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The Outline Dilemma—Plotting vs. Pantsing

May 27, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 29, 2011

Some of us shudder at the thought of facing the first line of an outline while others can’t wait to dive deep into spreadsheets and color coding and plot mapping.

I’m guessing that there’s not much of a gray area here—you either plan and plot, formally laying out your stories according to some standard system (even if it’s a system of your own devising), or you don’t plot in any formal way and you certainly don’t write up an outline.

I had a request to address outlines, so I’ll give you a few suggestions on what you can do with a story outline. But don’t think that you must outline. You’ve probably heard of plotters and pantsers—them that writes out plots before they begin drafting the story and them that flies by the seat of their pants and begin writing with little or no formal plotting.

Neither approach is wrong. Neither is right. The best method is the one that works for you, that allows you to create an entertaining and well-written story.

If pantsing keeps you interested and your writing vibrant, then write away without an outline. If plotting each chapter or scene keeps you on track and moving forward, then plot first and create second.

Choose the method that ensures your perseverance and a good result.

A bit of explanation for those who’ve not entered the debate on plotting vs. pantsing . . .

Plotters
Plotters wouldn’t think of beginning a novel without some idea of who the characters are, including knowledge of their goals and motivations; where those characters are going; the challenges that will stand against those characters; major plot events; and the story’s climax and resolution.

Plotters can write character-driven or plot-driven stories. If they prefer character-driven stories, they’ll literally know their characters inside and out. They’ll know physical characteristics, strengths, and limitations and personality quirks. They’ll know fears, what drives the characters, and what they love. They’ll be able to twist their characters into knots with ease because they know what taps into their longings and deepest needs.

If plotters prefer plot-driven stories, they’ll focus their plotting on story events. They’ll know high points and low points and turning points. They’ll devise events and then fashion characters to carry out the event actions that drive the story.

Plotters may know every character’s name and history and the scenes they’ll be in before they write the opening line.

Plotters may have put together elaborate character studies to determine personalities of their major characters, in part to know how those characters will act and react given the story events. But also to know the kinds of secondary characters that will complement and antagonize those characters.

Not all characters will mesh and not every character type will be a fitting antagonist for a protagonist. Plotting can give a writer a warning of characters who might not work for the intended story.

It’s quite likely that plotters know the story’s ending—the black moment, the climax, and the resolution—the setting of each ending element, and the characters involved in those moments.

Plotters may include details in their outlines that set up the next story in a series, planning those moments in advance, weaving them into the present story.

Plotters may lace subplots through the outline, determining which characters get the added story lines and page space.

A lot of plotting is imagining what if. Pantsers may wonder what if an alien landed in the center of the field at the half-time show for the Super Bowl and then start writing, based only on that single what-if moment. Plotters are more likely to take that single what-if and add to it: what if that alien landing caused a blackout for hundreds of miles; what if the President’s son and the Ayatollah’s son were playing on opposing teams; what if team members disappeared at that same moment; what if the U.S. and Iran and China had been warned of something happening on that day, with many clues as to what that something would be, but had ignored the threats because they’d been delivered through a children’s television show?

Pantsers
Those who don’t plan out their stories in advance of the writing have a very different outlook and setup than plotters. The pantsers often just begin writing with the smallest kernel of a plot or with only the shadow of a character that snares their interest.

Pantsers often write simply because a situation or character appeals, they think of an intriguing story opening, they want to explore a particular theme, or because they imagine a great climactic moment that just begs for a novel to be written around it.

Pantsers may jot down a few ideas, but they often find that the important kernel that jump starts their story is strong enough to carry them through character development, event and scene creation, and story resolution without requiring written reminders.

Yet, pantsers may make notes as they go along—just because they don’t plan in detail before they begin does not mean they don’t make notes about characters and upcoming events and setting.

If you’ve got sticky notes posted as reminders on every surface of your office, you’re probably a pantser.

Pantsers may actually have more notes in the margins of their manuscripts than plotters will (since plotters keep their notes in the outline), or they may make notes right in the text (often in colors different from the story text).

Pantsers sometimes report feeling freer when they write because they’re not keeping to a script (even a self-devised one). But they also may face plot tangles after writing the first draft that the plotter doesn’t face since the plotter tries to work out logic and logistics before beginning to write.

Pantsers also enjoy the excitement and enthusiasm of putting story to paper without first hashing through the story. They often feel the excitement of a new story is lost if they have to write the story out in outline form.

Again, I’ll say that there is no right method. You can always try more plotting or more pantsing, see if you like the results. But if you’re a plotter, then plot. Don’t let anyone tell you that you should do it some other way, that you should just go with the flow of the story.

Do it your way.

And if you’re a pantser, don’t assume the burden of a 20-, 50-, or 100-page outline just because someone else says plotting and outlining are necessary. They’re only necessary if they help you write. Try outlining just to see if it helps you, but don’t be bound by someone else’s methods. There are some rules in the writing world but there are also options for creativity. Outlining is an option.

You’re the writer. Use your tools in ways that make you succeed.

Now, if you’re required to outline for a class or because you work with a writing partner or your editor wants an idea of what you’re working on (though a short synopsis is often sufficient for this purpose), then you will need to outline. And you should know how to do it.

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Suggestions for outlining (some choices are mutually exclusive)—

Get the outline on paper (or computer)

Work backward from the climax or forward from the opening event, whichever makes sense for you

Don’t worry about missing a few plot holes or characters—simply leave a space for a scene about Jonas getting a gun or make a note about character X, a secondary or low-level antagonist

Make it simple and general—decide on only major plot events and/or characters before writing

Make it complex, sketching out scenes and choosing which characters will be in those scenes as well as which characters will instigate those scenes and story events

Write blurbs for each section, whether events or scenes or chapters

Draw a visual of your acts (3, 4, or more) in graph form and add the high point/crisis moments

Write out character sketches for major characters—include physical particulars, histories, relationships, goals and motivations, dreams, fears, importance to other characters

Write out setting sketches—know the look and feel of each scene location. Consider the five senses (and any paranormal ones, if necessary) and write out pertinent elements—the scents from the bakery next door, the hum from a highway on the other side of a hill, the effort it takes to walk on the highly polished marble entryway. Determine props to be found at each location. Consider weather and seasons and time of day.

Change the outline whenever you want—you are not limited to your first idea

Outline format
Be as formal as you want (or as required, if the outline is for someone else). Use the headings and sub-headings of a traditional outline or simply separate sections by chapter (and then by scenes within chapters). Or, use a spreadsheet and arrange columns as they make sense for you.

Include the following as they apply to your manuscript—

At the top.  Fill in the working title, genre, one-sentence plot description, theme, tone, paragraph-length description, and anything that helps focus the story. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the information—this is just a way to remind you what you do know so far.

Character sketches.  List these before or after the chapter, scene, or action sections. Character sketches can include anything that relates to a character and to a character’s relationship with the other characters and to the character’s impact on story events.

Character elements to consider (but please, don’t let this list limit you) include physical traits, personality, mental state, childhood and school history, prior interactions and history with other characters, goals and motivations, dreams, fears, talents and skills, exceptional gifts, current career and job history, notable achievements and notable setbacks, sense of place in the community and/or world, failures, coping mechanisms, habits, favorite expressions, style of movement, ethnicity and cultural background, hangouts, personal props, and manner of speech.

Remember to consider both negatives and positives, strengths and weaknesses, for your characters. And remember that a positive can be turned on its head and into a negative in the right circumstances.

Setting sketches. As with character sketches, include your setting information either before or after the scene or chapter sections. Or, you could include setting information at the top or bottom of each scene section. Again, do whatever keeps you focused and doesn’t get in your way.

Setting details include but are not limited to the following: era, date, season, time of day, place (building, home, street, store, farm, mountaintop, palace, another planet), props, sense factors (smells, sounds, and so forth), unnamed background characters, social milieu and cultural factors, lighting, political and religious conditions, weather, architecture, history, and current events.

Outline body.  This is where you fill in what you know about the story. Decide if you’re going for simple or complex. If simple, you may just have three sections, for a three-act layout, and the section headings would be Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.

If you choose to arrange by chapter (a fairly common outline layout), title headings will be by chapter (either number or name).

The following is an example of a very basic chapter outline. You would probably include much more information in your working outline, though the amount of detail is solely up to you.

Chapter 1.  Marcus, hiking the Appalachian Trail to figure out if he wants to make the effort to win back his ex-wife, discovers two bodies propped up against the rocks along his favorite side trail. The bodies have been posed, and arrows anchor notes to each of their chests.

Chapter 2.  Marcus squares off against Sheriff Burke Larson when the sheriff’s department releases a statement about hikers killed in a simple accident on the Trail. Marcus and Larson already had words when Marcus found out the sheriff was dating his ex.

A chapter outline could also include scenes.

Chapter 1.  Scene 1  Marcus, hiking the Appalachian Trail to figure out if he wants to make the effort to win back his ex-wife, discovers two bodies propped up against the rocks along his favorite side trail. The bodies have been posed, and arrows anchor notes to each of their chests.

Chapter 1. Scene 2.  Marcus squares off against Sheriff Burke Larson when the sheriff’s department releases a statement about hikers killed in a simple accident on the Trail. Marcus and Larson already had words when Marcus found out the sheriff was dating his ex.

Another option for your outline layout would be to list headings by scene rather than chapter. Thus scene titles would be your headings.

Or, you may just have a series of events or actions (dialogue is included in events). You could list event after event and even snippets of action or dialogue. This type of outline works well if you aren’t sure of the order of events in your story and only know that you do want certain events to occur.

In this as well as in any other type of outline, write notes to yourself to remind you of dialogue or tone or of items you don’t want to forget. And yes, if you want to write out actual dialogue or narration, do it. If it comes to you while you’re thinking of a scene, write it down.

Use color-coding to highlight different plot threads or to follow characters through your outline. Use color or different fonts to highlight character motivation in each scene of your outline.

Add anything to your outline that will help you develop each chapter, each scene, each specific section of text into what you want it to be.

An abbreviated example of an event-style outline

Opening Event.  Marcus discovers bodies on the Appalachian Trail

Somewhere in chapter one.  Marcus and Jennifer fight about her job at City Hall and the proximity of her office to that of the sheriff. She brings up, again, the night he slugged the guy he thought had hit on her. (Remember to show his disgust at his own lack of restraint and hint that he thought he was protecting her. Show that she still doesn’t understand why he punched the guy.)

Other events of chapter one and two.

Inciting incident. (End of chapter three)  Jennifer is shot at by the same person who killed the hikers. Marcus vows to catch the shooter.

Whatever your format, make it work for you. Don’t get so caught up in the layout that you don’t actually plot and don’t eventually write the story. A story outline is only worthwhile if it leads to a story.

This section of your outline may be a dozen pages long or 100 pages long. Put as much or as little detail in your outline as you want to.

Additional sections of your outline may include partial scenes or notes.

These, then, are the basics of outlining.

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If you choose to plot by using an outline, realize that you can make it as detailed as you need it to be. Write informal notes about only the crisis moments or lay out each scene with specifics or find your perfect working outline somewhere between the extremes.

Use a spreadsheet or a traditional outline with headings and sub-headings or just a simple list.

Or, if you want to try something new and you’ve always outlined your stories, try writing without an outline. See if pantsing frees you to write in a way you haven’t been able to write before.

Write a short story not knowing what challenges your protagonist will face or who the other characters are. (I suggest a short story because of the time factor.) If you find that pantsing doesn’t work for you, you’ll probably have discovered why and then you’ll pay even closer attention to that area of craft as you write.

If you’ve never written a formal outline for a story, why not try one? Again, try it for a short story. See if outlining keeps the plot threads tight. See if outlining helps you cut down on rewrites. You might discover that a bit of planning improves the impact of your stories.

Some generalities of pantsers and plotters to consider (these may be a true portrait of you and your style, or you may find that you don’t work quite to these patterns)—

Plotters consider the what-if and then keep wondering, making connections and eliminating options before they begin writing the story.

Pantsers take the what-if and run with it, considering and eliminating options while they write.

Plotters may work from beginning to end or end to beginning, whatever makes sense for them in terms of developing story. Just because they plan, that doesn’t mean they have to develop the events and scenes in a straight line from beginning to end.

Pantsers often consider only one or two elements of a story and begin to write, uncaring of possible problems, confident they can deal with problem areas when they arise.

Plotters often know the story’s end and the path they intend to take to get there.

Pantsers may or may not know the end of the story before they begin writing. Many pantsers want to be surprised by where the story takes them.

Plotters may plot only in general terms, perhaps deciding only the high and low moments of the story or the general events in their three acts. That is, not all plotters outline every scene detail.

What plotters often achieve through their outlining, pantsers must work on during rewrites, tasks such as connecting events, building up (versus building in) conflict, adding foreshadowing, and winnowing out excess characters or events. This isn’t to say that plotters don’t have to rewrite. It’s just that some of what pantsers work through on rewrites will have already been addressed by plotters.

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This is a long article; I hope it’s helpful as you work on your own stories and as you encourage other writers with theirs.

Realize that as you don’t write with the same style that others use, you also don’t approach writing projects in the same manner as other writers. Know that it’s all right to be either a plotter or a pantser, that you can outline or not and still produce a highly engaging story. Realize, too, that your writing buddies might need encouragement to accept their own writing styles and approaches. Don’t be guilty of trying to turn your pantser friends into plotters by guilting them into it and don’t tell a plotter that the only way he’ll produce a quality manuscript is by writing by the seat of his pants.

We each have our ways. And if they work, that’s the method we should follow.

(I’ll confess that I’m a pantser who always knows where the story starts and where the story ends. It’s those moments in between that surprise and delight me.)

Write according to your inclinations. Try other options, of course. You never know what may help you improve your skills. But don’t be forced into a style that doesn’t help you produce a better story.

Take your freedom where you can get it and write great story.

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36 Responses to “The Outline Dilemma—Plotting vs. Pantsing”

  1. RGBullet says:

    Great post! When I started my novel it was Panster-style – I had a very strong image in mind and it spiraled out from there. Plotting makes sense, and if I was to approach writing from a logical stance that’s what I would do. However, I found that while I wrote, ideas came to me that I couldn’t have predicted. I had to be totally immersed in the scene for ideas to ‘arrive’ — and I couldn’t have possibly done from that a distance. Having said that some planning took place as well, albeit very broad.

    I Vote Panster! (with a hint of plot)

  2. RG, I’m sure that even plotters get those ideas that just “arrive” while they’re writing. Those moments are sweet, aren’t they? So satisfying. And sometimes electrifying.

    I’d bet that most pantsers plot at least a little and that most plotters write characters or dialogue or scenes they hadn’t planned. I love the versatility—multiple approaches work and great stories are written.

    Thanks for dropping in. Now I’m wondering just how many writers are plotters and how many are pantsers . . .

  3. This is a great blog. I’m a hardcore pantser, but I like to see how the otherside does it too :). Thanks for such a detailed breakdown- wonderful post!

  4. D.L. Sparks says:

    This is a GREAT post! Thank you!!

  5. Thanks, Marie and D.L. Glad you liked this one.

    Marie, I love seeing the other side too. I never know when another approach will hold just the answer I need.

  6. Jessica M says:

    Impressive and informative article, thanks for taking the time to divulge in the issue! For a while past, I was concerned about which avenue I belonged to, as I dislike outlining the entire story but also dislike “winging it.” So in any case, I don’t think I’ll categorize myself in either since I usually write not knowing the ending, but make tentative objectives for the next chapter ahead of time. It keeps me interested in the story. If I knew the ending, I lose all interest in the story! It’s what I found that works for me. I definitely used to be a pantser but evolved into a plotter! No harm in that, I suppose!

  7. Jessica, whatever works is what works. No harm in trying other options, seeing if something else might work better. But if your system works for you and keeps you writing, run with it.

    Thanks for sharing your method. And thanks for letting me know you were here.

  8. Amy sparkes says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I’m obviously a mixture of both. I’m writing two books simulatenously at the moment: one I’m plotting and one I’m pantsing! (I’m not sure I could write 2 books at the same time where both are ‘pantsing’ or both are ‘plotting’!) There must be other people, like me, who use both approaches depending on the book or the stage of their writing life. Thanks again!

  9. Amy, what a challenge, to plot one and pants through another. Maybe you’ll share with us how that goes for you and why you decided on the different approaches. I’m guessing that the variety helps to keep you excited about both projects. But what a task you’ve set yourself. I wish you great success with both manuscripts.

  10. Karen says:

    I must thank you again Beth for a very helpful and explicite example.To plot or not to plot? That is the question. For I believe that I am neither one nor the other. While re-writing one novel and writing another, I know the very beginning and the exact ending with almost every highlight in my head while I try to outline the main events, but I find myself impatient as if ready to explode with scenes into microsoft word. Yet I know that to interlace such intricate subplots, the best of writers must plot! Thus I am a work in progress.

  11. Karen, I’m so glad we’re all still works in progress, not yet finished or hardened or unable to become more than we are.

    Here’s hoping you write well today and that something new in your writing gives you satisfaction.

  12. Greg Lundy says:

    Hi Beth,
    You don’t know what a relief it is to know that I’m not alone. I’m a pantser too. Thanks for this post, it gave me a lot of comfort.

  13. Greg, I was happy to see you here. Have fun with your pantsing—what works for you is the method you should take advantage of. Here’s wishing you good and great writing.

  14. I am a hardcore plotter which makes me different from most of the other reviewers. A few people mentioned that we change during our story and have those oh so wonderful “aha” moments. As a writer, I have of course experienced the “aha” moment during writing but those are few and far between for me. During the plotting stage is when I get most of those. I write out extensive character profiles, world building, plot outlines…all of it. I get my “aha” moments then. Once I have all the ideas on paper I get to play with the fun stuff. Dialogue, description, and emotion are all the tools I get to play with. Just thought I’d clarify.

  15. Sonya, I’m glad to have heard from a true plotter. And glad to hear that you get your “aha” moments as well. That’s one of the true perks of writing—when everything clicks and we realize that the story elements have come together and it’s all working . . .

    Thanks for letting us know how the process works for you.

  16. George Mehok says:

    Thank you for the wonderful post. I am working on my first novel and started pantsing because the story was evolving so freely. However, I am a technologist and have been trained that structure is the key to developing a great software product. Structure is in my DNA. I have resisted developing an outline because I am concerned it may inhibit the natural path of my thoughts and ideas. However I need to make sure the scenes fit together and the characters’ journeys weave together. So, thank you for the insight. I am going to continue to resist the outlining urge for as long as I can, but likely will find it necessary to guide my story.

    • George, I wish you success with your first novel.

      I typically encourage writers to use the method that works for them. For you, trying something different, working in a way different from the way you normally work, may help your creativity. This approach may help you tap into different pathways and patterns, processes you’re not used to. And that can be great to open your creativity to possibilities..

      On the other hand, it’s likely that you’ve developed some helpful strengths and processes with a more structured approach to your other projects. Those strengths may prove especially helpful with writing fiction, so I wouldn’t overlook them.

      Still, there’s nothing wrong with a combination. Don’t hesitate to write notes, even if you’re not writing full scenes. Get the story down any way it comes to you. Don’t try to hold back too much if a structure tries to impose itself on your ideas. You still don’t have to outline, but a general idea of what you want to include is helpful.

      If you want to save the writing of scenes or dialogue details until you get to a scene, save them. But if you have an itch to sketch out a scene or to write a full scene out of order, do it.

      If the full structure of the second half of a book comes to you, get it down somewhere. You don’t have to follow it, but after you’ve been working on a story for a while, you’re subconscious may put ideas and structure together when you’re not paying attention. When you do start paying attention, grab the info that your subconscious worked out.