Outlining for Pantsers – or How to be Organized When You’re Not.

You may have heard the old “plotters vs. pantsers” thing. Plotters outline. They have detailed notes on chapters and characters before they ever start to write. They have notes on their bulletin boards and when they’re done with a novel, it’s done. They don’t take random road trips; they take their car to the shop for an oil change and new tires first, and not only do they have AAA maps, they’ve also got a GPS and fully charged cell phones, and an itinerary planned down to the hour.

Pantsers, on the other hand, say screw that! Let’s take this road, it looks interesting. Hope there’s a gas station soon, because we’re sitting on a quarter of a tank, but hey! If not, we should have cell service. Wait. Where’d the signal go? Oh well! Keep going! They have a character, or even a scene, in mind, and they just write until they either finish the novel or the novel finishes them.

Guess which I am? 🙂

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in edits and rewrites to a manuscript. It’s changed considerably in the past months, and I’m having trouble keeping up with it all! My friends think I’m so organized. I haven’t got the heart to tell them it’s all a ruse, a clever illusion so complete that even Penn and Teller would be fooled.

There’s a saying among writers:  “You can either plot it before you start, or after you finish.” Pantsers often end up with a novel that’s a bit of a hot mess – the characters are often fantastic, and a lot of the scenes are engaging and surprising because pantsers have this ability to let the characters do whatever the hell they want to do. But they may not flow well, and some scenes may be extraneous. Some plot ideas are just dead ends. So when they finish that first draft, they have to put the work back into it to turn that hot mess into something coherent and cohesive. Been there, done that. Want my spare T-shirt? 🙂

Last year at the Rose State Writers’ Conference, I attended a workshop on “Outlining Your Novel.” I took those notes out this morning to see if there was anything in there that I could use for my current predicament.

  • The presenter argued that you should outline ahead of time, even if you don’t follow it. This is because when you start, you should at least have an idea of where you think you’re going. And if you get stuck, or start to go down one of those scary roads, you’ve got that outline there to maybe bring you back.
  • For her own novels, she makes a list of 10 key scenes she wants to see in the story, scenes that she’s really looking forward to writing. Three or four of them are what she terms “money shots” – scenes she really wants to get on paper, scenes she’s dying to write. The others are going to be good too, but not quite as gripping. These are jotted down in no particular order.
  • As we all know from reading and writing, stories often fall apart in the middle. She suggested looking at the three-act storyline (which I admit, I’ve never truly understood and still don’t). For me, the best way to do it is to think about it this way:  what does your character want? What are they going to do to get it? And what can do you do to stop them from getting it?
  • Every scene should lead to the next one. Your character has a setback? Let her rebound in the next scene. Your character’s in trouble? Leave that chapter on a cliffhanger and continue that scene to the next instead. Keep the reader reading! Likewise, each ‘act’ must build towards something. (Truthfully, I think this is where pantsers sometimes have an advantage:  we just follow the characters, so when they get in trouble, we follow them to see how they get out of it.)

HOWEVER. This presenter admitted that outlines change. You may start out knowing precisely where you want this novel to go – let’s say you’ve got a heroine who is fighting against her evil older sister, a queen. But then you get into the novel more. You start to figure out who these characters are. You realize that the queen’s not evil at all – she’s just frightened and misunderstood. And that love interest you created for the heroine? He’s not as nice as you thought he was. Voila! You’ve just written Frozen. Congratulations. As you spend time with  your characters and get to know them, they’ll start to do things you didn’t imagine. And when they do that, your story takes on a life of its own. That’s one of the reasons why outlines can be tricky – if you get too attached to them, refuse to follow that interesting dirt road your characters insist on going down, you could stall out.

Another way to keep stories moving – and another good reason for outlines – is that there’s never just one plot. There’s your Main Plot, the Big Picture if you will. Take Harry Potter #1, for example. The Big Picture is Harry finding out who he really is, and preparing to go against Voldemort. But how many smaller plotlines are there? His friendships with Ron and Hermione. The Quidditch team. His rivalry with Draco Malfoy. The classes he’s taking. Do they all tie into the Big Picture? Yes. They all help to create that Big Picture, don’t they? But the smaller plots can get lost. Outlining can help you plug them in.

Outlines needn’t be great big things with Roman numerals and huge chapter synopses. Where’s the fun in that? But let’s say you’re like me, and you’re a pantser who’s rewriting a novel. Where can that take you?

What I’m doing is creating a to-do list for the novel (which I discussed earlier this month). I know what scenes need to stay and which are going to have to go; I know what scenes I need to write. My job now is to figure out where they go, and then tie them together. I can’t worry about tying them together at the moment; we’ll get to the flow and confluence of the scenes later. Since I’m adding a character, I have to weave in his story line to the original manuscript. And along the way, figure out where scenes go for maximum buildup to the end.

So my outline is, I guess, a work in progress. I know it will help immensely once I get it done. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Like I said – Roman numerals are not necessary! For examples of this, see the links below.


http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/series-outline/ – Deconstructing J.K. Rowling’s Series Grids.

http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ – Some great images of ‘plot outlines’ by famous authors, including Joseph Heller and Sylvia Plath.

Writing ‘Order of the Phoenix’ – Rowling’s Outline

I think this has been going around the internet for a bit, but I thought I’d share it anyway — JK Rowling’s ‘spreadsheet’ for Order of the Phoenix. It’s similar to what I do with Post-It Notes and a blank bedroom wall, but neater. (And clearly, her cats haven’t been having fun with this, either.)