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A Pantser’s Woes by Beth Daniels, aka Beth Henderson, J.B. Dane, Nied Darnell

I’ve always been a pantser,

which means I write the story first and only then do the synopsis because that’s the only way I know what to put in a synopsis. It has worked well for 34 manuscripts but seems to be tripping me up on #35.

I’ve begun writing in an entirely different genre than I used to – mystery. Oh, sure there was a mystery element in at least two romantic-comedies and most of the historical romances, but it was a minor thing, something to drive the characters together so the romance could play out.

But I’ve always read more mystery than I did romance, ergo, it was logical that I’d finally decide to reverse things. I’d spin mystery and maybe romance would be the subplot. Or not.

The problem is, while I pile into the mystery and complicate it with red herrings and real clues, when I begin writing I’ve very little idea of who dunnit and the why and how of the crime. And, frankly, it’s the motive that is frequently the hang up.

My current manuscript is being really irritating.

And it’s because I don’t know why some things happened…not that I’m about to take those already written scenes out because I put them in for a reason, it’s just that I’m lacking a who, why, and how on some elements.

In the workshops I host here at Savvy Authors, I’ve been saying I’m 3/4th pantser and 1/4th plotter for quite awhile. And, really, I am. I mean, I do know how the story ends. I do know who the bad guy is. In the current story I’ve already killed off three people, though someone different killed each of them. But I haven’t stared into space long enough on some of the smaller elements. That’s where the solutions come from when a manuscript buckles on you. So what if I look like I’m zoned out? It works. At least for me.

What plotting I do – and recommend to other pantsers usually – has to do with the skeleton of elements the story hangs on.

For instance: the first 20% of the manuscript introduces the main characters, supplies that inciting incident, gives the reader (and the characters) information; at least two other problems need to arise by the middle of the story; then even more to the 75% point; the major confrontation gets built to or some elements cleared up by the 90% point; the big finish is far more thrilling if it happens in the 95% to 98% mark; and cleanup with the satisfying ending is swept up in that final 2%.

It’s a loose skeleton, but it also is one that deconstruction of other successful books shows works well.

There are elements that can be dropped in or not, too.

1) Forcing a character to do something or deal with something that terrifies them, or they said they would never, ever do.

2) Having the true villain be the least likely person in the cast – which sometimes means you need more than one least likely person, so the reader doesn’t tumble to their identity. Yes, both frequently used tropes but good ones.

But when it comes to those smaller bits of the storyline, the scenes that really need to be there but a pantser hasn’t thought out the wherefores on sufficiently, ah, there’s the rub.

It’s rubbing me the wrong way at the moment.

I do know how to cure it though. I need to answer the journalistic questions: who, what, when, where, why, how.

WHEN = time but it can also include weather conditions.

It might be easier to fall off a cliff during a raging storm, right? And the time isn’t just a specific hour of the day, it’s the chronological location of the scene in the story. Even if it’s a flashback.

WHERE = the place, the landscape.

A dystopian tale requires a setting that has suffered as well as the people who are victims of the system. But a romantic comedy requires a pleasant place, nice weather or perhaps cozy weather for a winter setting. Then again, the Death in Paradise series is set on a Caribbean island that, considering it’s a small community, and has a very small police department, ends up dealing with a lot of murders. Which simply should remind us that sometimes an unlikely place is a good setting.

WHY = the inciting event and all the problems encountered along the way in a story.

And there need to be a passel of them. Things that keep a couple apart or dancing around each other in a romance; the thing that begins the war or requires a quest to find something or, as in Frodo’s case, return something to its place of origin and destroy it; the reason why someone was killed or robbed or fired or hired or split up or…well, lots of whys need logical answers and, as a pantser, I can honestly say, I don’t always have them totally worked out. A lot of the fun of writing would vanish if I did.

WHO = the characters, obviously, but this can be a large cast (think Game of Thrones) or a smaller one. While there are main characters, the ones with stars on their dressing room doors, there are plenty of other people on the set, and they aren’t just extras who make the setting look normal. They have reasons why they do or don’t do things, too. Frequently my characters do something I never considered them doing, but they did it anyway. Most of the time it turns out they knew what the heck they were doing, and it made the story better, so I don’t keep too tight a rein on them. It’s their story, after all. I’m just putting it down in words for them.

WHAT = the genre. At least, that’s part of what guides a story.

A romance requires byplay between the main characters, sometimes a love scene, and complications to keep them apart. A mystery requires a crime committed and solved by the sleuth, and the perpetrator caught. A quest (and a lot of the action-adventure novels involve finding something) requires steps taken to find or recover something, possibly a map, someone else who wants the item, the finding of it, and maybe the decision to leave it right where it is or destroy it. If genres are being blended, there are two whats to satisfy.

HOW = the action. How do characters meet?

How was the crime committed? How does the villain threaten the cast? How does the hero or heroine (and sometimes their team) counter this or work out a solution? How is probably the most important element to deal with because it breaks down into so many parts. It’s in the driver seat for the story. If the how eludes you, well, that’s when ye olde writer’s block steps in.

Sometimes it’s the order that you address each of these elements that breaks the gridlock. For instance, on that scene that I like and don’t want to lose, the first question I need to answer is how did the guys who shot up the car know the hero would be where he was when they riddled the car, ‘cause it wasn’t in a part of town he’s usually in AND it can’t have anything to do with the reason he was there. Once I have that sorted out, it should lead me to the why someone hired these guys (because that’s a given) and who that person is. From then on it should be clear sailing.

At least in regard to this scene.

Which means it’s time for me to begin staring off into space to reach my answer.

May sorting out all the who, what, when, where, why, and how for your stories cure any stumbling blocks that have temporarily stalled your work in progress.

And, if you’d like to hang out for a bit, consider joining me for the upcoming workshop Traditional, Indie, Hybrid: What’s Your Writing Career Goal?  August 19-September 1st here at Savvy Authors!

It’s a new world for PI Bram Farrell, aka The Raven.
Still Detroit but a different Detroit, though the bad guys are still (mostly) not human.
With the clock ticking, even a hellhound sidekick may not be enough to solve murders Bram is accused of committing though!
Release date October 8th, 2019, but in the meantime meet Bram in the prequel novellas that ARE available.

Although she’s had “prequel” novellas available at Amazon since last year, the first of the Raven Tale novels, Raven’s Moon, launches from Burns and Lea Books October 8th this year.

Find her at,, or, and Amazon.

Long time Savvy Author workshop presenter, Beth Daniels, got her first call from an editor offering a contract early in September 1989 and continues t...