Planning with Your Pants on

May 16, 2014 by

Planning with Your Pants on

We’ve talked about two approaches to novel writing: planning and pantsing. Most people gravitate to one end of the spectrum or the other. Planners tend to free associate before they begin writing, and pantsers free associate while they write. While these approaches work, they both have distinct disadvantages. Planners may have trouble changing the plan if a better idea strikes as they write, and manuscripts by pantsers may require more rewrites to compensate for the lack of front-end planning.

I suggest using the advantageous parts of each approach in order to streamline and de-stress your writing process. Do general planning before you begin writing and specific planning as you write. Before you write, you’ll need a working knowledge of the basics: plot, characters, and major scenes, but instead of writing a full, detailed outline of each scene, write your outline in four parts, which will correspond to traditional story structure.

Let’s take a deeper look.

General (Pre-planning/Taking the Long Look)

Before you set fingers to keyboard, sit back and take the long look at what you’d like to accomplish with your novel. Don’t get crazy here, planners. Answer these questions generally first, and then expand, remembering to leave yourself some room to elaborate as you write.

At the very least, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What genre(s) will I write?
  • What is the setting?
  • Who is the main character?
  • Who are the supporting characters?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What is the story problem? What difficulty is the protagonist trying to overcome?
  • What is the opening scene?
  • What goes wrong at the midpoint?
  • What is the climax?
  • What is the final scene?

If you are a planner, you may feel tempted to really dig in and outline at during this stage, but remember, part of the reason you tried this technique was to allow yourself some freedom to go with the flow of your story as you write. Instead, of planning the whole thing out scene by scene, just do the first section.

If you are a pantser, you probably skipped that list. Go back and read it. I mean it.

Specific (Planning as you write)

Novels generally follow a particular structure. If you’d like more information on story structure, I recommend Techniques of the Selling Writer (my personal favorite), Story (still reading it), and Book in a Month (includes worksheets to help you plan your novel in sections). If you answered the questions in the pre-planning stage, then you have already created the main plot points for each section of the novel.


With your overall vision in mind, focus on one part at a time. First, plan part 1 of your novel, and then write it. Next, plan part 2, and then write it. Guess what’s next. Plan part 3, and then write it. Plan part 4, and then write it. By breaking up your specific planning into stages, you still have the benefit of detailed outlining, but because you have limited how far you take your specific, micro planning, you will feel freer to change the path of the story when new ideas strike while you are writing.

This technique may help bring some balance to both planners and panters. Let me know how it works for you.

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  1. Hi, Jennifer! An interesting hybrid approach that’s worth a try, I’d say – to break me out of my “panster” ways. Four novels in, and so far, so good. But I always worry a bit that, without a definite plan, I’m going to write myself into a corner and have to throw out months of work because the plot won’t hold together in the end. I’d REALLY like to avoid that.

  2. Jessica Grey

    “If you are a pantser, you probably skipped that list. Go back and read it. I mean it.”

    Bahahahahahahaha! YOU DON’T KNOW ME! ::shifty eyes::

    Thanks for another great post, Jennifer! I do SOME of that preplanning, but not all. I will try it next time ;)

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