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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Outlining for the Pantsers

You're a pantser, and you happily admit it. Which means you HATE to feel like you're stuck in a box. You don't want to spend hours, days, who are we kidding…months…running in that hamster wheel in your head to plan your novel out in agonizing detail before the first sentence ever touches the page.

I get it.

I actually used to be just that way, until I tried to write my own novels. And when I began Developmentally Editing for my clients…I realized there was a real need in the world of pantsers for something that those who are less than OCD can use to reel their plots in.

Why is there such a need, you ask? Because without some sort of guideline, you're inclined to wander aimlessly, to drone on, to create a mountain of useless scenes, characters, and minor plots that take you down a road that brings you face to face with a dead end. And all that is doing is creating more work for you to edit... or for your editor to spew red ink on.

Granted, it feels great to get your writing onto the page sooner, but you're not going to complete your project any earlier. Truth is, you're probably dragging it out.

So, since most of my clients (okay, me too) hate the idea of outlining, I created a ridiculously simple method to produce a functional outline without causing permanent mental distress.


First, you're going to want to figure out approximately how many chapters you'll have. If you write much, you might have an idea of your average chapter length. If you have an idea of how long the whole novel should be, then you're going to do something you swore you'd never do after high school…use math. Don't stress over this though. If you don't have an idea of your chapter length, go with an average of 2,000 words per chapter and make a guess. It's not’s math. You can adjust later if you need to.

Beginning and End

The story is in your head, you know how it starts. You probably have a pretty good idea as to how it ends. Knowing the ending when you start allows you to plan ahead. You can construct a story that will be gratifying and complete. Not knowing the ending is likely to lead you to that dead end mentioned earlier…and leave you frustrated. If you don't feel you can commit to an ending, that's fine. This method allows for you to fill in what you need and get down the ideas you have.

You don't need to know every detail. Just concentrate on the overall plot and the significant characters.

Start by putting your beginning and end at the…well…beginning and end (Ch. 1 and Ch. 20 – or whatever).


Now, on to the climax. Pick a chapter near the end and add your climax. With any luck, this is a scene or chapter you’ve been playing in your head on loop since before you decided to write this story. It doesn't have to be right at the end, but it needs to be close.

If you have more than one scene that you feel is critical to your story, make a spot for it. Because next you're going to…

Fill in the Blanks

So you've got three (maybe four) chapters out of however many you decided on. Now it's time to fill in the blanks. Those scenes you've had bouncing around in your head, chunk those bad boys into your outline.

Of course, this is where you get to work. It's time to fill in those empty slots and start connecting the dots (chapters). Figure out what needs to transpire in order to tie one chapter to the next. In the process, you might see that your chain of events needs some adjusting, and that's fine. That's what outlining is all about – filling in the gaps. Your number of chapters may increase or decrease. No worries. As long as by the end…

…everything you want to take place in the story has been put somewhere in the outline.
…you have tied your plot together from beginning to end in a way that flows and makes sense.
…you're happy with how the story progresses.


This is your outline. You can be as detailed or bare bones as you like. Below each chapter, you can add in events, scenes, insights/findings, characterization changes, or whatever you want/need to remember when you write. It doesn't have to be lucid, coherent, or pretty. It's YOUR outline. It's just a guideline for you to use when writing your story. It can even transform along the way. But regardless, it will give you a simpler view of your plot and make it easier to adjust the story without having to search through a 60k+ word document to do so.

Have fun!