On Plot Outlines

Plot outlines come in all shapes and sizes. At one extreme we have “pantsers” – people who just sit down with an idea in mind, and start writing. At the other extreme we have people like me who wouldn’t dream of putting two words together without a detailed outline of the book.

The thought of working like a pantser brings me out in goose bumps. I have to have an outline before I start writing. I like to work with 60 chapters, so I start with 60 lines on a spreadsheet, and type in at least one line for each chapter. For me, writing a novel is like climbing a cliff face. The 60 notes are the footholds that will get me to the top. I spend weeks rearranging these notes, adding to them, shuffling them, testing each one for strength. I may even use index cards to help get them in the right order.

Under time pressure I might start to write with some of the footholds missing, hoping that they will come to me as I go along. But each of these is like a chasm, and as I approach one I have to stop until I’ve filled it in. Faced with a chasm of two or three chapters I become cranky and absent-minded; anything bigger than that – say 5 or 6 chapters – and I wake up screaming. It really is just like balancing on a tiny ledge with nowhere to go, trying not to look down.

Sometimes I come to one of my footholds and find it’s not strong enough to support my (i.e. the story’s) weight. I know it seemed okay when I wrote it, but now it’s turned to dust; there’s nothing there! I need to replace it before I can continue. Often when this happens, I can simply eliminate the chapter – jump up to the next foothold – and carry on.

Pantsers bemoan the necessity of outlining. They say a detailed outline stifles creativity and removes the fun and excitement of writing. I couldn’t disagree more. As I write, my outline changes (a lot). New ideas come to me and are incorporated into the story. Often, whole new characters are added while others disappear or merge. There’s plenty of room to be creative.

I can see how creativity could be stifled if your outline is too detailed, when you might feel you were writing in a straitjacket. I suppose, the trick is to start with an outline that is strong enough to get you through to the end of the story, but not so elaborate that you can’t breathe. To use yet another metaphor, I think it’s useful to think of the outline as a skeleton, the narrative the flesh that gives it form and life.

What about you? Do you outline or are you a wild pantser?

8 thoughts on “On Plot Outlines

  1. Dana says:

    I’m more like the kind of writer you describe near the end of your entry–the writer who, if she plans too much, becomes stifled. The way you describe this kind of writer is perfect, and I like (and subscribe to) the idea of the writer using the outline as a skeleton, then fleshing it out as he or she writes.

    Nice post! I’m eager to see what other writers say.

  2. JB Toner (euclid) says:

    Hi Dana. Of course it was your post on the subject that got me started on this one. Thanks for that. I get v. few comments, for some reason, but maybe this time I might get a few. Not holding my breath!

  3. Carradee says:

    I’ve pants’ed. I still do, a fair bit, and I like it. HOWEVER, maybe because I’ve not written too many books (yet), that way lay plot holes.

    I love starting off with a (few) character(s), a situation, and at least one story goal. The most recent novel I finished drafting with that — and planning only once I was perhaps halfway through — is a favorite of my betas, though there are some notable problems that need working out.

    I find that written outlines stifle me, but at some point when working on a project, I get stuck without knowing my goals. I’ve figured out 2 things to solve that:

    1. Write the query first (or, at least, very early on).

    2. Plan with 3×5 cards, 1 point per card — OR — use Scrivener’s “Outliner”. My brain accepts both as temporary and things that can be adjusted as necessary.

    When a story goes off-track, I might put the old plan aside and do a completely new plan. Then I compare the two, consider the story’s goals, and decide if I should turn that “off-track” into “on-track”, or ditch where I started going off.

  4. Amy Saia says:

    I’m still have trouble outlining every detail of a project. It takes the fun out of it! But I know I should, and will keep trying.

  5. Margo Lerwill says:

    I’m probably about as extreme a planner as I’ve ever encountered. And I use several kinds of outlines, including a chapter by chapter outline, a scene outline, a tension outline for the relationship between the main and impact character, and a series outline for the overall story arc.

  6. JB Toner (euclid) says:

    Carradee: I envy you. I’d love to write like that, but I can’t; it gives me migraines!

    Amy: You shouldn’t have to outline every little detail – just enough to keep the story on track.

    Margo: A woman after my own heart!

  7. Jennifer Hillier says:

    I’m a pantser but I think that will have to change with the next book, because revisions were a nightmare! At the very least I need to work with a synopsis so I can keep track of where I need to go, even if I don’t have the details worked out.

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