Saturday, 8 August 2015

4 Things This Pantser Has Learned About Outlining

I've said it more than once before on this blog of mine; I'm a pure-blooded Pantser when it comes to my writing.

Most times I might have a vague beginning, an approximate end and a sort of squishy-malleable bit that constitutes the middle in my head when I sit down to start writing something new. Sometimes it's no more than a "What if this was going on, and then that were to happen? That might be cool..."  But in either case, the process is largely an unmapped journey for me - jump in that car. put the pedal to the floor and see what there is to see, baby!

And while that usually works out just fine for me with short stories and song lyrics, for writing novels... not so much. Not at all, in fact. Truth is, for something as big and many-headed as a novel, you need to have an outline to work to (unless you're Stephen King, but that's only because he is an anomaly in the fabric of storywriting-space and has more than earned his free pass on that one.) Outlines are your road map. Outlines - way more than Google could ever be - are your friend.

But can a Pantser outline? Doesn't that go Against Nature? I used to think so. The very idea of sitting down in front of a blank page and laying down a numbered list of plot points before I ever got to writing a word of the actual story was enough to make my brain blue-screen. But that was before I finally wrote a complete first draft of a novel (Redemption.) And as I ploughed through Draft Two the jury delivered its verdict: if I didn't want this thing to tangle itself into an unholy mess, I needed to outline it before I jumped any deeper in. And I'd better learn how to do that, whether I liked it or not.

It's been a bumpy road, but I've learned a lot of stuff in the process. And since I know I'm not the only Pantser out there, I thought I'd share what I've learned. So here we go...

1 - Even the purest-blooded Pantser can outline.

It's true! There a gazillion ways to outline, and they're all different. Some of them barely feel like outlining at all. The one that works best for me is the Index Card Method, since it feels exactly like pantsing, except... well it's pantsing in advance, if you like. You fill out one index card per story event as it comes to you and then stuff it in an envelope or something for safekeeping. You can do this over as long a period as you like; one or two massive brainstorming sessions for the whole story, or in spare moments of inspiration as they come to you over a period of days, weeks or even months. You can even do it for a future project while you're working on your current one, with minimal disruption to either.

The great thing about this method for a Pantser is that nothing feels 'locked down' - you can shuffle the order of the cards, add more in or take some out without the whole structure collapsing. So if you really do believe you're allergic to outlining, I suggest you give this one a go. It might just be the cure.

2 - You don't have to outline right from the very start.

Sometimes your brain is just so full of story you want to pour it all over the page like a Jackson Pollock painting, or your head will just, like, explode, man. You can see the whole thing, playing like a movie in your mind - the set, the costumes, the characters...

And when that happens, the very last thing you want is some mental schoolmarm-type yelling "STOP! NO! Thou must OUTLINE thy creative outpourings first!" You can practically feel the vacuum from the fun being sucked right out of the process. You don't have time for that shizzle - if you don't release your creative waterfall right now, it might drain away to nothing before you can capture it in all its story goodness. Well the good news is... you don't have to.

Ninety-nine-percent of the time, first drafts suck anyway. So really, it doesn't matter if it sucks because you went in there with no map, no compass and no Kendall Mint Cake or because the gear you did have (i.e. the Outline) didn't help you one bit. Unless you tell people, no-one's gonna know - and even less will care, probably. So if you prefer the barf-it-up-and-see method for first drafting, have at it and leave the outlining stage for... well, when you've got something to outline - i.e. a completed first, second or beyond draft.. 'Cos that's just how most Pantser's brains work anyway.

3 - Sometimes you think you've outlined when you actually haven't.

This is certainly what I thought when I started work on the second draft of Redemption. "Well duh, yeah! Here's my outline, look at it; I've got a perfect little summary of every single scene I've written, including where and when each scene happens and what characters are in them, and they're all in the right order... that's me good to go..."

Mmmmyeah, that's not an outline. Not really. It's no more an outline than trying to figure out how to make a cake by reading the list of ingredients, i.e. it might tell you what's in it, but it doesn't tell you what to do with the stuff - or even if you need all of it in there or maybe need to add in some stuff that isn't and should be... 

I'm not saying it's not useful. In fact, I'd say it's essential - for helping you to create the real, actual outline.  Because only by looking at the complete but summarised form of what you've already done, using the cold and distant overview of Story God (bwah ha haaa) can you make hard-nosed decisions about what needs to be cut, what's still missing and which order everything needs to go in to make sense. And you'd be amazed how much things can change in that process. For example, I've removed an entire secondary POV from Redemption Draft 3, because it was only when I read my Draft 2 'outline' as a complete document that I realised the character's take on events wasn't needed - in fact, far from being a form of foreshadowing, most of the time his input only sucked the drama out of them. (He's still in the story, but he doesn't get a turn on the mike any more - sorry Dr Harvey, but that's showbiz for ya...) 

And once you've made all those decisions... that's your outline. Don't worry if it looks different from the one you had before - in the early drafting stages, it should. Because even if it means you've got a metric ton of rewriting ahead of you, that's progress. You're another ledge closer to the top of the mountain, intrepid story-sherpa.

4 - There are many resources out there that can help with Story Structure. But not all of them are good for Pantsers.

I know this because I've read a metric lorryload of them over the past few years. There are good ones, great ones and bloody terrific ones, and there also 'meh' ones, bad ones and truly terrible ones. But... there are also 'right' ones and 'wrong' ones. Books that aren't bad in any way - but will nonetheless not help certain types of writers in the least - and may, in fact, actually hinder them.

A great book for Pantsers is the wonderfully-titled 'Take Off Your Pants!' by Libbie Hawker. It teaches a lot about story structure without locking you down into a blow-by-blow blueprint that Thou Must Stuff Thy Story Into, like trying to squish an entire pig through a sausage machine. Pretty much any of Chuck Wendig's writing how-to books are also a great investment, and while it goes quite deep into the psychology of the human mind and storytelling, The Story Book by David Baboulene contains a load of useful stuff about the essence of creating good, well-paced plots. I generally read bite-size chunks of books like these in the morning, over breakfast, just before I start my daily writing session, and not only did I feel like I learned a lot from these books, I would actually get up from them inspired to go write, right now..!

However, on the flip side... other things inspired the opposite mindset in my Pantser brain - as in, left me feeling like a total doofus who was just kidding herself she had the intelligence to write anything anyone would ever want to read, ever. I mention them here not to be snarky, but so that if any of you have, are, or will be trying any of the following you won't feel bad if they don't help you either - it's no reflection on you or your intelligence, they're just not geared to the Pantser, that's all:

The Snowflake Method - I'm sure it works wonderfully for plotters... but to me it just felt like that thing where you're trying to untangle a ball of wool and somehow every loop you try and untangle just puts two more new knots in it that weren't there before. When I was a software technician I used a similar process to the Snowflake Method - they called it 'Top-Level Design' but it was the same principle - and I found it helped me a lot with computer programming. I don't write stories like I write computer programs though (and that's probably a good thing, because most of the computer code I wrote was pretty darn boring.)

Mind Mapping - this one surprised me. I mean, all those free-wheelin' bubbles with lines coming off them, and bubbles connecting to other bubbles sounds like the way a Pantser's mind works, right? Turns out, no. From my experience, I think it's actually just a Plotter's way of trying to be freeform. I made some mind maps - and hell, they looked pretty darned good too. But they didn't tell me a single thing I didn't know on a gut instinct already - about my characters, the plot, themes, anything. I don't need to see what's already stored in my head drawn out in bubbles and lines in front of me, any more than I need a set of instructions to make myself a cup of tea.

Anything with a rigid 'story structure template' to follow - and there are some titanium-knickered examples out there, believe me. The worst example I saw not only had a detailed, non-negotiable schedule of events that absolutely must happen for your story to be considered worthy of reading, it even dictated the time in percentage of the book's whole for each of those events to happen - and gave you a handy formula for calculating those percentages in your own book, including necessary adjustments if you had a Prologue...

Yeah, that one felt like it actually ripped my IQ out of my brain and beat me around the head with it crying "Fool! Call yourself a writer? YOU ARE NOT WORTHY!"


Even if you're the Pantsiest Pantser in Pantsville, outlining is a useful skill to have in your toolbox. It's kind of like learning CPR; even if you never use it on an actual person in the real world, you carry this nice little feeling of security around with you forever afterwards, knowing that you could do it if you ever had to step up to that plate.

What's your take on outlining? Love it or hate it? Any tips and experiences to share? Feel free to drop a line in the Comments below.


  1. Hi! I definitely lean on the side of planner by nature, but as I am currently in the midst of an EPIC rewrite & edit of a first draft, I think I need to do it BETTER. Ain't nobody got time for this amount of rework. Funnily enough I just read Take Off Your Pants! myself and would totally recommend it too. I'm a big fan of writerly advice books which also inspire you to get writing, as you say.

  2. Whilst pantsing is the way my brain naturally works, I admire the planners of the world - in a strange way, I think it must be quite freeing for the writing process (you guys are probably quite comfortable with writing scenes for any point in the story at any time, for instance, whereas I find writing 'out of sequence' almost impossible.) Good luck with your epic rewrite!