Discovery writers, or write-by-the-seat-of-their-pantsers, may shy away from anything that looks too much like outlining or planning. That includes story structures–surely the idea is to fit your story into the structure before you start writing? Shudder!
It doesn’t have to be that way. The truth is, you, a pantser, already know a ton about story structure. You use it every time you write. You just may not know it yet.
Pantsers Already Use Story Structure!
Pantsers write by the seat of their pants, discovering their story as they go. They’re often guided by what feels like instinct, and is in fact a melding of what our brains already do (seek patterns and meaning), and being socialized in ways to communicate. Basically, your brain draws conclusions and tells itself stories, and when you listen to someone telling an anecdote, or watch a movie, or read a book, you’re learning what makes a story. You already know a lot about story structure, but you may never have articulated it or named the pieces.
Pantsers are paying attention to their subconscious when they write. They get a feel for how long a section should be, that things are going too smoothly and they need to shake it up, or that they need humor to break up a high-stakes climax. These are good gut feelings to listen to, and some amazing stories have come from listening to those guts.
The trouble comes when you aren’t sure what should come next. Your internal story compass is no longer able to guide you from A to B, let alone get to C.
Studying structure is like looking at a map. It’s glowing signposts in the dark distance. It’s a reference when you realize you’ve veered off course or aren’t even sure what the final destination should be.
Step-By-Step Pantsing With Structure
While you don’t have to use my Monster Novel Structure Workbook, I do recommend it! The steps below refer to tools included with the Workbook, but you can follow the spirit of this guide with another structure system as well.
- Learn the story beats. Read up, study diagrams, and get familiar with what “structure” involves. The point is not to memorize every beat, but to be able to later recall, “Isn’t there something that usually does XYZ?” You can reference it then.
- Write freely until you run out of steam or reach a split in the road, then refer to the structure. Sometimes the structure will set you back on the right path at once, and sometimes you’ll decide you want to deliberately do something a little differently. Either way, you can keep writing now!
- Keep notes on which scenes correlate to which beat. You might change your mind about them, but knowing roughly where a scene falls within the structure can tell you a lot.
- Word budget: How much have you written and how much further do you have to go? How many words are typical for your genre? If you’re aiming for a certain total, and this beat usually falls around 25-50% into the book, how does what you’ve written compare?
- Fix cause and effect: Why doesn’t the climax work? You probably forgot to set something up earlier! Identifying gaps in your structure can help you make revisions.
- Figure out where to go next: Instead of trying to hold a whole novel idea in your head at once, just look one beat ahead. Logically, how would your cast get from where they are now to the next beat? How will your characters react? Build your story one beat at a time.
- Use the calendars included with The Monster Novel Structure Workbook! Each day of the 30-day month has a beat assigned to it, ensuring that your story keeps moving from day to day. No more getting mired in the muddy middle!
- Identify the beats. When your draft is done, use the Monster Worksheet to name all your story beats. Compare them to the structure descriptions and see how your beats hold up. Are you missing any? Duplicated something? Is a beat not doing everything that beat is supposed to do?
- Revise! Now that you’ve identified potential weaknesses in your manuscript you can work on fixing them.
Pantsers have an instinctive understanding of story, and are good at listening to those instincts. When you formalize that knowledge your writing will get stronger and you’ll be better prepared to discuss the decisions you’re making.
So give your gut a helping hand once in a while.
Getting stuck in the Muddy Middle of your novel is no fun. But there’s a scaffolding for how your novel should be built–that’s what makes it a novel.
The Monster Novel Structure Workbook: How to Plot Without Getting Stuck comes with downloadable worksheets, examples, and even a Scrivener template.