Blurred Outlines

Are you a pantser or a plotter?

What’s a pantser? A pantser is someone who tells a story by the seat of their pants. A plotter outlines. There are arguments for and against outlines. The argument against involves what I consider to be a recycling of the anti-ritual argument I explained in my guest post at Scarlett Van Dijk’s blog (insert link: Write and allow your story to form itself into whatever it wants to be! Don’t try to restrain your muse! And outlines are restraint.

Again, this argument implies that you should allow the art to control you when, in reality, it should be the other way around. You should be controlling your art.

People who argue against an outline are arguing against rigidity that doesn’t exist. An outline can be fluid. Should be fluid. MUST be fluid.

You can’t write a novel without a plan. It’s impossible. You can’t create realistic characters without knowing who they are and what they will do. You can’t tell a proper arc without knowing where you will end up. Now, you don’t need to know every single step of the story, or even every event that will happen. But you need to know the essentials.


I think everybody needs to have their own way to tackle this particular problem. So what do I do? (Let’s ask the great expert who hasn’t published a single long-form story! She should know, right? Well, my way works for me – maybe it will work for you?)

I outline. Meticulously. Annoyingly. The outline for one of my novels contains snippets of dialogue, snippets of description, setting and character traits and usually weighs in at roughly half the size of the book. I spend a couple of months before the book brainstorming and that is what is produced.

Usually, the outline has loads more detail and even more story than the actual novel does. Because once I start writing something and a part of it clearly doesn’t work, clearly weighs down the story, I toss it. Then, before I start the next chapter, I review my outline for that chapter. I change it accordingly, cutting the story bits that no longer make sense and improving the things I have tightened in the previous chapter, because sometimes you just don’t know if a story element will work until it is out and on paper.

I’m not saying that this creates a perfect novel. There are still many revisions to be done after completion. But it will keep you on track. It will keep you focused on the plot progression. And it will leave you the availability to still be flexible, to remain with your characters when they decide they just want to do something else today. As long as you continuously adjust your outline, you should be able to maintain a consistent storyline while still allowing the muse to guide you when it swings by for a surprise visit.

The important thing is that you have control of your muse and not the other way around. If you have a good idea of the main points of the beginning, middle, and end of your book, you will become able to view the muse’s twists and turns in a logical way. Does this new idea your muse has gifted to you change the ending? For the worse? Chuck it. It’s not worth your time. Does it change it for the better? Yes? Well, better is always…better. So keep it. Readjust your outline so the remainder of the story has a logical flow towards your new end.

Without an outline of any kind, your muse can lead you anywhere. You know that crime fighting duo you’re writing about? You don’t know where they are going to end up, so you journey along with them. And suddenly you’ve written two hundred pages of slapstick comedy on a Caribbean cruise. Why? JUST BECAUSE. That might be comedy gold. But it is certainly not what your story is about. So how do you handle this?

You create a file in your computer. Mine is called Overflow. You can call yours Chuck Bucket or Vomit Pail (why do these all sound barf-themed?) or something less gross, but you can put all of the ideas that don’t fit your current story in there. If something is nagging to be told, take an hour out of your writing day and write it in this file so you don’t lose it. And then carry on with the things that will really fit in the story. This is also a good place to store scenes you have cut from other stories.

And the best part about doing this? You become more prolific. You will use these little snippets, ideas, scenes, word choices again. You will look over your Vomit Pail and you will find inspiration in connecting one chunk to another chunk (easily the funniest line I’ve ever written on this blog).

And on that unexpectedly gross note, I would like to ask, how do you outline? Or are you a pantser? And if so, how does that work? Post your thoughts in the comments!

9 thoughts on “Blurred Outlines

  1. I’m a reforming pantser! I generally start writing with a brief synopsis of the first part of the book, but the ending (and sometimes the middle) doesn’t come till later. As I write, I create a chapter-by-chapter outline. I’m slowly becoming more organized with my writing; I used to scoff at any outlining (no one’s gonna tell me what to do!), but it is helpful when trying to remember what you’ve written (especially when you’ve been working on the same project for almost a decade).

    1. I think outlining is one of those things that you don’t think you need to do ANY of AT ALL. And then you write a book. And by the time you come out of the other side, and you’ve edited and you’ve fixed and tweaked, you see how much time you end up saving by planning at least a little. (Secret: Reformed pantser here as well.)

      1. Truth! I never outlined when I was writing back in high school, and my stories from then read much like the soap operas I couldn’t get enough of after school. I like to think of myself as a plotser, now – I plot a little, and I fly by the seat of my pants a little more. 🙂

  2. This is a debate where I can honestly see both sides. And I think every writer is different and at the end of the day, you do what works for you. I’ve seen really good writers on either side.

    For me, I had my novel all planned out. And then it really didn’t go as planned. So yeah, definitely fluid outlines! 😉

    1. Yeah, I think that outlines are great tools as long as you are completely okay with changing things as you go along. I think the place where people get into trouble with outlines is when they take them as the law of the land. Even the Constitution has Amendments, people. 😉

  3. I’ve heard that about outlines so often–that they’re too rigid. It’s just not true. They do totally–absolutely–sound wooden and horrible, but they aren’t. Or, at least, they don’t have to be. I actually think they’re way more free-form than going without an outline.

    Because–okay… You sit down to write your story. You decide it starts in a bar. You start describing the bar… and then a few paragraphs in, you decide, “No. That’s not right. Not a bar.” But you already have these paragraphs. Immediately, you’re a little locked in; do you really want to delete all that? You already have these awesome descriptions you’ve written. Maybe you do delete them… maybe you don’t. But writing without an outline is probably full of moments like this and you probably wind up giving in and keeping what you’ve already written or constantly start-stopping to edit.

    In contrast, I sit down with an outline and I can change any setting or character description or scene I want by editing a single line. I can work out the entire plot for a book and make it as strong as possible before committing anything to paper. I can note what I feel my characters will be thinking and add notes for what I think they’ll say in every scene, getting to know them better along the way. And I can come back, read it over, and edit all of it quickly without ever having to settle for something I don’t feel like reworking. And then, the truly weird and awesome part is writing from that outline–watching your characters change it and deviate off the path, sometimes making new scenes and events but often coming back to your outline of their own free will.

    And maybe what I just said sounds really cheesy.

    And, really, the word “outline” will always sound terrible and boring.

    But outlines are amazing, winged vessels of creativity; word Pegasuses.

    Alright–I promise I’m done now.

    1. But outlines are amazing, winged vessels of creativity; word Pegasuses. <—- This is why we are friends.

      I agree. It is so much better to change as many of these things BEFORE you start writing the story. After makes things so much harder! Although I'm sure most writers do a lot of that as well, but it is definitely easier to make these changes when they aren't already a part of the leaving, breathing story.

      And yeah, outline is such a boring word. 🙂

  4. Wow, looks like you’ve hit a nerve here, Justine! Though I truly love the concept of outlining, I have a hard time because I feel that I’m not focused enough to do an outline, not sufficiently immersed in the story, until I’m actually writing it. (Just out of curiosity — do you also outline your short stories?)

    But the real reason I’m writing is just to share that I call my file for rejected material “Compst.” Because, essentially it’s garbage, but it might be used someday to grow something truly beautiful (and maybe even nutritious!).


    1. My short story process is probably a bit strange, although I’ve never compared it with others, so I don’t know. I tend to write short stories off the top of my head. Sometimes I have an ending. Sometimes a concept is all I’ve got. So, rather than my brainstorming method for a novel, I spin the story out by actually endeavoring to write it. Once it’s complete, and I figure out how I’m ending it and, in some cases, realize what the point of even telling the story is, I go back and outline it, looking at each scene and deciding whether it belongs there or if I was just storyline spinning, and deciding if there’s anything I should add to it. Many times, I write the outline based on that bad first draft and don’t save more than a few lines of the original before I go back in and rewrite the entire story based on the outline I have drawn.

      As for naming your reject document “Compst”, I love it, and your reasoning so much, I can’t even say. Also, that is much nicer than Chuck Bucket…which was just gross. 😉

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