To Plan Or To Pants? How Should You Get Your Book Written?

Did anyone else imagine a general guy holding a sword in the air and yelling, “To pants!” with that title? He’s probably in his undies, because why else go to pants?

Sorry. It’s 4:30 AM. I’ll try to stay on task.

*snicker*. To pants. That’s funny.

I know it doesn’t seem like it, but this post is about planning out a novel before writing it. Or not. Because some people don’t do that. They write by the seat of their pants.

See! It had a point.

Spend half an hour in a writing community, and you start to notice a dichotomy of sorts: Writer A plans every little event that is to occur in his novel, and Writer B doesn’t have a flipping idea what’s happening as he’s writing. His book just…happens.

Of course, these are extremes. I don’t happen to think either of these writers literally exists. The writers I’ve talked to are somewhere in the middle but lean one way or the other.

I got the idea for this post when I got an email from Amazon asking for a review. I use Amazon A LOT, and I also leave reviews, usually for stuff I’ve read. But Amazon doesn’t care about your review history, so they ask me to review random things I buy. My husband needed fiberglass tent poles for some reason and purchased them from Amazon, thus I received the email asking me to review them. I was like, “Tent poles! I should write a post about those!”

What the frick do tent poles have to do with writing? you may be asking.

The idea as I use it came from a mashing of Nathan Bransford’s How to Write a Novel and Larry Brooks’ Story Physics. (Both books are amazing. Click those links and buy them now. I’ll wait.)

Now, imagine an old-fashioned circus tent, with three giant poles holding up the canvas or whatever that material is. If those poles weren’t there, the tent would collapse, ergo, no circus. The poles hold up the entire structure.

I found this on Pinterest when I searched

I found this on Pinterest when I searched “writing plan”. It’s for elementary kids. But it kind of matches what I do. Hmmm.

All novels need major points, things that have to happen for the story to move forward. These are tent poles. Without them, the story collapses.

The Amazon email gave me the idea because I call myself a tent pole planner. Following the Story Physics model, I place my tent poles at about 25%, 50%, and 75% into the story. At the first one, the characters must react to something. At the second, they must attack or take control. The third one is the climax. I know these major points before I write or a little after I start. Every event and character action must work towards these points.

Other than that, I don’t really know what the story holds. Sometimes, I’m just as surprised as the readers. For me, that’s where the fun of it happens. I love saying, “I didn’t know he’d do that!” as I’m writing. What ended up being a really important subplot in one of my novels happened this way.

I’m probably making you index card planners cringe. Well, you make me cringe, so we’re even.

Is this how you should plan your novel? Maybe. It might work for you. If you really like structure you probably wouldn’t like it. As long as you have a book in the end, who cares how you planned it? But if you’re stuck getting started, thinking you have to know every bit of the story ahead of time, maybe give yourself a break. Just get the big parts and let your creative juices flow to figure out the rest.

What about you, fellow writers? Are you more of a planner or a pantser?

20 thoughts on “To Plan Or To Pants? How Should You Get Your Book Written?

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  5. What would you call this?

    On a train in Italy I saw a really pretty girl. I thought, I wonder what she does for a living or is she a student. she had a lot of really nice jewelry, A little above what I thought a college student would have, but she looked to be highlighting textbooks so that’s why she was in college. but then I thought, well how does she afford the expensive jewelry if she’s in college?

    Of course I concluded that she must be somebody’s mistress. Perhaps some strange American man like myself who is in Italy on business ( I was not ;I was on vacation. With my wife. ) an older man who gives her gifts like expensive jewelry.

    Then I thought, why would an American be on business in Italy, and if he’s married like me , this girls going to be his affair so that’ll mess up his marriage.

    If the business he’s on gets messed up because of the girl, he could lose his job.

    That sounded like a comedy to me

    So I created a story where an American businessman goes to Italy, has a fight with his wife, (she goes home; he stayed to finish the business), he meets a young girl who he is smitten with, has an affair, blows the business deal, loses his job, and gets caught by his wife, so we have to go home and deal with that.

    Yeah that sounded like a comedy to me.

    And then in the end everything works out and they live happily ever after.

    That’s what I had when I started writing.

    What kind of a plot planning would you call that?


  6. Not to sound like I’m sitting on the fence in answering this question, but, well, I’m sitting on the fence. (It’s not painful, don’t worry, I’ve got a pillow).

    See, I usually write an outline before starting a novel, and I like to plan things quite carefully, but I then allow myself to completely disregard this once I actually start writing. I find it quite useful having certain beats (or tent poles) that I aim to reach along the way, but to be honest I don’t always get to those points.

    The exception to this was my first novel which, due to it’s particular structure, I had to outline very carefully and then stick to precisely. But for my second novel – and especially for my collection of short stories – I really was much freer to play around, and so I did change quite large sections as I wrote, depending on where I felt like taking the story.

    So, in answer to your question, I guess I both plan and pants.

    I plants.



    • You plants. LOL.
      I tried to outline my third book, but I ended up changing most of it. You have a good point about planning/pantsing being dependent on the type of story it is.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!


  7. Hi Allison – I hijacked your post! It’s a great “over here” kind of intro to story planning. For my part, I literally could not finish a novel until I discovered Story Engineering. Something I’ll talk about soon so you can hijack me. 🙂


  8. I pants in the extreme. I pants to the max. Pants, and beyond.

    That is, I pants my first draft.

    Actually, I feel that’s a pretty important statement in the age-long debate of plan vs. pants. A pantser, such as myself, needs to be able to edit long, hard, and with a fine-tooth comb. Hell, I’ve had characters start out a first draft with a different name than the one they ended it with. I’ve had characters morph magically into other characters midscene (with, of course, notes in the middle like ‘OMG REREAD AND CHANGE CAREFULLY).

    The thing is, I want my writing to be organic. I want it to flow, branch, and build itself in the same way a spoken story would, or the same way your thought process extends when you READ a story, or watch a movie. By pantsing, I aim to put myself as much as the writer can in the seat of the reader. The reader, far more than the writer, knows what SHOULD happen in a story.

    My editing process, on the other hand, is strict, detailed, and so long-winded I won’t clutter up your comments section with it. Needless to say, by the time draft three rolls around, my story is sometimes completely unrecognizable as the story from draft one.

    But it’s built on the bones of that organic movement, the natural oscillation and plot digression, of pantsing.


    • “my story is sometimes completely unrecognizable as the story from draft one.”
      I can so relate to this! I’m pretty sure anything I would call a “final” draft only vaguely resembles the one I spilled onto the page the first time.
      Thanks for reading and commenting! Glad to have you. 🙂


  9. Plotter. All the way a plotter. I’ve been trying to get a good start on a short story using the Pants style, and its going nowhere, as I don’t know where it should go. Once I hit ‘post comment’ here I’m heading off to write out the location of the main tent poles and plan this thing.

    Even with short 100 word fiction is fully planned (even if its just in my head).

    Actually I might contend that shorter fiction needs more plotting, more planning. You have less leeway, less flexibility to get your ‘themes and ideas across’, and planning lets me write ‘tighter’.

    That said, Stephen King’s a famous Panster and he might be just slightly more influential than I am. 🙂



      • Well since posting – not two hours? I’ve scrawled out seven pages of notes that I’m pretty happy with, outlining the direction, moods, and themes of the short story. This is after two weeks of ineffectual flailing at the keyboard getting no more than 1000 words out.

        Key message to me – try different approaches, try them frequently, but remember what actually works for you.


        Liked by 1 person

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