Over the years I’ve run across so many authors who say they outline, some extensively, and declare there is no other way to write a novel than to have an exhaustive outline. I’ve also run across just as many authors, very successful ones I might add, who claim that writing by the seat of the pants is the only way to really capture that unexpected thrill that a reader gets when a story takes an unexpected turn or twist…because it was unexpected for the pantser author as well.
For example: Many years ago I attended a writers conference in Northeast Florida and one of the presentations had two NY Times bestselling authors on stage, Steve Berry and Lee Child. They both have very successful thriller series with the main protagonists, Cotton Malone for Berry and Jack Reacher for Child. I have read both authors for many years and enjoyed countless hours of reading pleasure from both. But the writing habits of these two authors are different as night and day.
While on stage, the authors were asked about how much research each did before writing a novel. I already knew Steve Berry’s answer. I had known the man for a few years prior to this conference. He even blurbed my first novel, The Savannah Project. Steve Berry researches extensively prior to writing a single word, outlining as he goes. Then he revises that outline until he is satisfied…then he writes. Berry proceeded to tell the audience of writers about his routine. Then the same question was asked of Lee Child. His answer was short and to the point. “I never research,” he said. Although a little hard to believe that he does NO research at all, he nevertheless typifies a true pantser.
So what is the difference and what type of writer are you?
Outline vs Pantser
- Outline: An outline is a listing of either the scenes in the novel or the chapters in the novel. Many authors create a list of scenes and, later, decide what will constitute the chapters.
The outline should tie back to the Premise.
The Outline will probably be revised several times during the writing of the novel.
- Pantser: Some authors prefer to create a Premise and a protagonist, then put the protagonist into the inciting incident and see where that leads the author. They claim this is more creative and more “involving” than trying to outline the novel from the start.
This is called “writing by the seat of your pants…or pantser!
Advantages to outlining your novel:
- An outline forces you to focus. Writing an outline forces you to take a step back and narrow your vision. Just what is this story you’re going to tell? What is the conflict between the characters? How will they resolve the conflict? How will they grow and change along the way? Your ideas about these things might change in the course of writing the story, but the outline forces you to think about them early on.
- An outline fights fear. An outline serves as your roadmap, a reassurance that you do, indeed, have a goal in mind. The outline can help keep you on tract and point you toward “the end” and your completed manuscript.
- An outline helps you balance. An outline, being an overview of your story, helps you determine if you have the right balance of elements in your story.
- An outline helps you plot. To write an outline you have to know what happens in the beginning, middle and end of your book. The particulars of those events may change in the course of writing the book, but the outline gives you the framework of your plot. Knowing the ending helps you ‘aim’ the story in that direction. Writing the outline also plants that ending, your goal, if you will, in your subconscious mind, so that as you work on your story, your subconscious is always coming up with new and better ways to push your characters toward their black moment and eventual triumph.
- An outline prevents sagging middles. Write an outline and you will find out right away if you have enough going on to sustain the middle third of your book. If your middle stretches like an empty road between the beginning and end of your story, the outline gives you an opportunity to brainstorm complications and events to make that middle an interesting, important part of your book.
- An outline helps you write faster and be more productive. If I have an idea what needs to happen in a chapter, when I sit down to write I don’t have to waste a lot of time with false starts and stalls. I have my goal in mind and as soon as I sit down to write, I’m on my way there.
Disadvantages to outlining:
- You can’t possibly cover everything that happens
- An outline doesn’t show emotion, character reactions, etc.
- An outline tends to focus on plot ‘what happens. But how it happens, why it happens, the people it happens to, and the effect the action has on those people is just as important and in some cases MORE important, than the plot itself. If you forget that, what you can end up with is a technically competent, well-plotted story that leaves the reader cold.
- You feel you must stick to your outline
- That said, one of the disadvantages of plotting the book before you write it is that you may come to feel that you must stick to your outline, no matter what. So, it can be confining.
- You’re more likely to opt for the easy solution
- You have to be careful when you’re first outlining the book that you don’t opt for the easy solution. Don’t always put down the first thing that comes to mind. Really think about your plot points and situations. Use your creativity. Ask yourself if what you’re putting down is really original, or if you could do better. Because an outline is a short summary of the book, there’s a temptation to do a ‘quick and dirty’ job of it just to get it over with.
- Takes time to do a good job
- If you’re going to outline your story beforehand, take the time to do a good job. This pre-writing phase is very important, so give it the attention it deserves.
Writing by the seat of your pants. Pantser:
- Sit down and write
- Some prep work required
- Over the years I’ve talked with a lot of different authors and one thing I’ve learned is that even avowed seat of the pants writers, like myself, do some prep work before beginning their story.
- Focus usually on main character(s)
- Often, we’ll focus on their main character or characters. We may do journaling or character sketches or character interviews, or we may just spend some time daydreaming about our character, getting to know this person, as it were. When we sit down to write, then, we allow the character to lead us in the direction the story should go.
- Start with conflict, theme, action
- Or maybe we start with an idea a conflict, or an inciting incident; the thing that triggers the action of the story. Or a theme we want to explore. We might start with the ending and must try to figure out how to get there.
- Start with only a basic idea
- But again, we may not have much more than these ideas or characters when we begin to write. For true seat of the pants writers, the adventure for us is discovering our story along the way.
- Willing to start with more false starts.
- Could write yourself into a corner
- You’re more prone to follow ‘rabbit holes.’
If truth be told, even the most devout of pantsers do some plotting. Even if it’s just jotting down plot notes as they go along. I start somewhere around the 50% mark. Usually just things each character needs to accomplish (or have done to them) by the end of the story. Remember, when your writing an intricate 100k word novel, you’ll need some help keeping your eyes on THE END. Remember to tie up all your loose ends or you’re cheating your reader. Dangling threads left unresolved is one good (or bad) way to get nasty emails from unsatisfied and pissed off readers.
By now you’ve probably identified yourself as either a plotter or a pantser. Whichever approach works for you, I’m convinced you can learn from writers who take a different approach.
Good luck and keep writing!