Embrace the Chaos: The Pantser's Guide to Spontaneous Writing

Embrace the Chaos: The Pantser's Guide to Spontaneous Writing


In this article, we'll learn about the Pantser approach to writing a novel. We'll touch on the benefits and drawbacks, compare it to other writing styles, and look at some exercises that can help you understand whether you like this approach, and how to put it into practice.

Understanding Pantsing in Writing

Let's start by looking at a common definition of the term Pantser:

A writer that does not plot prior to writing but instead prefers to “fly by the seat of their pants.”

Crucially, a true Pantser chooses not to plot, whether on paper or in their head. Imagine, for instance, a writer who, despite not writing a conventional outline, knows in their head how the story will go — whether they know how it starts, or ends, which characters will take part, or which events will occur. This person would not be a true Pantser, as when they sit down to write, they would not be "flying by the seat of their pants", but following the outline in their head.

Simply put, a Pantser is someone who sits down and lets the story discover itself.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Pantser Writing

Writing a story without an outline has many benefits:

  • It can help your story unfold naturally, whereas plotting every detail can make your story feel overly mechanical and artificial.
  • You can sit down and write straight away — no need for weeks of plotting!
  • You can go in whichever direction you want in your story, as there's no need to follow a predefined plan.
  • You avoid potentially getting stuck in "worldbuilding" or "plotting hell", where you obsess so much about every minute detail of your outline before putting pen to paper.

On the other hand, some drawbacks include:

  • When writing long novels (100,000+ words), it can become difficult to keep track of storylines and ensure they all tie in smoothly at the end, if you don't plan ahead.
  • You may unintentionally focus too much on one side of the story, "straying" from the main storyline.
  • More effort will likely be required in the editing stage, as your novel can incur serious structural, consistency, and flow issues.
  • It's not ideal for beginners, as some foundational knowledge of story structure, put into practice through an outline, is recommended. Professional writers who consider themselves Pantsers have a strong grasp of story structure which allows them to have a sense of whether the story they're writing has good structure and flow as they write it.

Just like with writing Purple Prose, or picking one Narrator Type over another, there is no right approach. Some authors alternate between Pantsing and Plotting between their novels, others pick one style and stick with it for their entire career.

In a later section of this article, we'll look at practical exercises you can use to understand which style you prefer. 

My Experience with Pantsing

When attempting my first novel, which I abandoned at 60,000 words, I unintentionally used the Pantser approach. I was unaware of the theory behind story structure (despite recognizing similarities between movies/TV shows), and I was overconfident that I could manage to write a full-length novel and make it work. Above all, I was so excited to write that it didn't occur to me to sit down and take the time to learn story structure.

Truth be told, I was hit by all of the drawbacks we explored above. 

  • Close to halfway, I found it difficult to keep track of the main storyline. I had vomited all of the story ideas I had into the story, opening up the possibility for many secondary storylines. It was a mess.
  • I focused too much on one aspect of the story (the relationship between the main character and their mentor) and ignored the main storyline (a tournament where the main character faces her brother in a battle for the crown). This issue was so significant that, when I let other people read my story, they all thought the story was primarily about the main character's relationship with the mentor — nobody cared about the tournament!
  • I eventually turned to story structure books and developmental editors to understand where my story could be improved. I expected feedback on grammar, syntax, and clarity, but most of it was about structure, flow, and consistency. There was so much to fix. Writing an outline would have helped avoid many of these.

Looking back, it would have been beneficial to learn about the common story structures, such as Save The Cat or Harmon's Story Circle and use the newly acquired knowledge to write a simple outline. I strongly recommend this approach to beginner writers.

For intermediate writers, I recommend Pantsing for exploratory writing, but I would still recommend having an outline. This doesn't need to be lengthy: a one or two-page document can suffice! Have a look at Brandon Sanderson's early Way of Kings outline as an example.

Pro-tip: if you plan to query agents, you can write a synopsis as your outline before you write the book, and then re-use it in your queries. A synopsis is a one-to-two-page description of the entire plot of your book, including the ending.

Exercises for Pantser Writing

Let's run through a series of exercises that will help you understand which style you prefer, and how best to use it.

Pantser or Plotter?

This exercise can help you decide whether you prefer Pantsing or Plotting.

Imagine any two fictional characters (either ones you made up, or your favorite ones from popular fiction). Place them in a room and create some conflict between them. Maybe they're arguing over something. Let's say one has stolen an object from the other. That's the beginning of your story. Write one page about what happens next.

Once you're done, reflect on whether you enjoyed the process. Did you find the lack of planning exciting? Did you find it frustrating? Did you like starting with little detail, or would you have preferred knowing more about the characters, settings, and story before writing it?

Pantsing Through Your Story

This exercise can help you benefit from Pantsing even if you write an outline for your story.

The first step, if you don't have one already, is to write a simple outline. Next, pick two moments in the story, one before an obstacle, and one after the obstacle has been cleared. Let's look at an example of two such moments:

  1. Your characters reach a river. There isn't a bridge, but they need to cross, as goblins chase them.
  2. Your characters have safely crossed. The goblins are far behind, on the other side of the river.

Next, erase everything in your outline in between the two points you picked. For instance, let's say you planned to make one of the characters channel a levitation spell to get everyone safely across the river. Great. Erase that part.

Next, get Pantsing! Given you have an outline, and events A and B, start flying by the seat of your pants and write! All you know before starting this Pantsing exercise is that your characters begin at point A and must end at point B (also remember to keep consistent with the rest of your outline). Everything else you can make up as you write.

The exercise above teaches us that you don't need to Pantser-write your entire story. I'd argue lots of writers begin with an outline, but then Pantser-write portions of their story, and have to go back and update their outline!

You can split your story into chunks and Pantser-write some of them. Other parts, the ones more prone to structural issues, such as the inciting incident or the ending, can be outlined and carefully planned. This way, you benefit from Pantsing and avoid its pitfalls.

Document for Optimal Pantsing

One benefit of plotting your story before writing it is that you have a single source-of-truth document that you can refer to whenever you get stuck, confused, or otherwise unable to continue writing: your outline.

When writing without an outline, it can be useful to document as you go along. For example, in every chapter, jot down some notes about what happened. This way, you have a document you can refer to when the writing gets harder. 


In this article, we explored the concept of writing without an outline and what it entails. We looked at benefits, drawbacks, and practical exercises that can help you get started.

Andrea Cerasoni in Rome, Italy
Andrea Cerasoni

I'm Andrea, a Software Engineer, Technical Editor, and aspiring Fantasy Author. I'm originally from Rome, Italy, but am currently based in Glasgow, United Kingdom. I read and write classic Fantasy: the sword-and-shield, dragons, and wizards kind. In my articles, I talk about writing fantasy fiction, productivity, coding, building a website or platform, establishing a personal brand, and more!

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