Outline Versus “Pantster”

Some writers plot their every move. Others write by what’s called “the seat of their pants,” moving from scene to scene without any idea of what will happen next.

I’ve used both methods over the years and have evolved into a plotter. While it’s emotionally entertaining to have the story roll out in front of you as you write, not having an idea of where your manuscript is going can result in a completely different tale than when you started. (Or worse, it’ll fade into this amorphous cloud of ambiguousness that will take extra editing work to fix.)

Initially I only had character, scene and “what if?” What if Xena, Warrior Princess, was a Highlander-style immortal and ran across the modern-day reincarnation of her bard? What if a song that “celebrates” the shame and denigration of rape had been written by a woman?

I’d introduce the characters and then wonder what would happen next, writing that scene.

Such a course made for some intriguing subconscious connections, but I inevitably ended up with massive edits. Since I’ve begun outlining my novels in advance, I’ve had less issues with plot-holes or the need to write new scenes needed due to my lack of attention.

Three Disasters & A Climax

Outlines don’t have a stranglehold on your novel. When I initially began my foray into outlining, the whole concept was very constricting. The eighteenth scene in the novel would change because of something that occurred in the sixth. Or I’d reach a scene only to realize it had been easier to insert its relevance into another one earlier in the book.

Despite being anal-retentive, this writer had a tough time dealing with the rigid nature of outlining, lemme tell ya.

Eventually I learned to create a handful of scenes that were written in stone. The rest could twist and morph as needed for the storyline. Eureka!

Only four scenes are vital to the ongoing plot of my tales: three disasters and the climax.

Let’s take my fourth Sanguire novel, Lady Dragon, as example:

The ruling council of the European Sanguire have arrived en masse to negotiate with The Davis Group. One of them has hired secret assassins and one has outright called for Whiskey’s blood.

    * Introductions abound as the political faction arrives at Whiskey’s base of operations. Once the social niceties are met (and no bloodshed has occurred) they’re escorted to their temporary residences. An unannounced guest arrives…Whiskey’s future mother-in-law, the woman who despises her. What will Orlaith O’Toole do when they meet face-to-face. Where do her loyalties lie?

    * En route to a diplomatic function, a car accident occurs–the second disaster. Whiskey is seriously injured and no one knows what will occur. Will she survive so that one of the Euros can personally kill her? Or will she die, leaving that Euro with no satisfaction but another with the path toward complete control now clear?

    * In the third disaster, Whiskey survives her injuries but two Euros have banded together, contriving a way to cause Whiskey to call out her primary detractor in a duel to the death. Whiskey and her board are aware of what they’re doing and Whiskey chooses to escalate the vitriole between them, seemingly falling into their trap by challenging one of them to a duel.

    * The climax is the duel that occurs between Whiskey and her second, Valmont, and the two European council members that oppose her.

The Nuts & Bolts

So I have a storyline in mind, I know the characters and setting. I have a pretty good idea of the “candy bar” scenes I want to write as well as what sorts of disasters I want to throw at my characters. How do I plot the novel?

I grab a legal pad and number every other line, 1-50. That corresponds to fifty scenes for the book and gives me a couple of lines for notes. (Yes, fifty scenes is a pretty standard beginning for me. I won’t necessarily keep all fifty or I’ll discover a need to add new scenes as I write. This is just a basic start.)

Figure the first eight or ten scenes will be character introductions and getting them to the point of meeting each other.

At #10 I’ll place an asterisk next to it and jot down one of my disaster scenes.

At #25 I’ll do it again with the second disaster scene.

At #35-ish I’ll repeat for the third disaster.

At #45 I’ll place the climax.

Then I fill in the rest, using the “if this then that” algoryhthmn. (If Orlaith O’Toole shows up in this scene from Margaurethe’s POV, then next will come a scene from Whiskey’s POV as she deals with the potential emotional repercussions for the unannounced visit.)

After that I plug the whole thing into Scrivener and color code each scene by the character point of view. (But that’s a whole ‘nother blog entry!)

Pantsers and Plotsters!

For those plodding plotters out there, what methods do you use to build your books? And what about you pantsters? Any hints or tricks that you use to keep your plotlines fluid without completely washing away? Do tell! Click below and comment! I’d love to hear from you!


  1. I am sooo glad you chose this as a topic. I will return to write my entry when it’s not 2 am and I can see to actually write and hopefully read tons more good answers. Thanks again for bringing up the topic!


  2. You have hit on one of the big writing snags of mine. I think I do most of my major plotting in my head then sit down and write it out, filling in chapters as I need them. Seems to work pretty well, but there are at least five major revisions to fine tune action, character etc. POV voice is something I’m careful about after my first novel which I am (happily) revising now. Way too many casual POV changes within a chapter. One reason I went to first person was to force myself to clean that up. I do think I will try your three points then a climax thinking, so thanks for the tip and the blog.


    • Franci, that was my problem as a pantster as well. The book would flow really great until I started edits. Then I’d realize I needed to add about a dozen new scenes, four more chapters and focus on the other character’s POV.

      Good luck on the revisions!


  3. Thanks Jordan. I never knew there was a title for what I do. I am definitely a pantster. However, I really liked your idea of numbering a page and listing thoughts.

    I “think” about my WIP a lot, but when I sit down, I never know what is going to flow from my fingers to the keyboard. I have been surprised several times at what transpired, but not unhappy with the results.

    Great thought provoking blog this morning. Thanks!


  4. I am definitely a pantster and can get a first draft down fairly quickly but then trying to “fix” it is a nightmare…. This time I planned it out… The chapter topics, descriptions of characters, then started writing and I’m stuck at 25000 words even though I “know” what happens next…. It’s like my muse hates being put in a box…. Hey ho…. I’m a struggling artist right enough… Or maybe just struggling heehee…

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  5. Anne, I can certainly relate to the struggle. When I reach a struggle like that I head back to the previous scene that the character was involved in. Nine times out of ten, I’ve done something there that screwed with the flow of the scene, character, dialogue, plot, what-have-you.

    Keep in mind that the plot “boxes” aren’t really boxes…they’re bubbles. Put some pressure and make ’em conform to what you need, not what they want! They’re easy to break too!


  6. Oh I am definitely a pantster and unfortunately I don’t see that changing, but I do scroll back a lot to fill in or make sure there aren’t any plot holes. What I don’t catch, my mentor does. Most of the time I have a general idea of where I want to go and then I let the characters chirp in my ear to take the story where they want me to go. So far it has worked for me. I don’t think I can be regimented enough to do an outline.


    • Annette, the idea of me becoming a plotter would have made me laugh hysterically ten years ago, so I can completely understand your point of view! Part of my conversion to the “Dark Side” must have had something to do with the writing program, Scrivener. That’s all I can say in my defense.

      Keep writing!


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