a guide to writing a book for pantsers!
Updated: Mar 8
Writing a book can seem daunting when all you have in front of you is a blank page. Particularly if, like me, you're a 'Pantser'.
A 'Pantser' is someone who writes by the seat of their pants (aka makes up the story as they go along), as opposed to a 'Plotter' (someone who meticulously plans everything that happens in their novel before they start).
Even if you're pantsing a novel, though, there are a few things that can be really helpful to have in mind about before you start writing.
Here is my list of the things to think about when you're making it up as you go along!
1. THE IDEA!
All stories start with an idea! A spark of inspiration!
Just like when you're cooking a meal, your idea will probably need to simmer for a while for you to draw out its full flavor! In the meantime, listen to music, consume art. Let it develop.
Try to fit it into a ‘what if. . .?’ question if you can ('What if the roman god of love, Cupid, went to high school?' - Cupid's Match) to simplify it. Question your idea to get the most of of it.
2. THE MAIN CHARACTERS!
Characters are one of the most (if not THE most) important aspect of your story. People can forgive a weaker story if they can get on board with the characters. So, who are your main characters?
On the surface level we’ll need some names, descriptors, and personality traits. But the easiest way to pants through your book? Determine what motivates your main character(s) and what propels them forward.
If you give your main characters something they really want on a fundamental level, or something they really don’t want – everything about their personality, their habits, their reactions to things – starts to fall into place. In essence if you give your character a goal and/or a fear, you can basically just set them down in your world and follow them / mess with them(!) as they make natural decisions based on this.
3. THE LOCATIONS!
Before you start you’ll need to know where is your story is set. Is it a real place? Fictional? Where it’s set will have lots of impact on your first chapters – from climate, to culture, to clothing etc.
Then I recommend thinking up a couple of key locations within your story universe that you’re going to center your action around. If you think of a TV show like The Vampire Diaries, you’ll see how most of the action takes place within the Mystic Grill, the Salvatore House, or the school. Having a couple of key locations in your book can really help tighten your pacing and it allows your readers to become familiar with those places.
In my debut, Cupid’s Match, I send the characters to the Cupids Matchmaking Service to train, and they go to the Love Shack to hang out!
4. THE BADDIE!
Your characters need an obstacle otherwise you don’t have a story, you just have people. . .doing things. . .
Who is going to make things rough for your characters? Why? What do they want?
5. THE CONFLICT!
Once I have my characters, idea, and baddie, I’m ready for the MOST VITAL thing I need before starting to write. I’m ready to come up with the main conflict.
The main conflict is essentially what your main character has to do, what is going to get in their way, and what will happen if they don’t overcome it.
All stories have a conflict. The conflict is basically the backbone of your entire story. Every scene should have some relation to it. Going into your story knowing what it is will help you stay on track, it'll keep your pacing tight, and it'll stop you from writing yourself into a corner.
6. THE INCITING INCIDENT!
You’re pretty much ready to get started now! But where are you going to begin your story? There’s a whole realm of possibilities!
Now it’s time to think about your inciting incident. What is going to happen that will set your conflict (and your character’s journey towards the end of the book) in motion. You want to start your book as close to that as possible.
If you spend a few chapters just talking about the main character’s everyday life, or covering heaps of backstory, it’s going to get boring for the reader. It’s important to hook your reader in by setting them down as close to the starting point of the character's journey as possible.
In Cupid’s Match the story is propelled into motion when Lila finds out that she has been matched with Cupid. So I started the story with Lila walking into the Cupids Matchmaking Service to tell them to stop spamming her - which put her into a good place to be very quickly told that cupids are real and that she has a problematic match who is about to join her school!
7. THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE!
Lastly, before starting your story it can be really helpful to think of your story in three acts. Each act will have its own theme / a journey. And each act will end with a climactic moment that will take the reader (and the characters) into the next act.
In my urban fantasy, Devils Inc., Act One is all about the main character’s introduction to a world of angels and demons after she accidentally signs her soul away to the Devil. By Act Two she has found out that someone is trying to trigger the Apocalypse, and this act is all about trying to find out who that villain is. By Act Three we know who the villain is, and the act is centered around finding a way to defeat them.
By splitting the manuscript into three parts, and thinking of the story in these terms, you can take the reader on a mini-journey each act. It can also help in terms of keeping the story organized, and keeping the pacing tight.
8. START WRITING!
You’re now ready to put pen to paper and write your story! Happy writing!
Are you a Pantser or a Plotter? How do you go about writing a book? Let me know in the comments!
LAUREN PALPHREYMAN is a writer based in London. She is best known for her supernatural teen romance series, Cupid's Match, which has accumulated over 50 million hits online and was published by Wattpad Books / Penguin Random House, October 2019. Find her on Instagram @LaurenPalphreyman and on Twitter @LEPalphreyman.
Get hold of her debut, Cupid's Match, here!