Writing by the Seat of Your Pants
Some authors plan meticulously. Before they even start to write, they have a detailed plot synopsis, character biographies, pages on setting, and a detailed backstory to the main tale... at the least.
Others just sit down at their word processor and type whatever comes into their head. This trope is dedicated to them.
This is not necessarily a trope about authors who simply write without a speck of planning at all (although it can be), but rather those who, overall, are improvising as they write. They may already have invented their characters, perhaps they have a vague plot bubbling in their head, even a few notes on Backstory or setting. What separates this kind of writing from planned writing is that these writers are prepared to throw those notes in the trash the moment they come up with an idea that they prefer. Writing a hardboiled crime fiction novel? Remember that takeaway place you thought up on the spot to give your sleuth somewhere to eat his lunch? That would be perfect as a front for the Big Bad's drug-dealing business. Making a movie? That actor's take on that character is way better than what you originally had in mind. Why not rewrite half his part to take advantage of that vision?
The trope name comes from the phrase "flying by the seat of your pants", a colloquialism for "deciding a course of action as you go along".
This is the novelistic version of Schrödinger's Gun or the Indy Ploy; when the author of a series canonizes fan suggestions as he goes along, see Ascended Fanon. Can also be related to I Just Write the Thing.
Please only add examples where the author admitted to doing this. This is not a page for speculation.
- Writer Tsugumi Oba admitted that this was pretty much the way he wrote Death Note: he'd write Light into a massive jam at the end of one chapter, and would then try and figure out how to get him out of it only when time came to write the next one.
- Tite Kubo, the author of Bleach, is infamous for using this trope and for his special use of Chandler's Law: "When in doubt, introduce a new awesome character". He was in doubt very often...
- This becomes particularly apparently after the Ichigo-Grimmjow fight. Before then Kubo did a decent enough job that it at least seemed as if he had a plan. After that fight the story became increasingly sloppy, to the point where several characters were just forgotten about and given no resolution. Aizen's "plans" also started making less and less sense.
- Before Tite Kubo, Akira Toriyama did Dragon Ball 98% like this. Some few things he thought ahead, and he did plan each chapter before drawing it, but otherwise he improvised each week how to follow the story. Sadly, some fans seem to think he had a carefully planned plot that Executive Meddling didn't let him do - not true at all.
- The writers of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann admitted, regarding the Gainax First Scene of the series, that they "lost that plot thread somewhere".
- Hidenori Kusaka does this in regards of Pokémon Special, as he has to write along side of whatever games just come out. What really makes him impressive, however, is that he doesn't work for Game Freak yet the series has a sheer amount of generation-spanning Arc Welding and Chekhov's Guns. Fans joke that he can see into the future.
- Osamu Tezuka wrote Ambassador Atom (the prototype for Astro Boy) as he went along. Notably, he had no idea who "Atom" would be, until he later decided to write him as a robot built to replace Tenma's deceased son. He would later Retool Atom into his current incarnation, and subsequently redid the story as an episode of Astro Boy.
- The original writers of Impulse admitted they were writing by the seat of their pants in the first trade. Given the character, this is quite appropriate.
- Prolific comic book writer Robert Kanigher did this all the time. The results run the full gamut from enduring classics to ludicrous dross (but it was ludicrous dross that was handed in on time, and that was the important thing).
- DC Comics in general, during the Silver Age of comics, was infamous for using the following writing system: an editor would design a cover with whatever elements he felt would be popular (gorillas, dinosaurs, aliens etc.) or shocking events (death scenes of major characters, betrayals, pranks etc.) then he would give the cover to a writer and tell him to just come up with a story that made sense out of it. The results were often not very logical, but still enjoyable in their own way.
- Compare "The Marvel Method" from the same era: One writer would plot a story, an artist would draw the comic, then another writer would do the dialogue, often having to explain things all by himself. This is why Marvel was able to put about half a dozen or so comics each month even though the stories were devised almost exclusively by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Marvel used this system as late as the 80's.
- Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy, made up his stories as he went along. His maxim was that if even he didn't know where a story was going at the start, then his readers certainly wouldn't be able to guess.
- Judge Dredd creator John Wagner has said this is the way he prefers to write. Case in point: the reappearance of the Dark Judged in "Day of Chaos" wasn't originally planned, but with all that was going on in Mega-City One at the time, bringing them back was the perfect way to make things even worse.
- Casablanca was being written as it was filmed.
- In Iron Man, the actors came up with so many good things on-set that halfway through they just threw away the script (having previously rewritten it every night) and instead wrote outlines of each scene instead. Jeff Bridges said that it felt weird doing it this way, then realized that he had to treat it "like a 200 million dollar student film".
- The second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies were both being written as they were filmed.
- Tim Burton's Batman was constantly being expanded, edited and rewritten. Burton himself once recounted a situation wherein he had The Joker take Vicki Vale hostage and move into the Church, with no idea what to do storywise after that point.
- David Lynch infamously wrote Inland Empire scene by scene during filming. What effect this had on the film's (lack of) coherence is up to debate. Seeing as it's David Lynch, however, it really doesn't matter too much.
- Magical Mystery Tour is an excellent example.
- The 90's movie of The Fugitive was largely made this way, on the fly—although one would never suspect by watching it, as it looks very carefully planned.
- The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was shot like that. Even as the cameras kept rolling, scenes and plots were being rewritten again and again - some versions of the script reached not just the double digits, but went up to 40 and above. Actors frequently got their lines only at the night before the shooting and major revisions resulted in whole scenes being re-shot. Ironically, the writers insist that each iteration was ultimately closer to Tolkien's work and even stated that some of the remaining controversial changes might have been gone too, had they not reached a deadline by then.
- Befitting its chaotic production schedule, Apocalypse Now was made largely with this and Throw It In. Francis Ford Coppola didn't even have an ending, as he'd considered John Milius's ending (Willard joins Kurtz, and the film ends with Kurtz shooting at American war planes bombing his temple while screaming about his erection) ridiculous.
- An excellent summation of this trope from E.L. Doctorow: "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way." (also quoted by Anne Lamott).
- Ray Bradbury fleshed out his short story The Fireman into the novel Fahrenheit 451 at a pay typewriter in 9 days.
- There's a famous Bradbury quote on his method of writing that pretty eloquently sums up this trope: "You've got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down."
- Isaac Asimov has gone on record stating that, while he usually has an end in mind, he almost never has any idea how he'll get there.
- Garth Nix says this is how he writes - most of his worldbuilding is made up on the spot.
- Stephen King falls into this category—he never plans ahead, he just writes until he has a good idea and runs with it.
- The Green Mile may be his best example of this. It was originally released in installments. At the time the first installment was released to the public, he hadn't even figured out the ending yet... but still a set release scheduled for it.
- King said in On Writing that he does occasionally plot his stories, he just does it rarely because he usually isn't proud of the results (like Rose Madder and Insomnia) when he does—with one exception: The Dead Zone.
- Cory Doctorow wrote Little Brother in eight days.
- The NaNoWriMo project lends itself to this approach. Participants are given 30 days to see if they can write at least 50,000 words.
- The Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe churned out novels for Badger Books on the basis of a book cover, a title and a very short deadline. Badger's policies mean it's impossible to tell exactly how many he wrote, but the estimate works out at one 158 page book every twelve days. To manage this, he dictated into a reel to reel tape recorder, then shipped the tapes off to a pool of typists for transcription. To hit the word target, he would pad out the books with philosophical discussions, mundane detail and redundant descriptions (robots: "Metal things. Metal things that could think. Thinking metal things"), but then could be told that he had only three pages left to wrap up the story, so he had to pull out a Deus Ex Machina. Despite, or perhaps because of all this, Fanthorpe's work has picked up a So Bad It's Good following.
- L. Ron Hubbard claims he wrote by meditating into a trance-like state and typing constantly for hours at a time. According to Harlan Ellison, Hubbard used the Jack Kerouac method—he rigged a roll of butcher paper of the appropriate width to feed into his typewriter, wrote for several hours, and at the end cut the long sheet down into even pages.
- Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy this way largely - throw out tons of ideas, then return later when it seems like one of them is funny or could be made relevant (like the potted plant saying "Oh no, not again"). As you can imagine, Adams was terrible at deadlines and finished the first book at that page because his publisher was furious. He once remarked, "Writing is easy. You just stare at a blank page until your forehead starts to bleed."
- Robert B. Parker of the Spenser, Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone series wrote like this, and compared it to being like the detectives of his novels never knowing what was coming next.
- Horace Kelton once replied to a friend that he didn't know "what [his] next book would be about. The characters [hadn't] told [him]." But he still planned some once he got the basic idea.
- Charles de Lint writes that way and refers to it an "organic" style of writing.
- Terry Pratchett usually writes with a plan, but in an interview said that while writing the assassin's "driving test" in Pyramids, he had absolutely no idea how it would unfold, and consequently it is one of his most favorite moments in the Discworld series.
- Haruki Murakami swears to this type of writing, never knowing the ending when he begins a story. It shows
- Stanislaw Lem wrote Solaris that way. It is considered to be his best book which is saying something, because his other works are nothing short of brilliance.
- The cast of the Writing Excuses podcast have often talked about the difference between being a outliner vs. a discovery writer. Dan Wells, author of the John Carver Trilogy is a self-confessed discovery writer.
- Hunter S. Thompson not only did this, he made it the essence of Gonzo journalism: Your notes, more or less unedited, are the finished product. He would frequently spend hours or days locked up in his room with a typewriter, a whole bunch of paper, and half a ton of drugs and booze, hammering away furiously to send a long, rambling, yet somehow incredibly cogent piece off to Rolling Stone or whatever other publication he was writing for at the time. He famously declared his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas not to be Gonzo, as he had edited it too much (although in fairness, he admits that his notes would have been literally unpublishable in their raw state).
- George R.R. Martin describes himself as a "gardener" writer as opposed to an "architect," who plans everything beforehand. He knows how A Song of Ice and Fire will end, but the road to getting there has largely been up in the air.
- Much of Charles Dickens' novel-length work was created one chapter at a time for sale to newspapers, with no long-term planning. However, he wrote these chapters so densely-packed with detail that he could almost always find something in them to turn into a retroactive Chekhov's Gun at need.
- In the original KTMA season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the riffs were improvised rather than written. The films being mocked hadn't even been seen in their entirety in advance. In the Comedy Central era, however, each film was carefully screened and written for before its respective episode was recorded. The show became better for it.
- The Battlestar Galactica revival. The writers' commentary on the DVD makes it clear that a lot of stuff was made up episode-by-episode.
- Especially irritating when every episode began with the statement "... and they have a plan." In fairness, this tagline was apparently inserted by the executives.
- Many viewers found this especially apparent in the plot points involving the identity of the Final Five cylons, leading to images like this one
- Word of God has admitted that they started writing Twin Peaks not knowing who had killed Laura Palmer.
- The vast majority of soaps work on this principle. It's essentially the nature of doing a work "live." Real Life Writes the Plot sometimes contributes to this trope, especially for things like pregnancies.
- Parodied in a Kids in The Hall sketch, which warns the viewer that it was "written in haste," showing the writer frantically mashing a keyboard trying to finish it within the deadline. The scene is filled with nonsensical actions and garbled dialogue caused by the typos, such as a man taking off his "rubber boobs" and sitting down on a "chain."
- Aaron Sorkin does this. There's a story that when he was writing The West Wing, he needed President Bartlet to be lying in bed for a scene—and so gave the character multiple sclerosis.
- Many committee-led series will change plot and emphasise characters depending on audience responses to broadcast episodes. Sylar and Hiro in Heroes received such a favourable response they were given much larger roles in the long run including Sylar being allowed to live beyond the Season 1 finale.
- The writers of "Glee" seem to be really, very, extremely guilty of this, partially because of their fondness for Pandering to The Fanbase and partially because they think of the show as a "pop-culture tribute" and basically just write around whatever's currently popular or of note in some way. And they also just change their minds a lot, like when Ryan Murphy broke up Quinn and Sam because he "got bored" with them. Overall, this keeps the humor of the show extremely up-to-date and relevant, but it also leads to many, many out-of-character moments that some viewers find annoying.
- A relatively small point: declaring Elaine not to be Jewish in Seinfeld was something Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld or someone had literally just thought of when the opportunity came to write about "Shiksappeal." She had previously been considered by the writers and inferred by the audience to be Jewish.
- The series finale of The Prisoner was written in a trailer over a weekend. Not surprising that it's one of the most infamous Mind Screws in television history.
- 24 was notoriously written on the fly, with the writers starting each season with practically no concrete idea where the thing was going to end up. Notably averted by Season 7, due to the 2007 Writers Strike and a year-long delay, resulting in a much more cohesive, planned-out storyline for that season.
- Elvis Costello recorded the album Momofuku in six days. He joked that "the record was made so quickly that I didn't even tell myself about it for a couple weeks."
- David Bowie's preferred methodology of song writing. Tony Visconti, his long time producer, has confirmed that Bowie will often come to the studio with just a few chord changes and write the lyrics and vocal melodies on the hoof.
- Notably, his #1 hit collaboration with Queen, "Under Pressure" was the result of a single night spent jamming with them - which was very different to the usual manner in which Queen made music.
- Post Rock band Mogwai's first full length album, Mogwai Young Team, contains 10 songs, only 3 of which had been written before the album's recording sessions began.
- This is how Douglas Adams wrote the original radio scripts for The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy. Apparently, he'd often still be rewriting the ends of episodes as the cast were recording the beginning. According to a making-of feature, the actor who was supposed to play the Ruler of the Universe (who appears in the final minutes of the last episode of season two) actually went home because it took Adams so long to finish the script. The role was cast by handing the pages to the one actor still in the studio who didn't have another part in that scene. In fact, the second series' deadlines for the scripts were so tight that his producers essentially locked him in a hotel room to force him to hit them.
- Adams would often lock himself in a small office next to the toilets to finish scripts. This, combined with the fact that the scripts were handed to the actors on little pieces of crinkly paper, led to the not unreasonable supposition among the cast that the scripts were written on toilet paper.
- The Tsar Bomba was designed while it was being built, due to having mere weeks to build the biggest nuke ever detonated.
- Penny Arcade is written without a Strip Buffer, so the creators can stay up-to-date on gaming news. Different reason for the trope, same idea. It helps that it's a gag-a-day strip, rather than needing any sort of continuity.
- Bob and George, especially at the beginning, when it was just filler.
- Interactive Comics:
- MS Paint Adventures, especially in the earlier adventures. The latest adventure, Homestuck, is the only one to have any sort of planning before being written, having started with the four central characters, their weapons of choice, some general game mechanics, and a handful of plot points, including an ending, worked out beforehand. The rest of the universe-spanning, time-traveling, chronology-fucking, nearly 4000 pages of extremely convoluted plot has been made along the way.
- Silent Hill: Promise is written similarly to MS Paint Adventures, updating daily using commands from readers.
- Questionable Content gets points for being a Monday through Friday comic that is not only drawn without a Strip Buffer, but is written and drawn by Jeph Jacques literally the night before. Sometimes if he's struck by a burst of inspiration, he'll do two comics in a day, waiting to post the second one, and sometimes if he's stuck for an idea he won't start drawing until 3 AM...
- This is David Willis' method of writing, as he goes into detail about here
- The Bionicle serials are apparently written like this, although the main plot is carefully planned out years in advance. The serials tend to cover the lesser-known characters and don't affect the main story much, so they are able to have this sort of freedom.
- Now, as there is no main plot to be told, the serials took over. This means the entire story has become an example.
- Darwin's Soldiers: Serris states that nearly everything he write was improvised on the fly, including the two sequels.
- According to the DVD Bonus Content, Freakazoid! was written with very little planning because of time constraints.
- Ren and Stimpy episodes never had real scripts. The creators went straight to storyboards and improvised each subsequent image.
- Yellow Submarine began production without an ending.
- Most episodes of South Park are pitched, storyboarded, written, animated, voice-recorded, and put on the air in the stretch of about one single week. To contrast, most animated series take multiple months per episode.
- The writers of Beast Wars admitted in DVD Bonus Content that they were winging it as they were going along.
- Not all NaNoWriMo writer write by the seat of their pants. The rules allow writers to have character sketches, plot summaries, and even extensive, detailed outlines -- as long as none of the actual prose is written before 12:00 AM on November 1.