Outlining for Pantsers


In response to L. Jagi Lamplighter's advice against outlining novels, commenter roughcoat asks the following:
Funny that she gave the advice about not outlining. Not over-outlining, really. I've been struggling with exactly that recently.
I'm a very inconsistent writer (productivity-wise) and I've been trying to nail down a process that actually works reliably. Since I had great success in NaNoWriMo doing detailed daily outlines near the end---when I had to write 3000+ words a day to catch up---I thought that was a good way forward, even though I was never an outliner before.
But my output the last few months has been dismal. I think I've written like 10,000 words this year so far. The problem is exactly what she says: once I figure out the complete plot and a bunch of details ahead of time, it's hard to write because I lose interest. I can grind it out if it's a short story, but it doesn't come easily. I have a dozen great 15-25k word stories plotted out and developed but I just can't bring myself to write them.
Back to the old "only plan a few thousand words ahead but have a general idea of how it's going to end" method I suppose.
Some writers are natural outliners. Others are natural pantsers. A defining lament of the latter is that they lose interest in writing once they "know how the story goes". These are the writers who feel like they have a story inside burning to get out, and writing the outline satisfies that urge.

An outliner approaches writing a novel like a builder approaches a construction project. It's not enough for me to draw up the blueprints. I've got to see the job through until that book is standing tall, shiny, and proud amid the KDP skyline.

In contrast to panters, if I don't have those blueprints, the final product will be the literary equivalent of the house Ned's neighbors built.

I suspect Jagi advised against outlining because John doesn't outline. Then again, he's John. 

Now that I've worked as a professional editor for a year, I can tell you that, at minimum, every new author needs to outline.

If you're a pantser, don't worry. I've got you covered. Go ahead and pants your first draft. Then, once you've got the story off your chest, go back and write an outline to impose some order on the chaos. Do your revisions using the outline as a guide.

Don't know how to write an outline? Consult this handy guide that presents eight outlining options.

And check out The Door into Nowhere, part one of Somewhither by my fellow Dragon Award-winner John C. Wright!

John C. Wright - The Door into Nowhere


  1. Brian,

    Thanks! I've bookmarked and I'll refer to it future reference


  2. I've done both outlining and not outlining for stories. It depends on how much of the story I already have in my mind before writing. Sometimes my story diverts from the outline and sometimes I need an outline to get back on track. I then realized I needed to get used to both.

    I think an easy way to practice writing with or without an outline is to start with short stories. This is a way to get yourself into a new writing mindset with far less of a time-sink to commit to if it doesn't work out.

    Then you can get working on pulp speed.

  3. Where does world-building fit in to this? I have a story that I want to tell, but I want to make sure that it flows naturally from the world setting (and that the world's present flows naturally from the past, with only in-universe supernatural influences, and no authorial deus ex machinas).

    Write outline and see what is needed for the world?
    Write the world and see what it implies for the characters and plot?
    Go back and forth and bounce them off of each other?

    1. World building is about setting.

      Outlining is about plot.

      Here's the usual order of operations for writing a speculative fiction story:
      1. Ask a "what if" question about some aspect of the primary world in the past, present or future. This will give you your strange attractors.
      2. Ask yourself what kind of world those strange attractors could logically exist in and why. World building consists of answering those questions. When they're all answered, you've got a secondary world.
      3. Come up with a story you want to tell in your secondary world. For this you will need A) a protagonist B) something the protagonist wants, C) an antagonist, D) something the antagonist wants--which will either be the same as, or the diametric opposite of B, and E), stakes--the consequences that are incurred if the protagonist succeeds or fails.
      4) If you're an outliner, here's where you construct your outline for the story; putting all the elements in the proper order, making sure the plot is paced correctly, ensuring that pinches and twists overlap to maximize emotional impact, etc. This is also where you see to it that every deus ex machina* is properly foreshadowed, all Chekhov's guns are fired, and implicit promises to the reader are kept. If you're a pantser, skip to 5.
      5) Write. If you're a pantser, apply step 4 now and revise based on your outline.

      *I'm not sure what you mean by "authorial deus ex machinas" in relation to world building. A deus ex machina is a plot device, and thus has no direct bearing on setting development. I'm also not sure why you'd want to avoid them altogether. Technically speaking, a deus ex machina is just an unexpected event. The Lord of the Rings is full of them. So is history. Christ's Resurrection is a deus ex machina from a literary standpoint.

      Literary critics often use the term "deus ex machina" as a pejorative when they really mean "improperly foreshadowed deus ex machina". It's perfectly fine to use them. Just make sure you set them up properly.

    2. "Literary critics often use the term "deus ex machina" as a pejorative when they really mean "improperly foreshadowed deus ex machina". It's perfectly fine to use them. Just make sure you set them up properly."

      That's what I was meaning. No uncaused actions, no miracles without a proper diety to perform them. I want to have proper foreshadowing, even if it is of the mysterious kind. 'We know there are gods, but we've lost a lot of knowledge.' Then learning more.

      But this is very helpful. Thank you.

  4. DJ
    Try contextual writing/research. It allows you to outline in generalities tour world and then you can flesh it out as you