by Lindsay Flanagan
To outline or not to outline…that is the (much-debated) question. As a writer you may feel like you’re on team outliner (or plotter) or on team “pantser.” Maybe you haven’t decided which side to join. Or maybe you’ve joined one or the other but haven’t really had total success with either in your writing career—or with a particular book.
If you haven’t decided which side you’re on or aren’t sure how to make the best use of either tool, perhaps we should define the word pantsing. In this context, pantsing is not an elementary-school joke you play on your friends. Pantsing means “writing by the seat of your pants,” flying along, going down the roads your character takes you. For many writers, this is the creative part where you discover who your characters are, what drives them, and what choices and consequences define them. You’re in your natural writing state when you pants, letting the ideas and words flow out of you like water from an open dam.
So you may not want to give up that creativity to stop and outline. You rather like the way your characters seem to take charge of their story. You enjoy the chase as they run down thorny paths, gravel roads, and slick pavement.
You lose their trail. They’re gone from your sight, you have no idea how your story ended up here, no idea how to get to a good ending, and you’re left wondering, How can they have abandoned me? Where’s my map?
Wait…you have no map? And this is where outliners might say, “See!” (“But, but, but…” you push back, “…outliners are missing out on creative breakthroughs with all that rigidity!”)
Well, we’re not going to make you pick a side. But we do have some thoughts on the pros and cons of each and when you may want to consider the other team’s view to increase the chances of storytelling success.
The Pros and Cons
So what are the pluses and minuses on each side? We’ve already discussed how pantsing allows you to be wildly creative. You can be completely spontaneous in your story and have it come to life as you write, which can help if you’re feeling stymied by a this-must-happen outline. It’s also exciting to accompany your characters on their journey—even you don’t know where they’re taking you.
The flipside is that if you’re pantsing and you hit writer’s block (conversely, from not having an outline), you have no direction, not even an inkling of where to go—so there’s a danger that you’ll abandon your novel because you can’t figure your way out of that writer’s block.
But then there are a few cons for outlining, and, in my opinion, con number one for outlining is…I hate it. I just want to write (like the prince in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “I just want to sing!”). I love being creative, and outlining feels so technical. Outlining also reminds me of an English 101 term paper, which makes me shudder.
But consider the pros. An outline helps you see your plot and storylines and where there might be holes or problems. It helps you flesh out your story and build it by major scenes. It can help keep your storylines straight and your plot organized, especially if you structure your novel in creative ways, such as events happening out of sequential order. Don’t be afraid that keeping your story within the outline’s parameters will limit your creativity. Use your outline as your roadmap and guide, but don’t be scared to go off the beaten path every now and then. You may find the yellow brick road there. Sure, you’ll most likely have to redo your outline, or adjust it at the very least, but that’s a pretty small con, all things considered.
All books benefit from having some kind of outline. Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction require world building, and thus your story must stick to the rules you establish for your world or it’ll be unbelievable, so tracking your backstory and history is practically essential (see our article on logic and plot holes). Character development, especially with literary novels, also tends to require a more detailed outline when your novel is character-centric. And tracking plot progression, while obviously necessary for all fiction, can be extremely important when you’re writing a mystery or suspense novel.
If you still think of traditional outlining as the drudgery you experienced when you wrote that term paper (and you wince even though the outlining pros are tugging at you), we’ll give you one more little push: outlining your novel doesn’t have to be done term-paper style.
You may be surprised at what you can do with a little bit of “teamwork.” Using both pantsing and outlining, you can create an all-star combination that can help you take your writing to the next level.
Strategies for pantsing-style outlining (the teamwork):
While the traditional Roman-numerals method is a great way to outline, you pantsers can:
- Write a stream-of-consciousness summary.
- Create a plot-brainstorming bubble chart/mind map.
- Try a scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter summary.
- Take a stab at writing the synopsis.
- Look at where you want your protagonist to be for the climax (what skills, knowledge, and transformations need to be in place for him/her to win the day) and deconstruct things backward from there, tracking what needs to happen when, so you’re building to the climax appropriately.
- Create a flexible outline. K.M. Weiland is an author to follow, and she’s got a great article in Writer’s Digest magazine online. You can use her “flexible outline” tactics to interview your story and bring it home!
Combine them all and you have the skeleton of your book.
If your goal is to write marketable books, you can’t get away from outlining, no matter how hard you try (at least, not until you’ve written so many successful books that story structure comes naturally to you—and most skilled writers do it even then!). In reality, you’ve probably been doing both pantsing and outlining—you’re just not realizing it. When you sketch summaries, you’re pantsing. When you sit down to make sense and order of those summaries, you’re outlining. Or, as one writer/editor put it:
Pantsing is your outline. Editing your outline is your first draft.
— Sabine Berlin
What all of this boils down to is that neither (just) pantsing nor (just) outlining will be right for every writer or for every book you write. Everyone needs an outline, and everyone needs moments of pure spontaneity. So take the best from each camp and let that all-star team go to work.
But remember this: whether you pants or outline, you have to end up with a S-T-O-R-Y. A good story will go beyond a bunch of stuff that’s happened to your interesting character; a story delivers what your target reader wants to buy. It’s the next level up after you’ve pantsed and outlined your way into a first draft. So pants and outline away, and when you’re ready, come make sure you have a compelling story.
Do you write by the seat of your pants or carefully outline? Tell us why or what works best for you?
Lindsay Flanagan is a freelance editor, writer, and photographer. She earned her Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing and spent over a decade working in higher education before becoming a full-time editor. When she’s not editing manuscripts, she’s writing fantasy novels and poetry, chasing after her favorite bands, riding motorcycles, or photographing Utah’s majestic landscapes.
I used to be an exclusive pantser. I can’t say I ever hit a road block, but my characters often did things that didn’t make sense. In learning to outline I also learned to develop my characters more, to understand them better so now when they do things, they do things that make sense for them to be doing. I still don’t do a traditional outline. I use plot points to keep me on track, and I do a reverse outline of each chapter as it’s completed so I remember the when and where of important details. That’s the combination that works for me.
That’s a great point, Jodi! When I wrote my first three novels (attempted, I should say), I pantsed the whole way. Now, though, as a more developed and educated writer, I use a combination. I love the spontaneity and creativity of pantsing, but I also love the organization and structure of an outline. Thanks for your comment!
I use both. I have a hard time outlining in the beginning. Even when I just sketch things in I find that it kills my creativity. Usually I write until I reach a stand still around a hundred thousand words. I use that draft as an extensive ‘character sketch’. I do this because I prefer the character driven story. Once I feel comfortable with them, I take the scenes I like and use them as a plot outline for the ‘real book’. Then I use plot points to determine where I want my characters to start and end up, and major events I see happening to help with their growth. It takes a while, and honestly, I doubt there are many writers that are willing to invest the time to do it that way, but it works for me. Maybe one day I’ll reach the point where I can say, this first, this second, and this last and just write it, but until then I do what works.
Thanks, Teri, for your thoughts! I agree with you. I have a really hard time outlining in the beginning. I like to see where my characters take me, and then when I find they are going a bit to of control, I reign them in with an outline. So it’s seems that the answer to the question of to outline or not to outline is a combination of both?
So many people see the roadblocks to pantsing, acting as though there is only one way to do it. No, no, no. Is there only one way to outline? Of course not!
I’m a discovery writer. I don’t write anything that doesn’t match what I’ve already written. I don’t believe in writer’s block – only that momentary pause when you have to decide which branch on the decision tree sounds the most exciting and still logically follows what’s already been written. I edit as I go so I don’t end up with one hot mess when the story’s finished. I do research as needed along the way – how else am I going to know what to research? And I have one draft – the final one.
Discovery writing doesn’t have to be helter-skelter stream of consciousness mishmash that has to be practically re-written at the end.
Good point. Thank you. I agree there’s no one-way for either route. It all depends on the author’s skill level and preferences. Many very experienced authors discuss using both methods depending on the genre, even. I’m impressed you can walk away with one draft, though!