Novel writing

Some thoughts on outlining

From Rick:

When it comes to writing, there are two basic approaches one can take: outlining, and writing by the seat of your pants, often called “pantsing.”

I’ve written both ways, and I have known other writers who have done so. What prompted this post is the following article that makes some good points, but I felt it was misleading in some ways.

Read the article first, then come back to my thoughts on it.


I can’t fault C. S. Lakin’s reasons for pushing outlining. Her Bubbles nicely dispel myths writers may have about outlining. She’s a strong advocate for story structure, and that’s a topic I plan to cover in the next two posts. My issue comes when someone pushes any technique or method too hard because, as I’ve said many times before, there are no absolutes in writing, nor is there any single best technique.

However, her article gives the impression that outlining and pantsing are mutually exclusive methods, and the title of her article suggests that pantsing is a bad thing in general. First, pantsing and outlining are NOT mutually exclusive. Second, Lakin’s article sort of equates outlining with plotting, and I’m guessing this is why she feels compelled to dispel all the myths about outlining. Outlining and plotting, while related, are not the same thing.

Here’s one definition of plot. This matches up with others I’ve found.

Plot is a literary term for the main events in a story. It’s also known as the storyline. The plot is created by the story’s author, who arranges actions in a meaningful way to shape the story. This means that not all stories are necessarily told in chronological order.

And here’s an article that goes into more detail about plot.


As you can see, creating your story’s plot is not the same as outlining it. Be sure that you do not confuse plot with story premise. When someone asks you what your story’s plot is don’t assume they mean “plot” per se. They are usually asking what the story is about. To clarify that difference, here’s another article (also from Lakin’s blog):


So, your understanding of plotting should be that it’s figuring out what the events (either broad or detailed) in your story are. Outlining on the other hand may include details not directly part of the plot, such as character backstory or scene details. What I want you to understand is that you should not equate plotting with outlining. And remember too that outlines can be broad and scant or very detailed.

At the same time, do not get the idea that pantsing means writing without any sort of outline. I’ve not met any writers that stick exclusively to outlining or to pantsing. Instead, many of the writers I know combine the two. Outlines don’t have to be formal details of the plot points. They don’t even have to be written down.

Most authors I’ve encountered will have a general idea of what their story will be and where they want it to go. Some may jot down a broad outline of the story and just write from there. Others may outline a chapter at a time, write that chapter, then repeat. I’ve done that. Just because you haven’t formally outlined on paper doesn’t mean you’re pantsing completely.

I will agree with Lakin that it’s generally a good idea to have at least a broad overview of your story before you begin (or shortly after you begin) to guide you and to prevent you from going astray.

On the other hand, some writers create their characters first and let those characters lead the story. Well-developed characters will direct your story’s direction. Is this pantsing? Not to my mind. Creating your characters in detail first is a form of outlining. You’ve given your characters goals, and your story goals (plot) become the same as those of the characters. In other words, you’ve embedded plot in your characters. You put them into a situation that they need to resolve and let them lead on. You outlined your characters and let that outline drive the plot through their actions and reactions.

For me, this is a freeing form of writing because it can leave you, the writer, unsure how it will turn out. It’s not a style for everyone, though. Some authors need to know how their story will turn out; others like to be surprised

So a pantser doesn’t outline at all? I maintain that if you gave it any thought at all, did any pre-organization, then you were outlining on some level. I do suggest jotting down notes on your so you don’t forget them.

Lakin in her Bubble #2 brings up Stephen King, who supposedly never plots—but says that he really does plot in his head. Much of my first novel was largely pantsed in the terms of the actual writing. However, I spent many months developing my world background and the characters before sitting down to write it. So, I did outline to some extent. Once I did begin to write, I would usually decide what the next chapter would be about. Halfway through the novel, I decided that I should probably write an ending (or at least an ending so that I’d have a goal to move toward. But I pantsed the ending. Then I went back to where I’d left off in the story and worked toward that ending.

Now, here’s a thought. When you write an outline, you are pantsing it. You’re not writing an outline from an outline, are you? By outlining, you’re pantsing your plot. And those who do outline will likely rework it. The only difference between the outline and the novel is the length. And your first draft of your novel could also be looked at as a very detailed outline.

The point is that on some level EVERY AUTHOR is pantsing. So why put so much emphasis on outlining (and plotting)? Lakin is worried about the stress you may create by pansting without an outline, but worrying about an outline is just as likely to cause stress (if not more) than just writing. And there’s no rule that says you must outline from the beginning, either. Nothing says you can’t start writing (pantsing) and see how it goes. Then if you feel you need to outline from there, you can.

Very few writers (except the experienced) can turn out a final story with just one draft, even if they outline in detail. Yes, outlining to some degree may help avoid some plotting pitfalls.

But that outline need not be something to fear doing. It can consist of jotting down some overall key plot points to help guide you along; it can be detailed scene by scene; or it can be as simple as creating chapter titles (that you may or may not actually use) to spark your creativity.

In the next post I’ll be discussing several types of story structure as GUIDES for your writing. Note that I mentioned several types. That’s because no one story structure fits all story types. And like anything else in writing, these are merely suggestions, ways of structuring your story—just like pantsing or outlining. In the end, each writer must discover what works best for any given situation.

Therefore, if another writer asks you if you’re a plotter or a pantser, maybe the best answer is that you do both. Which is probably the case anyway.


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