When You’re Lost In The Depths Of The Pants

First, blame Sarah. Her post yesterday started this, particularly the commenters who identified themselves as pantsers (or in some cases, Panzers, which are clearly Germanic pantsers with really big guns. I’m presuming the DD caliber rack-mounted weapons I possess count, and I’m pretty sure there’s Germanic somewhere in the family tree).

Of course, when you’re an extreme pantser like me, you do run the risk of getting lost somewhere deep in the pants, possibly with a bad case of plot kudzu making it impossible to see where you’re going. Some of Sarah’s commenters wondered what to do when they get lost or they run out of spoons and simply can’t make things work the usual way if they’re extreme pantsers who really can’t work from an outline.

I’m definitely one of these, but maybe not the best person to be throwing suggestions out here, given that I’m coming off several years of dry spell (on the plus side, a long dry spell kills off that pants-kudzu like nothing else), but I can give a few suggestions, ranging from minimal to extreme.

I’ll start with the least intrusive ones (and yes, I did try all of these. They all failed).

  1. Try to push through anyway. Even if your pantser intuition has deserted you and you have no idea where the thing is supposed to go now, try some formless middle stuff where things happen without any real definition (you know, kind of like the middle ¾ of the last Harry Potter book).
  2. If that doesn’t work, try some plot diagramming. If necessary, start at the beginning of the book and try to keep going after you ran into the kudzu by working out what should happen. It might unstick you, it might not.
  3. Take a short break to write something else – but make sure you give yourself permission to suck first. Fanfic can be helpful with this, because it’s a lot easier to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter, because it’s only fanfic. Sometimes the change of scenery/pace can be enough to give you a fresh perspective when you get back to the stuck piece.
  4. Repeat steps 1 through 3 a few times until you get desperate. During this stage, it helps to remind yourself that you personally do not suck even if your writing seems to have transmogrified into a supermassive black hole. Personally, I don’t recommend going this far. Even though I did.
  5. Throw it away and start again. This is drastic pants-surgery, but it can work, especially if you’re not writing something under a contract. If you have a contract and need to turn in the book at a specific time, this might be when you start locking yourself in the bathroom or book a library study room (thanks for the suggestion, Brad!) or somewhere else you can guarantee you won’t be disturbed with snacks, your laptop, and no Internet. If nothing else, Internet withdrawal might push you to the appropriate level of desperation. (Leave notes for yourself to do the research you need later).
  6. Write another book. This option is only to be considered if you aren’t contracted and you have the freedom to do it. When things are this desperate, and the pants-kudzu is that overgrown, it can be more important that you recapture the feeling of a story flowing than finishing the blocked piece. The reason this one can work is the psychological one: if you’re stuck badly enough for long enough it starts to eat at your confidence in all the ways Sarah described. Starting – and finishing – something else that isn’t that book can give you confidence to bull your way through that book later.

As an extreme pantser, my experience is that something like 50% of the process is trusting your subconscious. Another 50% is having the confidence to let your subconscious steer. Then there’s 50% figuring out how to turn your conscious brain off, and 50% shaping what emerges so it doesn’t read like that weird dream you had where the talking carrot was utterly terrifying but nobody else in the universe can tell.

You could also do it the hard way: learn the techniques well enough that you can do what Sarah calls painting by numbers and plot it out in an outline then write to the outline.

Personally, I find that more difficult than any other method I’ve tried.


  1. There’s an oddball exercise that I have found very useful for such situations. I take a look at every single character that I have mentioned in the text so far, and take a few minutes to jot down what the story has been from that perspective. I don’t just mean supporting named characters, I include “the hat check girl” and “a pedestrian carrying a large box”–every single human(ish) that I’ve mentioned.

    Obviously a lot of these stories are going to have nothing to do with what the MCs are trying to accomplish, but that’s kind of the point. Figuring out why the guy in the pale blue Chrysler happened to park his car right there so that Joe Maxim could use it as cover in a firefight gives me a perspective view of the story and often makes it easier to recapture the big picture.

    1. That’s a stellar idea!!

      I’ve done more or less that, tho without thinking in those terms. One spot persistently eluded me because none of the narrative characters was present, but shit had to happen… fine, we’ll run with the only person in sight, a minor bad guy. Turns out he’s hilariously bad fun, and he proved to be the critical missing link with another bit of the same story.

      Never again will I resist the wiles of a side character who is begging to be useful.

  2. Something I discovered to be personally helpful is an analysis phase. I do ask myself what will happen only analyze what already has. This led me first to the realization that the book I was trying to write as one book was actually two. (Credit here goes to my beta readers for going ‘this part feels like summary.’) Later analysis revealed a problem with my back story. (Why hasn’t the big bad been challenged/executed on treason for killing his king before the story ever started?) I figured that out and some of the character arc holes and now I have stuff to pants into the holes in the novel. Mostly by identifying there was a hole.

    Another thing that helps me is taking an aside to do up things like maps and a little local geology.

  3. I keep an odds-n-ends file (no, not Odds and ends. Never write that sort of thing down!), so if I get stuck, I pull one of those bits and write more of it. I know it won’t be used (maybe) but it loosens the block. And at the moment I’m writing non-fiction, which seems to work like magic for stirring up all sorts of fiction bits and solutions.

    Count me as another Panzer. (My undergrad capstone project was on the development of armor tactics after WWI)

  4. I’m definitely seat-of-the-pants, all the way. Presently I’m faced with the endgame of this book, the Boss Battle. Where we are now is roughly the Host rolling up to the Black Gate. Except this time with rail guns, air support and orbital assets. Its going to be a very one-sided Boss Battle, let’s just say.

    Problem is, how to get everybody through in one piece without the reader screaming “MARY SUE!!!” and throwing their expensive tablet at the wall. I don’t like gratuitous fatalities in books, so my pants are experiencing a hopefully momentary loss of traction.

    1. Remember that Pippin was badly hurt and almost died—both the characters and the readers are allowed to think (for a while) that he did die—in the battle before the Black Gate.

      1. I’m thinking of going there. Robots can haz remote backups. >:)

        Mostly I’m thinking of what a 90cm plasma beam weapon would do to a giant floating Dark One. Does ichor volatalize and burn, or just evaporate? And what would two megatons worth of energy do to a demon the size of Mt. Everest, if it nailed him right in the beak?

        What kind of thunderclap would that make?

        Will a suit of Mobile Infantry jump armor allow the wearer to survive within five miles of a 90cm plasma cannon, with an output of 2 megatons per second? How about if she digs a hole first?

        What happens to a medieval castle full of demons when you fire a gamma ray laser at it from an orbiting star ship? Does it explode, scattering rock and bits of demonic guts for miles? Or does it just melt into a pool of molten rock that keeps glowing for a hundred years?

        These are the things I’m thinking about this afternoon. I’m so weird.

          1. Oh man! You just wrote my closing scene. 50 years from now, Grandma Nammu takes the kids to see the Glowing Ruins. Awesome!

        1. Just remember that the atmosphere absorbs quite a bit of gamma rays (enough to pretty much keep them away from sea level at normal exposures from space, even when there are gamma ray bursts), so even though they are beyond the visible spectrum, such a beam will ionize the atmosphere it passes through and create the brightest, straightest lightning bolt you ever saw.

  5. I was in improv in college, and it’s amazing what a random suggestion can do to shake things loose. Either “what’s the worst thing that could happen to this character?” or “what’s the most random thing that could happen to this character?” Then you explore that, preparing to discard if necessary.

    1. Under what circumstances will the rest of the cast rely on the craziest dude for sanity and reason?

  6. If you are lost in the depths of the pants, that probably means you’ve dropped some pounds.

  7. Since no one else has made a “party in my pants” joke, I’ll share one of my favorite lines that I haven’t yet written the right character for:

    “It’s not really a party in my pants, it’s more of a team-building exercise, but you’re still invited.”

  8. Can be helpful to continue a stuck middle with asking yourself (or your Alpha reader, if desperate!): What change/event occurring would make your focal character’s attempt to accomplish his story goal more complicated/more difficult to achieve? How would the various main characters react to that change?

  9. I got stuck after the third novel, and it’s been years. But there were several real life issues involved, causing lots of stress, and I don’t handle stress well. I was starting to get going again last fall, but then got stuck again. But then I tend to be stuck in the darker winter months anyway, every winter (SAD) so I’m hoping that this time it’s just that and it starts flowing again in a month or two now when the days are getting longer again.

  10. When outlining, my favorite response to being stuck is take whatever I THOUGHT would happen next — and reverse it.

    You were going to get information at the fair. well, actually, a dragon’s going to break up the fair so everyone has to run away.

    1. And, of course, there’s always “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” You do need to identify a suitable “man.” I once did a story where, whenever stuck, I set something on fire. . . for significant world-building and plot reasons.

  11. One thing I’ve done that has helped is lop off the last part (to it’s own separate file), like maybe twenty thousand words last part, and start writing again from where it was flowing. Yeah, okay, so the dragons showed up six months too soon. Figures. They’re dragons, after all, they want their page time.
    My biggest problem is that once I know how it ends the words stop coming. Apparently I’m in it to amuse myself. Nice hobby, but bad for finishing anything.

  12. There is also the E E Smith solution, though I think he did not plan it this way. Write the ending first. Apparently he wrote the last bit of Children of the Lens before he wrote the rest of the book. Rowling did the same with Harry Potter, and has since concluded that the ending was wrong–she had the wrong people marry each other. The thought of writing three more Harry Potter novels, showing how choices matter, apparently did not occur to her. Yet.

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