Even Pantsers Should Ask Themselves These Questions For Fiction Manuscripts

Sunday, January 14, 2018
While judging some flash fiction pieces and critiquing novel chapters for the WOW! class I teach, I found myself asking a series of questions to several different writers. These questions focused on important story elements that were missing from the piece.

This seems to happen a lot in flash fiction, especially, and maybe it's because there aren't a lot of words to work with. But winning stories tell a complete tale, and to have a whole story there, these questions have to be answered by the writer and included in the story.

Here are questions to consider, even if you are a pantser, when you're writing your flash fiction or short story:

  • What is the character's problem in the story?
  • How does she solve it?
  • How does she grow as a person from solving the problem?
  • Does she have an internal struggle she overcomes (or begins to)?
  • What is the climax of the story?
  • What is the resolution?
Obviously, in a novel, you have to have these same elements. They are usually easier to work in because you have so many more words to include than in a flash fiction or short story. But the beginning of novels are often difficult for writers, especially pantsers, because they start writing with some idea in  mind, but not an outline or carefully planned plot. If you are a pantser, you may know where you are going in your novel, but not exactly how will you get there. So it's crucial to have the answers to these questions on hand, even if you aren't outlining or summarizing each of your chapters:
  • What is your main character's MAIN problem in the novel? 
  • What is the inciting incident (the incident that starts the main problem)?
  • How will the character solve the main problem?
  • What do you envision as the climax of your novel? (Often writers can see the climax scene in their minds, and they are busy writing toward it.)
  • What is the resolution and ending?
These groups of questions are similar because fiction needs to contain certain elements to be a complete story. When writing a longer work, you can also add: What are two or three subplots my novel will also contain? In a flash fiction piece, you definitely would not have subplots. 

So what about you? Are you a pantser? If so, do you know the answers to these questions above for the fiction you are writing?  

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, and teacher, living in St. Louis, MO. She teaches a novel course for WOW! each month, which includes 4 critiques of your work-in-progress. To check out more about her, go to http://www.margoldill.com. To check out her next class starting February 2, go to the WOW! classroom.

Pencil photo above by Pink Sherbert on Flickr.com 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--I'm definitely a pantser. (I know. What a surprise.)

I know the answers to those questions for my current WIP (a NaNo from 2016). However, I'm not sure the answers are evident in my story. That is something I'm going to work on in the next six months or so.

Another question I think needs to be part of a longer story is "Deep down, what does the main character want?" Obviously that's probably connected closely with the problem, but I think it should be a thread that runs through the story. (Somebody at WOW gave me this idea. You? Angela? Sue? Renee? Cathy? I'm not sure, but it made me reexamine my WIP.)

Angela Mackintosh said...

Margo, this is so true. When I'm reading a flash fiction piece or an essay the question, "What's the point?" often pops into my head. If there is no deeper meaning, question, or problem in the piece then really, there's no point in putting it out to the world. It's still a draft that needs some work.

Yes, I'm a pantser. I'm working on a longer essay/possibly memoir and I know the answer to your questions. So they can apply to memoir as well! :)

Sioux, that's a good question (I think someone else suggested that) and I'll add to it. I think conflict needs to be in a longer story, so besides asking what your main character wants, you could ask what another character in your story wants as an opposing goal: one wants A, and one wants B. Conflict begins when A states her goal, and B gets in her way because he has his own opposing goal. Voila! Character driven fiction.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Angela--Great point. I am going to write that suggestion on my WIP so I don't forget it as I work on revising it.

Margo Dill said...

I agree, that is a great point. I was assuming that the conflict would come naturally due to the problem; but in longer works, that is not necessarily true, if the problem is something like stage fright (an internal battle to overcome). There still needs to be an antagonist with an opposite goal, so there is plenty of conflict (in almost every circumstance) in a longer work.

I also like what Sioux said about how these answers were in her head, but she wasn't sure if they were in the manuscript. That happens to everyone. Most of the time, my students will say: Well, I was trying to show _________, but obviously I need to go back and revise that a bit. :)

I'm a pantser, too. I think we should seek out a planner to respond to this post, and see if it is any different for them!

Pat Wahler said...

As a person who requires neat orderly lists so I can be sure to accomplish what needs to be done, I'd never make it as a pantser. Yet I don't avoid modifying my plan as I go along, if the story/characters need it.

Terrific suggestions from everybody!


Renee Roberson said...

Another pantser here! This is a great advice, Margo. I need to print out this post and pin it on the wall next to my computer so I can keep myself on track. I like Angela's advice about the character-driven fiction in terms of what drives the villain a lot of the time. I always have a lot of villains in my fiction :-)

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