Going From Pantser to Plantser Using the Three Act Structure

  • by

Plotter or Pantser?

It’s a favorite point of discussion for writing groups everywhere. Often, it’s presented as a firm either/or option. You either plan ahead, outlining every detail of your story, or you dive into your project with no preparation whatsoever.

Luckily, the world we live in isn’t nearly so cut-and-dry. I’ve recently found myself most drawn to a hybrid approach (affectionately named “plantsing” by the Twitter crowd). Not only has it allowed me to retain creative freedom (goodbye writer’s block!), but it allows me to use the Three Act Structure and mitigate revision hell. It’s a win-win!

Pantsing: The Default Strategy

Originally, pantsing was my one and only strategy. It might sound weird to think of “having no plan whatsoever” as a strategy, but hey, whatever works, right? Pantsing has, historically, allowed me to tap into my creativity without worrying about rules, continuity, or knowing what will happen next. Yay for thinking on the fly! Making sense is for revisions!

As someone who plans out every aspect of every other part of my life, gravitating towards pantsing was… weird. I suppose it’s the result of committing to ten consecutive seasons of NaNoWriMo without any sort of preparation. I had little choice but to figure it out as I went, and so I embraced pantsing wholeheartedly. As a result, I pounded out ten incredibly fragmented first drafts. They were far from query-ready (or even finished, in some cases), but the worlds existed, the plot points were there, and the tighter version of the story was starting to form.

This method of writing continued while working on Unrelenting, a co-authored novel that’s currently being queried. Both my co-author and I identify as pantsers, which meant that the novel’s creation was a truly organic process. We would often begin scenes and chapters with zero idea where we were going. When we tried to plot ahead, everything would inevitably come unraveled.

In both cases — my NaNoWriMo attempts and Unrelenting — the shape of the story couldn’t take hold until I’d engaged in what was essentially free writing. Once the content was out of my head and onto the page, then I could begin the task of shaping it into a cohesive story with plot arcs and consistent world building and all that jazz.

The Dark Side of Pantsing

Writing with abandon could only take me so far. The next phase (turning my word vomit into a coherent story) felt like slamming into a brick wall. I know some authors who are able to pants a near-perfect first draft. I am not that author.

The revision process is brutal. Unrelenting went through nine drafts before we were ready to query. And while I’m incredibly proud of the final product, it took a long time to get there. Most of my other manuscripts have been through at least three rounds of revisions, if I’ve bothered to dig them out of the drawer at all.

And while some of my manuscripts (like Unrelenting), did finally become query-ready, the process was burning me out.

The (Attempted) Shift to Plotting

For as long as I’ve been a pantser, I’ve wanted to be a plotter. Unfortunately, every attempt at mapping out my story in advance ended in disaster. Almost every single time the story would veer off in a totally new direction within the first few thousand words, rending any planning I’d done totally useless.

When I began to take myself more seriously as an author, I began researching different plot structures. There are dozens out there, but I immediately gravitated towards the traditional Three Act Structure. I applied it to my completed drafts and realized that this was the structure I was already intuitively revising for.

Great! It shouldn’t be so hard to plan for it in advance, right? …right?!

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. I would plot out my story, meticulously following the Three Act Structure, only to start drafting what felt like a terribly sterile story. I quickly became bored with what I was writing. The fun had been zapped out of the process.

It was a bit of a conundrum. Plotting, while incredibly helpful for some authors, left me feeling lackluster. Pantsing, my preferred method, put me into revision hell and, in the long run, hurt my ability to complete drafts.

That’s when I decided to embrace plantsing.

Plantsing: Playing to the Strengths of Plotting + Pantsing

When I first discovered plantsing, I was floored. Like many writers, I’d fallen into the assumption that I needed to be a pantser OR a plotter. I couldn’t be both. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’m still a fan of the Three Act Structure, and I use it for all of my writing. I like this structure. The beats make sense, and the way it’s broken down appeals to my way of organizing. Each Act breaks into Eight Sequences, which I then personally break into Scenes.

After some experimenting, I discovered that I could create a feedback loop of pantsing and plotting through the Three Act Structure by using the Eight Sequences as checkpoints.

Here’s what the process has evolved into:

  • Free Write: I almost always start out by free writing an opening scene. This usually won’t be the opening scene, but it’s one that take place near enough to the beginning that it gives me a sense of character, location, and motivation. I typically stop when I get to around 3,000 – 5,000 words.
  • Outline Act I, Sequence I: Following the Three Act Structure, I look at what I’ve written and ask myself, “What could be a possible inciting incident?” After brainstorming different possibilities, I outline the scenes that take me from the opening to the inciting incident.
  • Loosely Outline Act I, Sequence II: When I say loose, I mean loose. A few bullet points at most. The next checkpoint is the end of Sequence Two — the point of no return. I jot down a couple possibilities and then I’m off to the races.
  • Free Write: I continue free writing until I hit around 10,000 words — or approximately the end of Act I.
  • Post-Plot: I go back to my outline and post-plot Act I. I write a quick one-sentence summary of each scene, then make sure I have both an inciting incident and a point of no return. If I’m missing either of these things, I add them in.
  • Revise Sequences I & II: Before I move on, I go back and revise the first two sequences for continuity.
  • Loosely Outline Sequences III and IV: Now that Act I is relatively solid, it’s time to look ahead again! I create a very loose outline of what might happen in the next two sequences.
  • Free Write: Is this starting to look familiar? With my bullet points in place, I start free writing. I don’t hold myself to the bullets, but use them as guideposts.
  • Post-Plot: Once I reach the end of the next two sequences, it’s time to stop, review, summarize the scenes, and so forth.
  • Revise Sequences III & IV: Just as I did with Sequences I & II.
  • Rinse & Repeat: Once I’m satisfied with Sequences III & IV, it’s time to start the whole process again with the next two sequences. This process continues on for the duration of the novel.

Will this process work for everyone? Heck no. That’s what’s so beautiful about writing — a million different approaches to creation.

But if you’re like me and you want to find a way to take the best pieces of pantsing and plotting and make them work for you, this approach has worked well for me. I’ve found that it allows me the creative freedom to get words out and make changes on the fly without leading to a revision disaster once the first draft is finished.