How Does a Seat-of-the-Pants Writer Create Story Structure?

What if you don’t like the Snowflake Method? Is there a way to structure your story if you prefer to write by the seat of your pants?

Steven posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have been reading your book “How to Write a Novel Using the SnowFlake Method” and first I would like to thank you for writing a book that shows how to properly write a story instead of making book that shows me what a story is supposed to be. In my adventures as a writer I have found myself preferring the “fly by the seat of your pants” writing style, but I feel that more structure is needed. However I feel that the Snowflake method stifles the unconditional inspiration that comes with “fly by the seat of your pants” writing. If you can walk in my shoes for a bit, what would you do to structure your story without losing valuable inspiration?

Randy sez: First, let me define some terms so we’re all on the same page:

The process you use to create the first draft of your novel is what I call your “creative paradigm.”

Your “story structure” defines the emotional journey that your reader takes when she reads the final draft of your novel.

So your creative paradigm and your story structure are two very different things. You can have a good story structure for your novel, no matter what creative paradigm you use. But you’ll find your story structure at different points in the writing process, depending on what creative paradigm you go with.

Creative Paradigm Options

You have a number of options in your creative paradigm. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Writing by the seat of your pants.
  • Editing as you go.
  • The Snowflake Method (this is the one that’s made me famous).
  • Outlining your novel.

It’s possible to write a well-structured novel using any of these creative paradigms.

It’s also possible to write a terribly-structured novel using any of these creative paradigms.

Writers who design their novel before they write it (Snowflakers and Outliners) are in theory supposed to be designing in a good story structure. That’s the main reason they design first. But if they don’t understand story structure, then they probably won’t design a good structure for their novel.

Good story structure is explained in many books, including the one Steven mentioned, my best-selling book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. This how-to book is written as a story, and it’s self-referential—the First Disaster in the story happens in the chapter that explains what a First Disaster is. The chapter on Proactive Scenes is written as a Proactive Scene and the chapter on Reactive Scenes is written as a Reactive Scene. The entire book is an illustration of itself. And of course I wrote the book using the Snowflake Method, and my Snowflake documents are included at the back of the book so you can see how it was done.

But What About That Pesky Story Structure?

Now we can answer Steven’s question. He recognizes that it’s possible to write a novel seat-of-the-pants and end up with good story structure. But his question is how to make that happen.

First, note that your creative paradigm is just a method for getting your first draft down on paper. That’s all. I recommend that you use whatever creative paradigm works best for you. Your brain is wired a certain way, and you shouldn’t try to change your wiring.

Second, you need to remember that your first draft is not your last draft. Only the last draft needs to have good story structure. Your first draft doesn’t. Your first draft is nothing more than a stepping-stone to your last draft.

If you use the Snowflake Method correctly, then your first draft will have good story structure, because you designed in a sound structure from the get-go. But you’re still going to need to do revisions on your novel. You may need three or ten or a hundred more drafts to get your story the way you want it. During those extra drafts, your story structure may evolve, but it probably won’t change radically. Other things will change. That’s why you’re writing multiple drafts.

If you write by the seat of your pants, it’s likely that your first draft won’t have good story structure. That’s okay, because that wasn’t your goal. Your goal was to get the first draft down on paper, and you achieved your goal. So it’s perfectly fine if your first draft has poor structure or no structure. The point is that it’s something, and you can work with something to make it better. You can’t work with nothing.

How to Analyze a Messy First Draft

So what do you do with a messy first draft? Well, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.

First, read through the whole thing and make notes on any problems you see. Don’t fix the problems; just make a note of what they are.

Second, you’re going to need to analyze your story, and this seems like one reasonable way to do it:

  1. Make a list of all the scenes in your novel. You can do this on 3×5 cards or use a spreadsheet or my software Snowflake Pro or whatever tool you like.
  2. From that scene list, make a synopsis of about four pages that summarizes your story. One paragraph for each group of related scenes should do it.
  3. Create a “character bible” that spells out all the details about each character.
  4. Condense your long synopsis down to a one-page synopsis.
  5. Write up the backstories for your characters.
  6. Write a one-paragraph summary of your short synopsis that spells out the Three-Act Structure of your novel.
  7. Write a one-sentence summary of your story that captures its essence.

You’ll note that the above analysis is sort of a reverse version of the Snowflake Method, where you are starting from a large document and reducing it down, bit by bit, to its essence. Along the way, you’re finding the structure of your story.

Once you’ve done all that hard work, you’re ready to write your second draft. It may very well be massively different from your first draft. (Or you might be one of those great geniuses whose first draft is golden stuff, ready to print. If so, tell nobody, because there are hundreds of thousands of writers out there who hate you.)

When you’ve got your second draft done, update your analysis to make sure you’ve now got a sound story structure. (Remember, story structure is essential. It’s what gives your reader emotional satisfaction, and the main goal of writing fiction is to give your reader a powerful emotional experience.) If your story structure is still broken, fix it and then write another draft to get it right. Keep doing this until it’s good. Then you can go on to the next step in revision, which is to make sure all your scenes are working. Then you can polish the novel, and you’re done.

Writing is Hard Work

Sounds like a lot of work? It is. I would be dishonest if I said that writing fiction is easy. Writing fiction is hard, and at some point you have to do the work of designing your story structure. Snowflakers and outliners do this work up front, before writing the first draft. Seat-of-the-pants writers and edit-as-you-go writers do this work on the back end, after writing the first draft. But everybody has to do the same work. It’s just a question of when you do it. In the end, the reader doesn’t care when you did the hard work. The reader just cares that you did the hard work.

Is all that work worth it? That’s for you to decide. If you believe that reading a powerfully emotive story has value, then writing a powerfully emotive story must also have value. And that requires writing a story with a powerfully emotive design.

I’ll say it once more, since this needs repeating. There is no “one right way to write a novel.” There is one right way for YOU to write your novel, based on the way your brain is wired. But the way that works best for you is not necessarily the same as the way that works best for your friend. Seat-of-the-pants writing works for some. So does edit-as-you-go. So does outlining. And of course, Snowflaking works for some. One of the things that makes me happiest in life is knowing that this simple process I created has helped many tens of thousands of writers around the world write their novels. Of course the Snowflake Method is not for everybody. But it’s for a lot of somebodies. And that’s kind of cool.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.