Story Evolution: A Pantser’s Journey

Like many things in life, the act of creation that we call writing comes in many forms. The most notable definitions are plotter and pantser. As you’d expect, a plotter is someone who plots their stories before they write. A pantser is someone who doesn’t plot, but makes it up as they write. Many Plotters write linearly, starting at chapter one and stopping at “The End”.

Image from Pixabay.

Many pantsers jump around within the story, incorporating plot points or detail as they go. Sometimes there’s a logic to this process, even if it’s not linear or plotting. For example, I like to write counterpoint scenes together (Scene one starts a story arc, Scene two gives the pay-off) even if those scenes aren’t in the same book, never mind the same chapter.

Of course plotting and pantsing aren’t mutually exclusive methods. Most writers are a mix of both, but lean heavily one way or the other. I would say I’m about 80% pantser and 20% plotter, or maybe 90/10. Whichever, I’m heavily on the pantser side.

I thought I’d share a bit about the evolution of a few story ideas from a pantser’s perspective to give you plotters out there some insight into how our (or at least my) minds work.

I had a number of story ideas back in the mid-1980s that have evolved substantially from where they started.

The one that’s evolved the least, and the first novel that I ever wrote, is a 135,000 space opera with military sci-fi leanings. If I ever want to publish it, I’ll need to do a rewrite, as it doesn’t reflect the quality of my writing now, and I wouldn’t want it out there as is. (I also have a cool idea for an alternative edit of it, so you can read it twice, the second time from a different perspective).

Then there was the story that I called The Key to Alexandria. It was about three gems and the various elements trying to control and unite them. The lead character, a modern-day man, must learn how to travel through time to control them and save the Earth from the demons that would be released if someone else gets control. The story ended with the destruction of the library in ancient Alexandria and the simultaneous destruction of the Moon, dooming all life on Earth.

The sequel, The Legacy of Alexandria, would follow the protagonist’s attempts to set things right – keep the destruction of the library, but save the Moon and thus Earth. Notably these two stories never left Earth, but played with time travel.

How they’ve evolved.

There are no more crystals. There are no more demons. The story barely touches on Earth, instead dealing with a close encounter in deep space and the repercussions that arise from it. There’s a huge time jump between book 1 and book 2 (about 300 years). The second book does deal with Earth a lot more, but is still space opera in its execution and tropes.

What’s stayed the same? The (human) characters and the themes.

The third idea that I’d developed the most was tentatively called Hawke, Inc. It was an episodic series that dealt with a far future society scattered among many stars. (It was ‘my Star Trek’ so to speak). In this universe, a very rich recluse named Hawke was spending his fortune to disrupt powerful corrupt governments by funding a series of ships and their counterinsurgency crews. These professional troublemakers would try to level the playing field for the less powerful.

In some ways the bones of this structure are still here, although less polemic. Hawke has been demoted to ship’s captain. His ship, name not finalized yet, was a mid-tier diplomatic ship from the local equivalent of the UN. But in this universe, the UN is being defunded by the superpowers, and losing all authority (so nothing like Star Trek’s Federation). In fact this UN has fallen so far from grace that they can’t completely crew their vessels with recruits. So they’ve started press-ganging some classes of criminals into serving on the vessels. The five-book story follows one such ship as it press-gangs a smuggler and gets into crazy adventures.

This story keeps evolving. As I’ve been writing it, I decided that I needed more layers. I’ve borrowed characters from a short story that I wrote a few years ago, and put them front and centre in this universe. Hawke isn’t in the story for very long now. The ‘love interest’ is a much more fleshed out character, and has a pretty cool story arc now that includes not just how she got disowned by her parents, and also her redemption (the plotter in me knows her whole path). She didn’t exist a year ago. Now, she’s the emotional core of the (over 30 year old) story.

And just today, I realized that the story works better if the ship isn’t “a mid-tier diplomatic ship” but a cadet training vessel being pressed into more and more dangerous service due to budget and crew shortfalls. This allows me to have a logical reason for scenes of conflict among the command crew and department heads. It allows me to incorporate minor info dumps as cadets are being taught on the job. This also sets up a cool set of scenes in book 3 when the remnants of the crew merges with three other crews to form a new one.

This is pantsing, in its purest form.