
Let’s hop to it!
The Pros and Cons of Pantsing
Pantsing allows us freedom and flexibility to dive into our stories immediately. Writers are able to change storylines at the drop of a hat because there is no outline holding them to specific turning points. However, we tend to pants as ideas come to us, and the problem there is that ideas don’t come to us in a linear or sequential order. They arrive without rhyme or reason, from random origins. We add them to our story—because nothing in our pantsed approach tells us these ideas don’t fit—and figure we’ll deal with them later, when the draft is done.
Somewhere in all of that is the heart of your story, but if you don’t know what your story is about from the get-go, you will have trouble finding it in a pantsed draft.
The Heart of a Story
Your main character’s inner struggle defines the story we’re about to read. Most discerning readers don’t pick up a book for the sheer pleasure of reading about exploding buildings and car chases. We want to see characters in action—struggling and overcoming their Flawed Beliefs in hopes of achieving their story goals.
Your story is always about a character who wants something desperately for some important reason, but whose Flawed Belief is constantly getting in her way. These two opposing forces create inner conflict for your character, which she must overcome if she wants to get what she wants at the end of the book.
- What is Your Story About?
- Who is your Protagonist?
- What is their Story Goal?
- Why do they want this Story Goal?
- What is their Flawed Belief?
Basically, you want to understand what your MC wants and what about your MC gets in the way. This must be an internal flaw (Flawed Belief) that she must confront and defeat if she is going to achieve her story goal, or confront and be defeated if she is not going to achieve her story goal.
The struggle that ensues as she confronts her Flawed Belief makes up the journey. She can’t just figure things out in one fell swoop. She has to struggle with breaking down that Flawed Belief in order to clear the way for her story goal. It shouldn’t be easy. This struggle is what compels her to undergo gradual growth and change – thus creating her character arc.
Why Pantsing Skews the Heart of the Story
When we’re trying to understand the root of the MC’s problem, we’ve got to explore a lot of terrain, a lot of possibilities, a lot of history.
If you have a pantsed draft, try this exercise. Highlight in yellow all exposition, narrative, explaining, history, and backstory. Highlight in blue all scenes and anything that is taking place in the current story. More than likely, you’ll have more yellow than blue. This is because when we pants, we are naturally figuring out our characters and what makes them tick—this is all stuff related to their past, things that happened to them a long time ago to help explain why they are the way they are now.
Your pantsed draft likely has the bulk of your characters’ history and not a whole lot of story that is unfolding in the moment. This is why knowing what your story is about could be difficult to figure out—because you haven’t written it yet. You’ve probably only written the triggers, the pain points, the reasons your character feels the way he feels, or thinks the way he thinks.
All of that is hugely important to know—for the author. Readers, on the other hand, don’t need all of that. They only need the points of backstory directly related to what the story is about.
But if you don’t know what the story is about…yup, you’re writing in circles.
What to Do if You’re Stuck with Your Pantsed Draft
Set it aside. Start with asking yourself: What is my story about? Hit all the key points I mentioned above. Two important things to keep in mind:
- Your MC’s Flawed Belief must exist before the story begins (so, it’s backstory).
- Your MC’s reason for wanting their heart’s desire must be strong enough to drive your character through the conflicts toward their desire.
Now, PANTS the backstory, being sure to construct events that explain why your MC has this Flawed Belief, and why your MC wants this particular desire.
Go to town with the pantsing here, because this is safe territory to explore as it is not your story. You aren’t risking anything by letting the pen flow and spewing your ideas all over the place.
Pantsing Backstory to Learn What Your Story is About
This not only will help you satisfy your pantsing inclinations, but it will help you find the heart of your story. Human beings assign a value to everything we experience. That value comes from a variety of sources. Maybe it’s based on a past experience, something our parents warned us about, an observation we made, a friend’s experience, etc. Regardless—our present circumstances are assessed and judged based on what we know from our past.
From there, we make a judgment or a decision and we’ll assess the consequences: did I choose the right option? Did I make a mistake? Will this harm me? What if it all goes wrong?
Such future-type questions prevent us from changing and growing too fast, because we spend so much time evaluating, second-guessing, leaping ahead, doubting, taking risks, making poor choices.
This is true of your characters also.
Once you understand what about your character’s past defines their worldview, you have a clear shot at defining the lens through which your character views her current experiences and evaluates her future outcomes.
This will then be the lens you can use to begin the story that needs to be told to your readers.