Thursday, June 13, 2013

An Exploration of Outlining

pantser writer shoes outline
Please don't ask me. I really don't know.
I am a self-proclaimed* and happy Pantser.**

I generally start stories with one driving image, a couple of characters, and an ending. All of which I may change at my least whim. I then chug through the beginning, guided only by intuition, my fancy, and my gut. However, by page 100 I have probably discovered an angry screaming hoard of serious plot issues. And considering the vagueness of the original plan, all I can say is: duh.

Then it is time to whip out the trusty 3x5 cards!

I write the basic details of a each scene that I've written on the lined sides and lay them out in order on some open space. And since by then I generally have a much better sense of where the story is going, I do the same for the rest of the scenes in the book. Then I write scenes that I need to add on the unlined sides of the cards and insert them where they belong. This is probably enough to get me through the last page of my first draft.

From this point on I incorporate new plot ideas as if I had intended them from the beginning and note their existence in a to-do list and in BOLD, RED, CAPS-LOCKED FONT WITHIN THE TEXT OF MY DRAFT. This makes my first drafts absolutely incoherent to anyone except me. Yay.

Once I've finished with the draft, I make plans for each chapter, remove all the SCREAMING CAPS-LOCK, put all the necessary revisions into several different to-do lists so I don't lose track of them, type up all the sticky notes I've acquired into their own Word doc, and make a typed outline of the book as it stands. Then I begin revising.

But the plot keeps evolving contrary to my feeble outlines and revision plan. Usually I end up putting the draft away until it figures itself out and working on something else for a few months.

This is basically what happened to my current WIP.

Now it feels like it has worked itself out as I hoped it would. Which catapulted me into a revision frenzy and caused the beginning of the most, comprehensive, detailed, and, I hope, useful outline of how I want my book to be that I have ever written. In fact, I even titled the doc "badassoutline" in a fever of inspiration one very late night.

I am breaking the novel down by scene, titling the scene, giving a brief summary of each action, then a physical and emotional response to each action and noting the change/revelation in the scene.

But it feels very foreign, and because I have never written anything quite like this before, I had a moment of fear that I wasn't doing it right and spent some time looking up novel outlining systems on Google. Most of the ones that I found make my free-spirit cringe or were so vague it seems impossible for them to be actually helpful.

Luckily, I soon remembered that this is my creative process and it's impossible for me to do it wrong. Comforting thought.

Still, I'm curious about other peoples' outlining systems. Do you use note cards? Does your outline always have your scenes/chapter broken down in the same way or is it fluid?

I know Susan has a formidable file archive of intense, scary looking outlines. No doubt she will have an interesting response to this post as soon as she is settled in on her Awesome Adventure.***


* Though I'm pretty sure Susan agrees with me.

** Which means, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, that I write by the seat of my pants. Which may or may not be permanently singed after I am done with this novel.

*** Which I am sure she will tell you about in good time.


  1. Note cards are my go-to when I'm trying to sleep but ideas keep bugging me and will not desist until I jot them down. Otherwise, I type out all my pre-writing plans (Plotter-style), and will often refer back to that document while writing. It helps prevent my forgetting half the awesome things I meant to include, and is the best way I've found to keep my story straight, particularly when things go sprawling and complicated.

  2. I use the index cards on Scrivener, but every once in a while I feel the need to use real ones. I'm a die hard outliner and note maker, but even so things usually end up changing at least a bit when creativity takes over. My outlines are usually in the form of lists in my notebook or on random pieces of binder paper (which end up all over the house). For my latest WIP, I've been making plot arc diagrams and I've found that useful. Whatever works though! I often wish I was more of a pantser! Good luck with your story!

  3. I consider myself a plotting panster because I do some outlining to begin (just bullet point notes) but always end up straying from it to some degree. I force myself to do the basic outlining because I didn't used to and the result was always a disjointed mess and a weak story. Making sure that I at least know the basic elements of the story beforehand helps me to stay on track.

  4. Oh man. I don't know if I could write like that. I'm definitely more of a plotter than a pantser. I would like to be a pantser sometimes, but I think all the plot holes I'd have to fix would drive me batty! I already have enough to fix as it is. :P

    I have a notebook that I wrote out all the details for my story that I knew, like the basic synopsis and then chapter by chapter notes on scenes that need to be included. After I finished my first draft, I started writing down plot holes and different things to change on a couple other pages. I have those pages opened up while I'm revising and as I go along I'll check my "plot hole" notes and fix things. It's working so far. I am thinking about investing in Scrivener at some point in the near future for my next books. I'd like to have something where I can easily access my ideas instead of having to go through a notebook with scribbles of insanity.

    "Luckily, I soon remembered that this is my creative process and it's impossible for me to do it wrong. Comforting thought." <--- I love this line because it is SO TRUE. We all have our own way of handling our writing process and whatever works for us is a good thing. Sometimes we have to tweak our process, but it doesn't mean we were wrong, just needed to adjust to what gets the job done best for us. :)

  5. I'm a pretty big outliner myself, but I find that outline ends up changing a bit when I start to pants. So I guess you could say I'm a plotter/pantser hybrid heavy on the plotter. It's always fun to see other people's process, so thanks for sharing yours! :)

  6. I'm a hybrid, I think. I jot down notes on bits of paper, take research notes in a notebook, and make little notes in the margins of MSWord with the "comments" feature as I go along. Things I need to remember for upcoming scenes get just tossed in at the end of where I'm working in MSW, and when I get to them, I include them if they still work. I always know the beginning and end of my books and stories, but not everything about the middles, which lets me get surprised here and there but keeps a basic structure. If I had to, I could sit down and write out what happens in each upcoming chapter, but I don't usually bother.

    I also keep a MSW document for every long story or novel that I call a dossier. Notes about characters' physical descriptions, quirks, past, livelihood, the setting, etc. SO helpful for keeping track of minor characters, horses' names, business names and who owns them, whatever.

  7. Really, though, knowing you, I find it extremely brave and virtuous that you're doing an outline this intense. It would be sort of like me trying to free-form parts of my next draft... (And the little voice says, "Maybe you should try that.")

  8. I really like the realization that it is your creative process and impossible for you to do wrong. I like notecards and am trying to be a better outliner. It's hard because I'm writing down all these ideas and info about the characters but not filling it out yet.