Tag Archives: outlining

On Outlining

I think every fiction writer faces the question: “Do I want to outline, or not?” at some point in their career, and revisit it from time to time. As to the particular style of outlining, they probably revisit the problem from time to time.

I’ve known some writers who write detailed chapter by chapter outlines that are not only long, but include actual snippets of description and dialog. Others write vague lists of major plot points and then free-write their way from plot point to plot point. Still others will come up with a basic story concept, spend time writing character sketches, and then put their characters into their basic story and see where those characters take it through free-writing. There are methods based on a three-act structure, or other multi-point systems, or circular cycles of rising and falling action leading to new cycles of rising and falling action. A simple google search will produce dozens of different outlining systems.

None of these systems are right or wrong. It’s a matter of experimentation to find what works best for you.

For most of my short stories I come up with a basic concept and then free-write until I’m finished. I’m generally happy with the results. On the other hand, when I tried to free-write a children’s fantasy novel, the resulting manuscript was so messy and inconsistent that I’ve had to revise it about five times, and I’m still not happy.

I’ve set that manuscript aside for the time-being, and for my two new works in progress I produced outlines of all the key plot points. I’m currently using the 7-point plot system taught by author Dan Wells in this series of videos, or summarized in this episode of the podcast Writing Excuses. Give it a listen – it might be the system for you. And if not, there are dozen of other systems out there, just waiting for you to try them.

So far I’m very happy with this outlining system. It provides a clear path for each of my major characters, as well as an overarching story to tie all those characters together. But it’s not a chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene outline. There is still plenty of room for me to make changes here and there and to free-write my way to better world-building and character development as I work all my outlined plot points together.

What outlining styles (or lack of outlining styles) have worked best for you? Share them in the comments to help other readers find the right fit for their writing method.


Meet Author Robison Wells

Rob Wells

Get to know our special guest, Robison Wells, author of Variant, a YA dystopian novel.
Learn how he got the idea for his first novel, wrote the book, and acquired an agent and a publisher in less than a year! He also explains how he outlines using chapter to chapter summaries with goals for each chapter and his brother Dan Well’s seven point plot structure system (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcmiqQ9NpPE).

variant cover

He’ll be doing some book signings for Feedback, the sequel to Variant starting Oct. 2nd,.
Check his website at http://www.robisonwells.com/ for details. And as always, leave a comment if you want the chance to win a signed copy of Variant. A winner will be chosen after we post our second interview with Rob.


Download here (right click and select “save link as” to download”)


Finding Yourself as a Writer: Plotter or Pantser?

Over the past three or four years I feel like I’ve been on a journey of finding myself as a writer. I’ve been learning how to tailor my writing time and projects to fit my natural instincts, and sometimes trying to overcome my instincts if I feel like they aren’t serving me well. I’d like to share some of that journey with you, and maybe it can help you along your own journey.

Today I feel like revisiting a topic we discussed in one of our earliest podcasts, at the beginning of last year: Plotting vs. “Pantsing.” In other words, do you plot out your stories ahead of time, either mentally or in an outline, or do you write by the seat of your pants (a technique sometimes called “discovery writing”)?

I’ve experimented with both styles over the past few years to see which works best for my writer-self. For years, ever since my creative writing classes in college (no—I won’t admit how long ago that was) I’ve been attempting to write by the seat of my pants. I’d get a great idea, sit down, write a chapter or two, and get a little lost. Then I’d get frustrated. And then I’d think the whole story through in my mind until I’d figured out the most important details. But by then I’d be bored with the story or unhappy with the chapters I’d written and I’d give up. You’d think I’d have learned a long time ago that I’m more of a plotter/outliner, but instead I just decided that I needed to put up with a crappy first draft and push my way through it.

So that’s what I did—I started another novel, I stopped editing as I went, and I pushed my way through seat-of-my-pants style. But, as I wrote, I found myself making notes about things that needed to happen in future chapters so I wouldn’t forget. Before I finished even half of the manuscript I had a brief chapter-by-chapter outline.

I kept following inspiration as it struck—in true pantser mode—however, if my new inspiration altered the flow of the story I’d go through and update my outline before continuing. By the time I finished the manuscript and faced the daunting task of revising a manuscript that was written half by the seat of my pants and half according to an outline, I’d learned my lesson. I’m a plotter. I should have been a plotter all along. And nearly two years of laboriously revising that manuscript has solidified that realization. If I’d planned beforehand, I’d be done by now.

So with my latest projects I’m outlining and planning before I begin writing. So far my first draft of my latest novel is coming out more fully formed and polished the first time through, thanks to my outline. Even with some short stories I recently wrote, extensive pre-planning helped me churn out a more polished and effective first draft that needed only minor revision in just a few hours. The writing happens faster, and I’m way more satisfied with the result.

I think the key to this stage in discovering myself as a writer was being willing to experiment. I didn’t get stuck on the idea that I had to be a pantser or a plotter. I tried both ways until I found what worked best for the way my mind and my writing process works.

So don’t be afraid to experiment—don’t think it will waste your valuable time. In fact, it might just save you time in the long wrong.

Have you discovered whether you’re a plotter or a pantser yet? Share your stories in the comments.