Path To Pub: Outlining as a Plotter vs Pantser

Path to Pub is an ongoing feature in WBP where we talk about each step to publication and beyond. From idea to drafting to book deal!

Welcome to our WBP comparison of the outlining practices of a plotter and a pantser in their natural environment. Now, by “pantser,” we do not mean a person who pulls down others’ pants in public. And, by “plotter,” we don’t mean someone who is nefariously planning world domination. Although it could be argued that Foody and Kat do practice one or both of these activities in their spare non-writing time. However, we mean, someone who writes by the seat of their pants: Pantser (Kat). And someone who plots out their whole story before writing a first draft: plotter (Foody).

Come on this expedition with us. Watch as the plotter uses beat sheets and pretty outlines to chart their story. Observe as the pantser writes out of order scenes and scribbles notes like a serial killer in the margins of notepads. But please, don’t attempt to feed the plotter or pantser while inside the vehicle (unless it’s french fries).

Outlining as a Plotter


FOODY: I’d consider myself a plotter in the most standard of terms: I map out my plots. Characters? World-building? As I begin the draft, I know enough about these elements to figure out how they relate to the plot, but a lot of the descriptions and personalities of my characters and world come to me as I write. It keeps drafting a bit fun for a writer who hates to draft.

My outlining process is generally the  same for each project but but can vary widely depending on how many POV characters I have (the more characters, the less rigid).

My process, beginning to end:

  • I write a fake query letter. This forces me to figure out what the main conflict of the story is and what exactly is at stake for the protagonist(s).
  • Optional: I take a whack at the first chapter, just to get a feel for the mood and voice.
  • Once I have the query letter and maybe that chapter, I write a loose Save the Cat beat sheet. This means I plot out the key turning points of the novel in a Three-Act Structure. Once I finish this, I know my ending, and I know how I get from my beginning to my ending.
  • I make a chapter outline, essentially expanding upon that minimalist beat sheet. I typically make this in Excel. I name each chapter some word or two that tells me what the chapter is about, the cells color-coded based on the point of view character, each column a different Beat. (Picture Column A being the “Set-Up,” I then list each set-up chapter in ascending order. If Cell A1 says “Set-Up,” Cell A2 is Chapter One, Cell A3 is Chapter Two, Cell A4 is Chapter Three. Then my Catalyst is Cell B2. Chapter Four is B3. Chapter Five is B5. See how that works? It actually ends up being an upside-down bar graph, which helps let me know ahead of time if any part of my outline is way too long or too short.)
  • Sometimes, I then make a chapter outline in Word that really breaks down the information I need to include in each scene. Usually, my early chapters get these detailed, page-long outlines, since I have to introduce a ton of characters and world-building and plot. I get lazier the deeper in I go. Like: “Levi and Enne bicker about what happened in the last chapter. They ultimately are brought Closer Together.” Sometimes I find out as I’m writing that they don’t want to bicker, they just want to longingly stare into each other’s eyes. It doesn’t really matter. They’re still brought Closer Together at the end. Doesn’t change the Jenga puzzle that is my novel.

And that’s it, really! It honestly isn’t that scary, and it’s not that rigid at all. I have no idea what dialogue I’m writing before I write it. All my world-building fun is 100% pulled out of my ass on the spot. And I never deviate from my outline in a major way! (At least, not until I hit revisions.) This is probably because my outlines already give me some wiggle room AND because I have a trusted reader take a look at them to spot any potential plot holes before they happen.

I personally think this method is really good for anyone who struggles with plotting, because it forces you to plot your story ahead of time. It’s harder to let your writing run away from you.

It’s also great if you hate drafting, like me. I try to get through my drafts as quickly as possible. And I genuinely desire to write the worst, barest, shortest first drafts you’ve ever seen. Sometimes it literally looks like this:

ENNE (exasperation): “Why are you like this?”

LEVI: “You know you love it.”

So, so bare. And (like Levi is implying) I love it. I’ve learned the hard way that the most frustrating situation to be in is needing to expand on major elements of your story but simultaneously cutting to make your word count manageable. That is Hell. Some might call plotting Hell, but hey–I know where the story is going. I don’t need to figure it out along the way. And that means my draft is free to be the smelliest shit you’ve ever encountered. And I can  write it extraordinarily fast.

Other helpful plotting tips:

  • Sometimes I make line graphs of my chapters based on things like emotional intensity or something. I’m really visual, so it helps me with pacing.
  • If I’m bored halfway through writing a chapter, I put [INSERT CHUNK HERE] and move on. Whatever. That’s a problem for Future Me.
  • Sometimes I actually do write awesome scenes that turn out looking fairly book-ish. Sometimes I’m just inspired. Sometimes I’m inspired for half a chapter and then it reverts to screenplay mode again. *shrugs*
  • If you rely on Alpha Readers, maybe this isn’t the best method for you. Unsure if anyone other than me could decipher my first drafts.
  • Another reason writing such bare drafts are great? It doesn’t hurt my soul to slash out an entire scene. That scene might’ve been 3k words in a more finalized draft, but it’s only 1k here. Way less painful.
  • I’m actually not a particularly organized person (…I’m a total slob). I had a hard time finishing drafts before I started outlining. I also have an easier time returning to the Projects I Can’t Focus On Right Now if they’re waiting for me with an entire outline sparkling and ready to go.

Outlining as a Pantser


KAT: As a pantsers my outlining before a draft usually goes something like, “There are some characters, I know they want something. They can’t really get it. But it’s totally worth it! Also kissing.” And then I take off on my writing journey. However, outlining does play a big part in my writing journey, it’s just not always before I put pen to paper. Usually, I like to get all of my ideas out of my brain no matter what order they come in. This means my original draft is a lot of snippets of scenes I know will be down the road. Character queues that will show up along the road. And important interactions or scenes that will be key to big reveals or developments in the end. I spend a bit of time rearranging and playing with the order that these reveals occur, but it’s always organic and it’s always as I’m writing. This does sound like a lot of chaos, but the key is that it’s controlled chaos. I have to know who the characters are on the page before I know how they’d react to something. And knowing how they’ll react often dictates how the plot will flow from point A to point Z.

Here are the main methods I use for my outlining process during writing:

  • Bullet points as I go: I will sometimes gloss over a scene I know needs to be written and bullet point the key elements that will allow me to move the plot along. But because once I’m in a groove I hate to stop the flow, I will skip a scene if it’s just not coming to me in the moment. This means that bullet points are my friends. I’ll know that Scene 12 takes place in the catacombs and introduces our main character to his love interest and that she has a negative reaction to him because their people are mortal enemies. I just won’t know how to write the scene in the moment so I’ll jot down all the ideas that come to me and move on.
  • Bullet point future things: Sometimes as I’m writing a scene my brain skips forward. I’ll think. Oh, of course he says this now, but he’s going to be so stunned when he finds out x happened and he was so wrong. Instead of trusting myself to remember that feeling. I will write it down further down in the document.
  • Research future plot points: I will put in little blurbs or research into the document that will help me with writing a scene or making a concept more realistic. For example I write about a dying planet. I looked up what would happen if Earth stopped turning on its axis (hint: it’s not good. Let’s never actually find out). But I wanted that information and I knew where it would be relevant. So scrolled all the way down to the end of my MS and pasted that little blurb in there to remind me of the mechanics of that future scene.

In pantsing, I’d argue that a lot of the “clean” outlining actually occurs after the first draft. In order to understand what the heck you just wrote, you have to turn to good outlining skills. This is where I think it coincides with what plotters do, it’s just in reverse order.

  • Write up an ideal story summary: In order to make a good, cohesive revision plan you should probably summarize your story as you see it and compare it to what you have on the page.
  • Write up a summary of what you wrote: Alternatively you can just summarize what you do have (I’d suggest bullet points with each bullet point being a scene or chapter) and fill in the missing plot holes
  • Use a beat sheet such as Save the Cat’s and use it to figure out the ebb and flow of your plot. If you’re missing a key beat then figure out why and how to add it (OR, if you don’t need it, have a very good reason why)

In reality, we’d both argue that no one is ever purely a pantser or plotter. At least not as you get deeper into your writing journey. Kat wrote her first book in 19 days and it was complete stream of consciousness. The pain of revising that beast was a lesson and the second book took a full 2 months to draft (sure, not that long, but much better in terms of getting workable story). As you get further into your writing life you’ll learn different tricks and tips that develop how you conceive a story idea and get it onto the page. And some of those might fall into pantsing territory and some might fall into the plotting category. But, at the end of the day, whatever helps you get your story written is what’s most important. Hope our tips and tricks helped and happy writing!

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