The Pantser Body of Knowledge: In the Middle of the Pants

Middles are often where pantsers have problems. There’s several reasons for this, but the big one is that we pantsers usually know the immediate future of the story, and have an idea how it ends, but what happens in between is pretty vague. With me the problem manifests in false starts — stories that I think have a novel, get anywhere from 10k words in up, then realize that there just isn’t enough there to sustain a novel. What tends to happen is that aspects of these false starts find their way into other books as subplots, or they get revived with extra material from a different false start.

So how to avoid getting stranded in the middle of the pants? It might be better than the damp crotch of the pants, but it’s still not a good place to be. Most of the legs have little ‘here be dragons’ signs, and it’s hard to find a viable way out. Sometimes you can’t even retrace your steps (we won’t talk about what happened to the pants in this case – you probably don’t want to know).

I can’t offer a definitive answer to this, and not just because I’m far from being without sin myself. The main reason I can’t say “do this, and it will work” is that every pantser is different, and extreme pantsers even more so. Everything from the mental exercises we use to switch on that precious flow of wordage from somewhere to the way the things we experience find their way into our writing is different.

That said, these are some of the things I’ve found helpful when stranded in the middle of the pants.

  • Writing exercises. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise, just something to get back into the mode of fingers on keyboard and words pouring out. I’ve personally found that the exercise of writing blog posts about writing helps to get my mind working the right way to write fiction.
  • Doing it anyway. Sometimes you’ve just got to struggle through even though it’s like pulling teeth. I’ve got more than one published short story that was done this way. This is where knowing the craft really saves your anatomy: you can produce something that might not be quite right, but it’s at least going in more or less the correct direction using craft alone.
    For pantsers, this isn’t easy, and it’s even less pleasant, but it can be done. If you’ve learned your craft well enough, you can find that ten years later not even you can tell which parts you had to fight and which ones flowed.
  • Reread and microplot. I mentioned a couple of sections back that I obsessively narrate the next part in my head, working through possible options that way. Sometimes rereading from the start of a stuck piece then mentally exploring where it goes from there is enough to unstuck.
  • Work on something else, and keep your fingers crossed. This is probably the most dangerous method of dealing with a story trapped in the middle of the pants. It’s why I have such a flourishing collection of starts. Sometimes you can mentally refresh by working elsewhere, and sometimes not.
  • Learn plotting, characterization, world-building and all the other techniques so you can recognize before you get stuck that the story isn’t novel length – then let it resolve in its own space. With the explosion of epublishing, you’re not held to the official lengths where anything that’s between 10K and 90K words is effectively unmarketable. That’s right. The novella is coming back.
  • Don’t start it unless you know where it’s ending. I know I’ve broken this one, but for less experienced pantsers, it really does help. By all means put it in your ideas file, however you handle that, but wait until the story give you some kind of resolution to the mess it’s handed you before you start to write. When I looked back over some of my old starts, recently, I found this was the problem with every single one. I had no idea what they were aimed at, so they got themselves lost in the desert of the pants legs.
  • On a related note, don’t start it if you don’t have at least some glimmerings of a story. It’s all very well to have a wonderful setting and fascinating characters, but if they’re just hanging around doing their normal thing, well, it’s fun to visit, but it’s not a story. Remember, “The King died then the Queen died” is a sequence of events. “The King died then the Queen died of grief” is a story (A pretty cruddy story, but a story nonetheless. The Queen did something because of what had happened, leading to an ending). Yes, I’ve done this, too. I’m not sure how many starts I’ve got where it’s basically interesting character having “adventures” in a neat location, but there’s nothing driving it and nowhere to go.
  • Look for the reasons and the motivations. This is possibly one of the scariest ways to get yourself out of the kudzu-infested middle of the pants, because you won’t actually know where you’re going or why. Here’s how it works for me: I know what got my character/characters into this mess. I know who they are and why they do things (mostly. I have a few who don’t think I need to know these things). So given where they are right now, what would they do next? Rinse and repeat until you get an idea of how to get out of the pants-kudzu.
  • Drop a mountain on them. By all means try to avoid this as a plot method, especially if the mountain is coming out of nowhere, but if you can go back over what you had and find some apparently innocuous act of your character(s) that could generate a really nasty blowback about now, use it. That mouthy peasant your knight smacked down is actually a spy for a rival, and he’s set up an ambush that your knight can walk into and barely survive. The magical oops your wizard made has done the butterfly effect and generated a massive storm targeted on him. The nonentity your space pilot killed in a bar brawl was the son of the space station owner, and when your pilot tries to land with low fuel and air reserves and a cargo of valuables, he’s nearly blown to pieces. The possibilities here are endless. If necessary, go back and insert the incident that triggers your mountain now. Just don’t go overboard – too much mountain dropping, and your readers will start getting suspicious each time the pace slows and be looking for the next one. Also, the words, “Yeah, right.” are the kiss of death. You get that response from anything, you need to insert extra foreshadowing or change what you did.
  • Above all, don’t be afraid to let it suck. Trust me, it’s better to have something that you finish and can fix than it is to have a lost start. Even if sometimes you can’t fix it just yet because it’s… well. The Epic with Everything comes to mind here. I can’t fix that yet, although despite its flaws it has pull. I just don’t have the skills to fix it, yet. On the plus side, it is finished.

This isn’t a complete listing, either. Anyone who’s run into other ways of dealing with the strange ways of the middle of the pants is welcome to add their suggestions for finding a good leg. I’d love to hear them – a new technique is always helpful.

Meanwhile, don’t despair. Strange as the pants are, there’s usually a trouser leg you can use.



  1. I’ve been thinking about this myself recently. And an off-the-wall exercise that works for me is to imagine I’m giving a talk about the book to a group at a writer’s conference or book club that’s invited me. And I’m telling them about how a particular section was giving me problems…. It’s amazing how many times doing this has helped me out of the “middle trap.” Whatever works, right?

    1. Whatever works, indeed. If it works, it’s doing the job and that’s all that matters.

      That particular exercise never works for me because it’s too much like “when I win the lottery” kind of mental exercise: it’s not something I can see actually happening.

  2. I’ve got three methods of dealing with the dying middle.

    One is to bring out the two most common plot forms, the Hero’s Journey and the “Big W” which probably has a real name, but it hasn’t stuck with me.

    Was there a guide? A “we’re not in kansas any more” moment? A refusal, then acceptance? Have the MCs gathered three friends/enemies/weapons? Learned something? If not, should they?

    And the W, have they crashed and burned, climbed back only to find they’ve started another crash and burn? If the story is going _that_ direction, what you need is moment of deepest despair _and_ revelation _and_ personal growth _and_ commitment for a final battle.

    That helps show me what needs to be happening during the middle of a story.

    My second method of reawakening a dying story is to trot out the “six standard plots” (which need a different name “story type” perhaps.) Romance, adventure, betrayal and revenge, sin and redemtion, impersonation, quest. Look them over and see if your story is just begging for a sub-plot of one of these types.

    I’ve several times found that the problem is that my Bad Guys aren’t bad enough, or individual enough. So I need to either change them, or bring in an ally or boss who truely bad. Someone the reader wants to see die.
    And be sure the Hero gets him, in the final battle.

    1. Pam,

      For me, all of those are “what the heck is this story anyway?” type questions – and if I need to ask those, I’ve got myself a false start.

      If it works for you, great. Everyone’s methods are different.

  3. I tend to be extremely straightforeward. Here’s the problem => go kill it. I have to put speed bumps in the way, and constantly remind myself that I am not supposed to be _nice_ to my characters.

    1. Pam,

      That is rather too straightforward. Being extremely pantser, I tend to have more organic plot development, usually starting from a character with an immediate problem. Solving the immediate problem is what reveals the big problem – and that’s usually something that can’t be handled quickly.

      Character wants to keep breathing. Everywhere around her are Daddy’s enemies, most of them rather irritated that Daddy blew up the Dark Tower and there’s no good looting left. She’s going to have to chase them all out, and she’s not doing that on her own. And so forth…

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