A Panster’s Guide to Planning


Have you heard the term pantster? In the world of writing, authors usually identify with being a pantster (as in, fly by the seat of your pants) or a planner (uh, obvious).

I am a whole-hearted, tried and true, to the core pantster. A planner might dedicate ample time to developing character sketches, chapter/scene outlines, thorough research, and *gasp* know the ending before they type even one word. Whereas I, the quintessential pantster, wrote my first novel in 30 days during NaNoWriMo without any forethought other than knowing I wanted to write about redeeming grace, love, and use my great-grandmother’s old sweet cottage as inspiration for the setting. I didn’t even have names for my characters until I began typing.

Since the days of writing that first draft, I’ve learned so much from my critique partners, writing blogs, and books on craft. I see the value of planning. I’ve even tried some techniques for outlining my current work-in-progress.

But, like Baby in Dirty Dancing, you can’t put a pantster in a planning corner.

I have found a few hybrid pantster/planning activities that have helped me take a little more control of my writing process while maintaining the fun organic process I enjoy. They keep me well within the boundaries of my pantster comfort zone. If you’re a fellow pantster, maybe these ideas will be useful to your process too.

Pantster Character Sketching

QuinnExcel spreadsheets give me hives. So, instead of keeping a chart of my main characters’ appearance and personality traits, I use Pinterest. Think of it as a bulletin board. I find a photo that, in my mind, epitomizes what a character looks like. Usually a head shot, but can also include a signature hair style, example of their clothing style, unique eye color, etc. Whenever I need to write their description, I pull up that board and take a good look. Raise your hand if you’re also a visual learner! As an example, to the right is the photo I’ve got pinned to represent my next heroine, Quinn McAlister.

Within my manuscript, I’ll also highlight character traits in a certain color so that I can reference them correctly later if needed.

Pantster Outlining

Again, many planners use color-coded spreadsheets to pre-plan their plots and character arcs. I certainly see the value in this. As I’ve already indicated, spreadsheets and I do not agree. So here’s what outlining looks like for me (if you can call it that):

I simply answer these questions before getting started:

  • What challenge/problem/desire does each of my main characters start out with?
  • What are my main location points (they start at Point A, move to Point B, end up at Point C), if applicable.
  • What lesson do I want them to learn, or what outcome do I want to happen?
  • What will be the main antagonizing element?

As I write, and the story organically develops from these key answers, I keep a running bullet point list in another document. This not only helps me keep up with where the story has been and where it may need to go, it also is a HUGE help when writing future synopses, blurbs, or hooks.

Pantster Research

Research is crucial in novels. Unless you’re writing something that takes place in a fantasy world completely devoid of any semblance to reality, it is necessary to get certain facts correct. Readers will see right through incorrect references.

I also use Pinterest for research. I’ll keep private boards for different sections of my books. (Don’t want to give away fun tidbits too soon!) My current work-in-progress involves a lot of hiking and outdoor activities. I’m not exactly skilled in this area, so researching proper tools, gear, and clothing/shoes is of utmost importance. However, unsure exactly what I’ll need to know, pinning articles, books, blog posts for easy reference when I come across the need for a tidbit of knowledge is priceless. Easy, peasy!

So, probably nothing here that will earn me any stellar awards for discovering some genius method. But it’s what works for me.

What works for you?
Are you a planner or a pantster?
What are some challenges you run in to when approaching a new work?
Let’s chat about it…



A Pantsters Guide to Planning — Tweet This!

Like Baby in Dirty Dancing, you can’t put a pantster in a planning corner. — Tweet This!

Hybrid pantster/planning tips for taking control of your writing while maintaining the fun, organic process. — Tweet This!

Published by Teresa Tysinger

Author of Contemporary Christian Fiction. Wife, mother, creative, and professional communicator.

13 thoughts on “A Panster’s Guide to Planning

  1. Great post, Teresa. And please forgive my missing a couple of your last ones…I did read them, but was unable to comment.

    I’m definitely a pantster, though I do use storyboarding to flesh out some scenes. In that respect, I’m visual.

    One thought…it may be just me, but I do not like to see depictions of what the author thinks characters should look like. When i read, I form a very distinct impression, and it involves me in the story much more than when I see what the character’s ‘supposed’ to look like.

    And, as an Asian, I picture most characters as looking like me, slanted eyes, yellow skin, dark hair (well, not so dark anymore..). I do have a sharp nose, thanks to Alexander the Great and his visits to my ancestral homeland.

    The lovely Sheila you’ve got to represent Quinn…for me she’s just another European, and all Europeans look pretty much alike.


    1. Thanks for the article Teresa. I like the Pinterest idea. I am a panster for sure. It’s as though the book is leading me, not me it. Glad I’m not alone. I’ve tried to plan, but it it turns out to be a waste of time since I never stick to my plan!
      Love Andrews storyboard idea!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this!! And great ideas. I use Pinterest a *lot* in planning. It’s seriously my go-to. I also use Scrivener to save web sites and other items for research. (Oh, let me sing the praises of Scrivener!!)

    One thing I’m just starting to do is printing out blank calendar pages and marking the month and dates on them so I can keep track of key points taking place within the story in order to have a realistic time period between events, and to remember what season I’m working in, etc., so I don’t have it snow in the middle of summer. 😉 I’ve also found several one-page worksheets that help me, in bullet-points, discover and decide on plot, breaking the work-in-progress into acts that I can work within, etc.

    Super helpful, Teresa!!! Thank you! ❤


    1. I wish I could take credit, but nope. That honor goes to…Cara Putman, I think is where I got the idea. Or Becky Wade. One of the two. lol


  3. Great post, Teresa! I consider myself a hybrid, or organic writer. SOTP overall, but somewhat of a planner (nasty word :)) in that I usually sit down with a blank page and do a lot of ‘what-iffing,’ in a private brainstorm session, identifying my characters, their goals and conflicts, and how each character interacts with each other. But the actual writing is free-form and character-driven, if that makes sense.

    I never thought of using Pinterest to privately store bits and pieces of the story as I go along. Neat idea!.


  4. I’m a tried-and-true pantser, even though I’m most well known for my beat sheets. LOL!

    As you said, sometimes all we need are some big picture thoughts. I’ve written on my blog about using theme or the four main turning points to have a “direction” for our story. We might not know any of the specific roads we’re going to take, but sometimes just “head north” is enough. 😉

    And like you, working in Pinterest’s visual space doesn’t freak out my muse as much as writing things down in advance. *shudders*


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