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Discovery Writing: My Plotted Guide to Pantsing

A guide to Pantsing_Edited

I recently wrote a draft for a future guest blog article for Rachel Poli’s blog. It got me thinking about my writing process and that from my first steps into the writing scene, I was a pantser. In fact my life in general is spent in pantser mode and no it’s not randomly pulling people’s pants down. Pantsing or Discovery Writing is the act of just writing down a story and discovering your characters, worlds and sometimes plot, while you’re writing. Spontaneity and unpredictability; very little planning and a lot of “What are you doing character?”, “This isn’t where my story was supposed to go!” and other exciting, frustrating, dramatic exclamations.

The opposite of the discovery writer is the Out-liner. The plotter who draws up the path that the story is going, shapes the characters and then puts them together in writing the story, hardly ever deviating from the outlined plot. Each of these types of writing have their benefits and shortfalls, and since I’m more of a discovery writer, I’d like to share with you:

Discovery Writing: My Plotted Guide to Pantsing

Finding out what kind of writer you are, helps make the writing process that much easier. Nothing is more frustrating than beating your head against the wall hoping for a different result… oh wait that’s insanity. Uhh nothing is more frustrating than trying the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result. You may be a discovery writer told to plot everything and stick to the story, or an outliner who was told to just let the creativity drive you onward and not worry about the plot. Well…

Discovery Writer vs Outliner

Discovering the Traits

Before we jump in, you want to make sure you know what kind of writer you are, so I’ll list a short and not exhaustive list of traits that a each type of writer has:

Discovery writers…

  • Make up the stories, characters and worlds as they go along like rolling a 20-sided D&D dice.
  • Complain that their characters don’t behave as they are supposed to. Like when do they anyway?
  • Figure out their plot as they write – even if they have a general idea of where the story is supposed to go.
  • Get the plot/story muddled up somewhere and usually find enough plot holes to build an underground civilization for Morlocks.
  • Don’t necessarily know what’s coming up in the current or next chapter or scene… or book, as they write.
  • Chase plot bunnies like hungry wolves.
  • While chasing plot bunnies, have epiphanies about their story which in turn cause them to chase plot cows or sheep.
  • Talk about their characters like true philosophers; trying to figure out who they are and why they are.

Outline writers…

  • Plan and plot out almost every character, scene, chapter and story to the point of writing the story. They call this “first draft”.
  • Complain when characters pull the story away from the outline. Or they are just generally complaining about their characters.
  • Have enough images of all their characters to reconstruct Google Images. Face-swap is the greatest invention since Scrinever.
  • Know exactly what each chapter is about, what’s going to happen in chapter 2, 3 and 52… and the fourth book in the trilogy as they write.
  • Have seen most of the plot holes and worked around them – at the cost of re-outlining the story and characters and fitting new ones in. They call this the edited-first draft…
  • Fight the plot bunnies tooth and nail.
  • Talk about their characters like they were real people. Excessively.

Well you get the gist of what I’m saying right? Discovery writers figure it out as they go, Outliners plot it out before they write. Each style has unique shortfalls, but we’re not going to focus on the negatives; it’s not the point of this post. I want to combine the positives of each style and make a fusion(-ha!) to show you how my writing process goes.

Beginning, Middle, End – Fundamentalist Writing

Every story needs to begin somewhere, hit some sort of mid-point and then mash into the brick wall… uhhh arrive at a destination. My 2015 Southern African Historical Fantasy fiction NaNoWriMo novel *breathe*, followed these simple highschool English class basics:

  • My characters started at a beginning, and not from their beginning, but the beginning of the story; in this case, right in the middle of a veld battling against a mythological lion.
  • I had a basic outline of where I wanted my character to get to in the middle, the revelation and insight he should gain and at what level of strength he should be.
  • All of this would then spiral towards the end and a final conclusion with a major revelation.

I knew what the revelation would be too, much like I knew what that mid-point revelation would be. These basic outlines guided my story and kept writer’s block at bay. The discovery writing was all the words, characters, scenes, epic mage-battles and deaths between those points.

Productivity Upsurge

NaNoWriMo requires you to write 50 000 words in a month. When I was pantsing the previous years, I failed each time. I kept hitting blocks in my story and not knowing where I was going next. This was a trait with the hundreds (not exaggerating) of drafts I had. I just wrote until I was all wrote out. Sometimes that would be after the first epic scene in my head, most times it was halfway through because I had no idea what I was trying to achieve. This time, with those basic outlines guiding my way, I completed my novel with eight whole days to spare; and I could have definitely finished it earlier:


Holey Plots

I wrote my 2055 short story over six weeks, every Friday (or Thursday night) I would write the next part of the series just flying by the seat of my pants. I was so proud of my Sci-Fi story I decided I would post these up on Wattpad too. Then I was so chuffed, I figured I’d go back and edit them (you mean you posted without editing? Gasp!) to publish as short stories and although the words were fine, the story had a major plot hole in the fifth and sixth instalments. I basically had to rewrite those to fit in what I’d written in the first two instalments. Even before editing, a simple outline would had sufficed to prevent such a major gap in the plot.

Focus and Fear

Lastly, although more could be said, having an outline can stop any fears you might have about scope of the book. You have a seven book epic sci-fi fantasy horror romance novel, about a pilot for the Galactic Federation of Magic Swordsmen, but he can only wield a staff because he’s allergic to swords, and he’s stuck on a demonic planet where the evil empress also happens to be a male crew member who transforms when too near his/her castle. It’s massive. An outline can break each of those chapters and episodes into smaller chunks that later you bring together to form your complete epic.

Outlines also help to keep you focused on the story rather than chase plot bunnies. There’s nothing wrong with going with the flow of your story, but when your Staff wielding magic swordsmen ends up on Earth married to the girl next door in the third chapter… well gee not so epic anymore right? And you can apply it to many scenarios. Rather put the new idea aside and see if it will fit in or write it as a new story/idea/backstory.

“…therein is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident.” H.L. Mencken


I wrote this article applying these very points. Conclusion and all look at that. And you know what? I enjoyed the journey as much as I would have without an outline, perhaps more because now I know where I’m going and it feels so good to actually get there. Writing is like a road trip, you plan the stops but enjoy the journey between each one:

Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say. ~Sharon O’Brien

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