Writing a Novel: Pantsing Without Panicking

You’re writing a novel. Or you hope you are. You’re not sure, because you’re a pantser, and you know that at some stage your “novel” may fizzle. It’s happened before. Unlike plotters, we pantsers write, hoping for the best.

I’m a recovered pantser, because pantsing is impossible when you have deadlines. Nevertheless, I still pants at least three thousand words of each new novel. A beginning novelist who tackled NaNoWriMo last November asked me how turn her 50,000 words into a novel.

Here’s what I told her.

You only need two things for a novel to work as a commercial novel. (If you’re writing a literary novel, you’re on your own. :-)) You need: big trouble for your main character defined in a story question, and character arcs. Simple, right?

1. The story question: BIG trouble for your main character

Whether you follow the Hero’s Journey in your plotting or not, it’s useful because it reminds you that your main character starts off in his ordinary world. If you’re writing a New Adult novel, for example, your main character’s in college, or just out of college, and is worrying about getting a job, or hating her job.

You can’t spend too long in the character’s ordinary world, but you need to spend a little time there to acclimatize your reader.

If your readers don’t know your main character, they won’t care about her, and it won’t matter to them when bad things happen to her. So your first task is always to have your main character reveal himself.

Depending on your genre, you may not start your book in Ordinary World. Let’s say you’re writing a mystery, or a thriller. You want to start off with the killing. That’s fine. You have an opening scene in which the victim becomes a corpse. You’ll often see this initial “dead body” scene done as a prologue. In the next scene, we’re in Ordinary World, with your sleuth.

Next, we have the story question. As soon as possible, once you’ve had a couple of writing sessions in which you pants happily away, consider your characters, and brainstorm the story question. In the Hero’s Journey, the story question is introduced via the Call to Adventure.

In your New Adult novel, your story question might be: “does hopeless female nerd get hot billionaire?” In your mystery, your story question will be: “who killed _ (the corpse)?”

Keep your story question in mind. Once you’ve answered it, your novel is over.

Look at it this way. Once you’ve introduced your main character, and the ordinary world he lives in, you need a story question. Pantsers get in trouble either because they never latch onto a story question, or they have too many questions. They introduce a cast of ten characters, and 25,000 words later, they have a lot of good stuff, but can’t corral it into a story.

Your story question is essential. If you’ve pantsed 50,000 words, find the story question. Or choose one, and lose the rest. (Yes, it’s painful. But you must do it.)

2. Character arcs for your main character (or two of your characters, if you’re writing a romance)

So now you have some pantsed material, and at least one character. That character needs development. An arc. Veronica Sicoe has an excellent article on character arcs.

Don’t sweat it. Keep it simple. Here’s how I think of a character arc. The character has a flawed world view because of something which happened to him, or because he was born that way. By the end of the novel, his world view will be rearranged.

In most novels, you only have the space for one character arc. In romances, you have two, with your heroine having the fully developed arc.

Getting back to our nerd girl in the NA novel. She’s convinced she’s shy. She can’t believe hot billionaire is interested in her, etc. Start brainstorming how nerd girl develops. She changes, yes. Her nerd girl character remains the same, but her world view changes.

In our mystery, the sleuth is an alcoholic detective, a stereotype. Our challenge is to make him real, and to give him a before-and-after world view. Start brainstorming. It’s fun. You’ll know when you’re on the right track with your novel’s development when the characters start to feel real to you.

So there we have it, dear pantser. Pants as much as you like, but sooner or later, consider the story question, and your characters’ arcs.

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Angela Booth is a top copywriter, multi-published author, and writing teacher. She offers many guides, courses and classes to help writers to enhance their skills on her websites. She also provides inspiration and motivation for writers on her writing blogs. Angela has been writing successfully since the late 1970s, and was online in the 1980s, long before the birth of the Web. Her business books have been widely published.