February 26, 2024

Panster-Friendly Story Planning

Writing is hard. It's even more difficult if we spiral down a rabbit hole of wasteful exploratory churn. Fortunately, modest planning techniques can help pilot the narrative back on course, no matter the medium: corporate presentation, how-to manual, flash fiction, novel, memoir, or even a sonnet.

Panster-Friendly Story Planning

Updated May 5, 2024

The challenge

Hello, writers. Have you ever floundered when attempting to craft a story? Have you ever gotten lost on the page, endlessly staring at the screen, unsure what to do next, or worse, generating gobs of text that you know lead to nowhere, not unlike a suburban day hiker lost in the woods?

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes, the words flow from start to finish like we have a direct line to the muse. But how often does that truly happen for any of us?

There's a bit of jargon for that seat-of-the-pants, just-going-for-it style of brute-force storytelling: pantsing. Pantsers bang away at the work, often creating a nest of impenetrable prose or verse, until, at last, a shape emerges from the ugly morass. Enough! Our time is precious. Perhaps we could stand to spend less time on experimentation and more time writing. More substance. Less junk.

Take comfort. You are not alone. Fortunately, there are tools at our disposal that can help reduce wasted time and effort and set you on a path forward.

The solution

The solution is obvious: better planning. As I write these words, I feel a collective cringe emanating from a significant chunk of the writing community. I even envision some writers poised to beat me over the head with their keyboards in time to the words, "I. Will. Not. Outline!" Hear me out, folks! We can improve our processes well before we even consider outlining. And that work alone may be enough to right the ship that has run aground, got lost at sea, or hasn't even left the shipyard yet. This practice is also useful for analyzing a work throughout the editing cycle or even after completion.

Develop your story,
        before writing your story.

Refine your story,
        as you write your story.

The proposal: Take that initial story idea and flesh it out by first developing a Story Concept, then a Premise and Logline, and finally a Brief Synopsis. At every stage, we add meat to the bone until we have a much more discernible map of where we think we want our story to go.

Identifying Themes can also be helpful. In fact, sometimes a theme, or set of themes, is our initial germ of an idea—the spark that serves as the basis for our story.

Once we have these contextual story constructs in place, we may have enough to move forward efficiently with our writing. If not, more meat can be added to the bone in the form of Character Profiling, a Full Synopsis, and perhaps—gasp!—even an Outline. Other artifacts that may fall out of this exercise are the Marketing Blurb and the Query Letter Synopsis. These are concepts that I may explore in later articles.

Worth noting: This process applies regardless of the variety of writing. All writing tells a story. And all story development could benefit from well-thought-out planning.

For convenience, some inexact but more concise definitions:

  • Story Concept: the initial idea, but grounded
  • Premise: protagonist, goal, and obstacle to that goal (one sentence)
  • Logline: the premise + setting/situation that makes this story unique + the antagonist, perhaps (one to three sentences)
  • Brief Synopsis: the logline fleshed out into a brief plot outline
  • Theme(s): the undercurrent meanings, concepts, and topics explored in the story.

Note: Some craft experts make no distinction between the premise and logline. I like to think of them as elevator pitches with the brief synopsis as a response to, "So, tell me more."

But wait! I explore on the page, not in some pesky planning bins!

Never fear. Even if you prefer to develop your story on the page, there is always room to squeeze in a bit of planning throughout the journey. The planning process doesn't follow a strictly linear path. Taking a step back and working through these constructs can happen at any point in the writing process, and really, to get the full benefit, it's a good idea to revisit them as the story progresses. So pants away on your story. Just know that pausing and then fleshing out these core constructs can go a long way toward reducing the amount of time you spend on word-churn.

An illustrated example: "Adrift"

For this article, we'll use my poem "Adrift" to illustrate the process. The poem has been published elsewhere and posted to my blog, but please don't read it just yet. It's short, and I will include it at the end. For now, let's pretend we are writing it for the first time and walk with me as I develop the idea.

The germ of an idea

All new stories start from a vague idea.

  • An old man in the woods, late at night, burying a body. —the beginning idea for my novel, Saeculum
  • A woman finds a photo of herself as a child. The image is from two hundred years ago.
  • A man and a woman desperately love each other but seem constantly at odds. —from my flash-fiction story, "Stormbreak"
  • The family dog digs up a rusted-out cash box in the woods.
  • A teen is on his second date with a girl when he experiences sudden and dramatic gastronomical issues. —from my short personal narrative/memoir, "Date Night"
  • You recognize the voice of the guy robbing the bank.
  • A soldier receives a care package in the field. —from another short personal narrative of mine, "The Five-Second Rule"
  • A little bit of planning goes a long way. —Hey, that sounds like this article!
  • A son loses both of his parents. —my poem, "Adrift" (our example)

Each represents a kernel of a story—the seeds of a larger idea. Sometimes this germ of an idea springs from a picture in your head, a scene, or comes from a theme you wish to explore. In the before time, one of these ideas would pop into my head, and I would start writing and see where it took me. This exploration is fine, wonderful even, until it isn't and we instead stall or wander.

Story Concept

We'd be better served if we first grounded that idea, if need be, with a smidgen of additional story context or refinement. For our example, "A son loses both of his parents." might become . . .

A son feels utterly lost after his parents' passing.

He lost his parents, but we added another dimension to the idea that heads in a potential narrative direction: the son's loss of parents also means he loses a significant guiding force in his life.


The premise takes that idea and fleshes it out with the protagonist, goal, and obstacle to that goal. And so, for our example . . .

  1. Protagonist — the son of deceased parents
  2. Goal — a path forward in life
  3. Obstacle to that goal — confusion, sorrow, loss, lost guidance

After filling in those blanks, and because this is a poem, perhaps a metaphor would be fitting. Exploring "What if?" scenarios can be really valuable for this step. Lost guidance is akin to losing a rudderdeep sorrow to an overwhelming weight or an impossibly bleak environment.

At this point during the development of this poem, I anonymized the protagonist from son to person and tightened up the conflict. For our exercise, perhaps we would come up with something like this . . .

After suffering a significant loss, a person finds himself aimless and without purpose, overwhelmed by inconsolable sorrow.

Not quite there yet. Let's see if we can flesh this out by developing a logline.


The logline, an expansion of the premise with added plot elements, reflects the narrative heart of your story. It can also be helpful to think of it as an elevator pitch that includes the premise, the situation, and, optionally, the antagonist. Again, the logline is usually one sentence, but often up to three.

As we develop the logline for our particular example, we really lean into the metaphors.

  1. Situation — set adrift (this became the title of the poem) in a little boat in the ocean. A storm symbolizes the parental deaths. A vast, featureless ocean symbolizes sorrow. A missing rudder, keel, and paddle symbolize the loss of parental guidance.
  2. Antagonist — for this example, it is internal. If we want to set labels for our antagonist for this exercise, perhaps despair and hopelessness are appropriate.

And thus . . .

After struggling through a long and fearful night of storms, a person finds themself adrift in a small boat on a featureless ocean of nothingness with no hint of a path forward, a path forward so desperately desired.

See the pattern? Our protagonist has found themself in some situation where they are stymied by an antagonist-laid obstacle to some goal.

This pattern can be shuffled in all sorts of ways, but the logline contains all of those elements. In our example, the situation is woven in before and after we declare our protagonist; the antagonist is more or less implied.

Every step in this process informs our understanding of the story and can lead to refining the elements we have already defined. Perhaps the experience of crafting the logline has led us to refine the premise. Here's an adjustment of our example . . .

After suffering a significant loss, a person finds himself aimless and without purpose, overwhelmed by inconsolable sorrow.

. . . becomes . . .

After a terrible storm, a person is set adrift in the ocean of life with no discernible path forward.

Brief Synopsis

The brief synopsis summarizes the story while retaining the entire narrative arc—all vagaries dropped: the beginning, the middle, and the end, but in brief.

A person suffers through a long and fearful night of storms—a metaphor for an emotionally crushing loss—while caught alone in a small dingy in the middle of the ocean. Afterward, they find themself adrift, yet the ocean remains gray and featureless and offers no hint of direction to travel—no way out of this emotional desert. But then, after wiping away their tears—a resolve of their own? A resolve bestowed by someone they lost?—they see a glint of something on the horizon and choose to follow it. The presumption: They can move forward, no matter where it takes them, and leave their sorrowful wallowing behind.

A bit wordy, but that's fine for now. We should trim it down and refine it. Then, use that as a foundation for the development of our story. Maybe even build out an outline. Remember though, none of this is set in stone. Nothing prevents us from later refining our concept, premise, logline, and synopsis if the story drifts from the original plan—and it probably will.


The themes describe the undercurrent meanings, concepts, and topics explored in the story. I.e., what the story is really about. It's good practice to lay out the themes as they develop. A story with a zillion themes is likely trying to do too much. Identify a few and hone in on those. For our example . . .

hope, resolve, perseverance, continuance

The Finished Work

Now that we have walked through this exercise, let's look at the end result (poem included below). Confession: In reality, I first pantsed this poem but was neither happy with it nor sure how to improve it—a proverbial shitty first draft [credit: Anne Lamott]. Only then did I go back to the planning process and flesh out a Story Concept, Premise, etc. With that foundation in place, I returned to the poem and developed it to where it is today. Planning steps can be inserted anywhere in the writing journey.


Nothing but ocean.

Vast. Infinite.
An undulating mirror of black.

The heavens.

Opaque. Oppressive.
An endless canvas of gray.

The calm belies the storm that proceeded.
Blown off course. Rudder long rendered meaningless.
No engine, no sail, no paddle, no . . .

Still, I grip the sides of my tiny boat.
My bloodied, splintered palms, a reminder of what transpired.

Day becomes night. Night becomes day.
Today, the same as yesterday,
As the day before,
As the day before.

Weeping, I search the horizon.
The universe reduced to a binary monochrome,
Separating black from gray,
Promising nothing but nothingness.


A spark? A point of light? A fevered imagining?

There it is again. A star?
Disappearing. Appearing. Then gone again.

I look left, then right. Then forward.


Brushing aside my tears,
    I dip my hand,
        And push.


Rein in that chaos, fellow writers!

I declare this process pantser-friendly! Whether a planner or a pantser, fleshing out an idea from something small to a full-blown summarized narrative can help us develop a story and keep it on track. Like all processes, this is inexact and messy, but give it a try the next time you sit in front of that blank sheet of paper or computer screen or simply need to make sense of what you already have on the page.

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