Uninformed Pantsing

Writing fiction was missing from my formal education. Discussions about the novels and short stories we read in school revolved around major themes, symbolism, and meaning — not how to craft a story. Or maybe I just forgot. Either way, I consider myself a self-taught author.

I make my stories up as I go along. Writers call it pantsing. Based on my recent epiphany, I’d call my old process “uninformed pantsing.” Rather than the main character’s journey, my stories revolve around an event (or series of events) with a cast of characters to show how things play out. Sometimes, it worked. More often, it did not — especially lately.

After my epiphany about the central role of the main character and armed with the three act structure and a character profile template, I was ready to tackle my next novel. Instead of the trilogy loosely based on my unpublished memoir or another Philip Potter story, I decided to start with a clean slate.

Among my abandoned manuscripts are two failed attempts at writing the first Luke Tanner mystery. The stories are plagued with problems, but the setting and Luke’s backstory appeal to me. The third time is the charm, right?

Identifying Luke’s big conflict was the first step. Either I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be or I still don’t get it. After much thought, I finally wrote something down and proceeded to step two.

Step two, coming up with the “major moments” for the three-act structure (the backbone of the story) took about twenty minutes. Simple sentences like “Luke discovers…” and “Luke overhears….” define each plot point. Everyone but Luke is identified by role (jilted boyfriend, bouncer, aunt, missing person, etc.)

So far, so good.

Step three is to plot Luke’s journey from one major moment to the next. I wrote two- or three sentences describing each scene (similar to story-boarding) with Luke still the only named character. Ninety minutes later, I’d mapped out the entire novel.

Woo hoo!

I’m still a pantser, but now I have a road map to follow. There may be modifications to the route and unplanned detours along the way, but the final destination isn’t likely to change.


But before I could start writing, the characters needed to be fleshed out. I’ll let you now how that went next time.