Is Indiana Jones a Pantser?

One question writers get asked a lot is “planner or pantser?” First time I heard this, I stared at the person like they were from another dimension. Pantsing, or being pantsed has a completely different meaning in my world. I have three older brothers. Being a pantser in my house was being the person who went around catching ususpecting victims from behind and yanking their pants down around their ankles.

No, no, no, silly writer! Planner or pantser is the question about your writing process. Do you plan your story out with outlines and notes first? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go, like Indiana Jones chasing after the lost Ark of the Covenant?

Ah! I see now. It has nothing to do with adolescent pranks at all! Am I an organized linear thinker or am I a free-wheeling free-spirit?

I had to think about this one. For many years, I had what was jokingly referred to by my family as my “neverending story.” It was pretty much the equivalent of a television series in that my characters dealt with one crisis after another, resolving one only to have another one hit them after a short commercial break. This is not uncommon among pantsers. The problem with this for me is that story craft and construction suffer as the tale rambles on and on without any real buildup of tension, but it can be a fun ride!

The alternative is to have every move planned out and outlined with few, if any, surprises to the writer. But this way, you can be assured that the story builds at the appropriate times and advances the plot towards the climax… and all that other nuts and boltsy storytelling stuff that writers must master if they hope to find any measure of readership. Learning to write is something we all do in school. Learning to craft a story is a skill most writers spend a lifetime learning to master. Story craft without skillful wordsmithery or vice versa is what separates mediocre writing from stellar writing. Both disciplines must not only be studied, but mastered.

That’s one reason I (and many other writers) hate reviewing books. I see all the technical flaws. The most common flaws are*:

  • Typos
  • Misused words
  • Backstory dump
  • Passive voice
  • Telling not showing
  • Flat characters
  • Lack of tension
  • Plot points in the wrong place
  • Poorly developed middle
  • Unsatisfying story resolution
  • Sudden inexplicable character change without reasonable explanation or foreshadowing
  • Unsympathetic or unlikeable main characters

Historically, editors have caught these issues before they ever saw the light of day. Now, with the ease of self-publishing and with smaller press publishers, I see more and more of these issues in books on the market. Most of these issues can be resolved before the second draft if only the writer had done a little more planning and a little less pantsing.

What do I do? I know my flaws as a writer. I know my tendency towards passive voice. I know that I tend to info dump and miss the key moment to introduce a major plot point. I am guilty of every manuscript flaw on the list and several more I can’t think of at the moment. I write in a combination of first pantsing, then planning.

Plot points are key pivotal moments that change the course of the story. They’re the moments that take your characters out of their comfort zones and send them after the larger quest. They’re the scenes that are required to drive your story in the direction you want it to go. They happen at pretty much the same place in every story. You can see them if you know what you’re looking for. These are the scenes I try to write first. They tend to get revised several times before the end of the story, but they are the vital joints that propel the story forward.

Once I have the major plot points worked out, I make sure I have them at the right place in the story. If my first five chapters drag on without introducing the first plot point, then I’m starting the story in the wrong place.

Once the bare bones of plot points are laid out, I start pantsing. This is where I let my free-spirit soar and unleash my creativity. I let my characters go and just have fun with them following them from one plot point to another. I know I’ve got to get them to a certain point and I ask myself how to accomplish that. Once I get the pantsing urge out, I put my planning hat back on and look at the story, analyzing it for pacing, coherence, holes, dropped plot threads or missed opportunities.

I go back and forth between the two until it’s ready for the beta readers and finally the editor.

It’s not the way I started writing. It’s not the most fun way to write. It is the result of decades of story craft study, countless writer’s workshops, and numerous critiques that stripped my manuscripts bare and exposed their flaws for all to see. In short, it’s the way I’ve learned to write professionally.

I need a combination of planning and pantsing because for me, without the planning, if I presented my writing to the world, I would feel exposed, as if I had my pants down around my ankles, waiting for someone to point and laugh. By the same token, if I didn’t wing it every now and again, my work would fall flat and be too mechanical without any spontaneity or fun. Some of my favorite lines and scenes have come from just seeing where the spirit takes me. One method is not superior to another, but in utilizing both, I find that my writing shines brightest.


How about you? Are you a planner, a pantser or some combination of the two?


*Note:  Fifty Shades of Grey was guilty of all of these technical flaws which is why writers everywhere hold it in such contempt.