Confessions of a Reformed Pantser

When I first started writing, I was working in romantic comedy. I didn’t really need to plot. We all know how those go: a “meet-cute” followed by a series of internal and external obstacles that keep the two characters apart, a kiss near the mid-point to show us why they should be together, more obstacles, and then sacrifices on each of the main characters’ parts that allow them to be together at the end, which is always happy.

But as I began to grow as a writer, I developed more subplots for my protagonists where they had to do some real internal growth, and sometimes the manuscripts grew unwieldy. 75,000 was the publisher’s sweet spot and when I had one reach 110,000, I knew I needed an intervention. I had to cut almost 25% of that manuscript, and with the exception of one scene I still miss, every scene I cut made it better. So how had I ended up with so much extra useless story? I didn’t have time to overtell stories when I was supposed to turn in two books a year.

reformed pantser.png

I looked around for solutions, and I realized I was going to have to plot. I had liked meandering through stories and figuring characters out. I could follow them around all day just observing them without them needing to do anything. Of course I knew readers needed more than that, but for me as a writer the fun was the discovery. However, also for me as a writer, the pain and time of editing out the excessive length had finally begun to outweigh the fun of discovery.

So I started with my first plot effort, which was using the Hero’s Journey. This only worked kind of well for a romance since the biggest obstacles are often internal, not external, and there aren’t generally “quests.” But it absolutely CAN work in romance: unfortunately for me it only got me to the halfway point in my next manuscript before I realized it wasn’t going to work anymore.

Then I switched to Dan Well’s Seven Point Structure. You can watch the whole series beginning with Part 1 here, and for many years that served me well. I would lay out the major plot points on notecards (real ones on first, then in Scrivener) and then, using Rachel Aaron’s method for boosting productivity, I would write a single sentence or phrase linking the smaller scenes between each major one. I would end up with 25-30 notecards/scenes, and each day I would do a short pre-write about what I was writing then dive into the writing. My productivity shot up, my manuscripts quit fighting me, and my stories got tighter.

But lately I’ve been working on a YA novel that doesn’t follow a straightforward romance plot, and I’ve found myself wandering out in the weeds again, lots of pages of “Nothing is really HAPPENING.” I couldn’t figure out what the story was realllllllllly about, or what my character really wanted. So I decided to try beat sheets, a concept I understood pretty well but had never actually used. Ten minutes later, I knew what my whole book was about. And that got me at least a third of the way through the new manuscript until I realized I didn’t always know what to expect my characters to do . . . and I should.

So after an exasperated call out on Facebook, several writer friends responding with suggestions that I took (it’s one of my finer qualities) and . . . they worked! First, I used KM Weiland’s blog posts on writing character arcs which tie character and plot development to each other intimately. Developing the character arc is what develops the plot, and sure enough, when I finished working through the series of questions she prompts you to answer about your character, I had begun to fill in some of the empty spaces between beats on the beat sheet, to understand that if the beat said, “This character and that character have a conflict about X,” I knew all the nuance and subtext of those conflicts and where each character was coming from before I even wrote the scene.

But just to make sure that each scene had a point and moved the action forward, I took one more step and tried the scene and sequel method as I drilled down into each beat. I suggest Googling this one because there are several good articles explaining it, including the one I used, but the guy was kinda condescending and annoying so I’d rather you found a more pleasant one on your own. Basically, while KM Weiland’s character arcs helped me figured out what each character wanted in a scene and made it easy to imagine how they would act/react, scene + sequel helped me give each scene enough tension.

The idea of scene + sequel is that each scene must have a Goal (what she wants), Conflict (something standing her way), and Disaster (she fails) followed by another scene that has a Reaction (what does she do), Dilemma (faced with no good choices), and Decision (chooses the least of the evils and presses forward). But it was much easier to figure out each of these when I understood my characters so well.

And again, with the magic of a five minute pre-write every day, the words come pouring out. I think these characters are fully fleshed out. I think they’re constantly doing interesting things. And I think that soon, in a novel or two, I’ll find that this combination of methods don’t work for yet another kind of story and I’ll go hunting for new strategies.

But that’s the key: no stagnation. Try a bunch of different approaches until you figure out which one opens up the story path, and know that unless every story you tell is the same (that’s bad), exploring different paths isn’t taking you off-course: it’s finding you the shortcuts to better, tighter stories.

Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..


3 thoughts on “Confessions of a Reformed Pantser

  1. This is a perfectly timely post! I also found Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, and OMG, my productivity and the quality of my writing has grown exponentially. Thank you for sharing what’s helped you, Mel!


Comments are closed.