On Writing: Outlining Vs. Pantsing Revisited


This week I will begin writing Dead Man’s Reach, the fourth book in the Thieftaker Chronicles. For those of you who are fans of the series, don’t panic.  Book three, A Plunder of Souls, is not yet out and won’t be for close to a year.  Authors are almost always at least a full book ahead of the publication schedule.  On the other hand, if you haven’t yet read book two, Thieves’ Quarry, all I can say is what the hell are you waiting for…?

I spent part of last week outlining the book, and thought that I would return to the subject of outlines and pantsing, since it is something that still comes up quite a bit on this site and also in panels.  I know that we talk about there being no single right way to do any of this, and I still believe that. But in this case I am going to argue pretty forcefully in favor of outlining.

A bit about the book first:  More than any other book in the series, the timeline of my narrative in this story is bound to historical events.  Dead Man’s Reach takes place at the time of the Boston Massacre.  Most people don’t know this, but while the shootings on March 5, 1770 may well be the most infamous event of the pre-Revolutionary period, they were preceded by a series of violent confrontations, and were the culmination of two weeks of conflict and tragedy.  In my book, which may be the most ambitious novel I’ve ever conceived, my hero, Ethan Kaille, is present at nearly every event.  Making this timeline work without allowing it to feel contrived takes some serious planning.

This is one reason why for this book, more than any other, the outline is crucial.  There is no way I can make the story work if I’m winging it as I go.  Pantsing would not work. Which raises the obvious point:  

“So outlining is important for a project that is tied so closely to predetermined events that occur at specific times on given days.  But my book doesn’t have that, so why shouldn’t I just keep on pantsing?”

Because plotting and pacing should always be thought out with care.  Narratives that meander, even a little bit, will be less likely to draw the interest of an agent, more difficult to sell to an editor, and more likely to frustrate your eventual readers.  Books that aren’t planned are also more difficult to write.  

“Not if that’s the way you always work!”

Yes, even if that’s the way you always work.  I have done both.  I started out as a dedicated outliner.  For a time I gave up on outlining and worked as a pantser.  Now I am outlining again, and I know my books are easier to write — far, far easier — when I work this way.  How?  Here’s an example:  In the past, I always ran into a creative wall at a certain point in writing a book, usually when I was about sixty per cent done.  Suddenly my plot wouldn’t make sense anymore, and I would have no idea how to get from where I was to the place where I knew I needed to be by the end of the book.  That has not happened with any of the Thieftaker books.  Not one of them.  I have also found that the better my outline, the more likely I am to hit my word count goal for the project. It’s easier for me to write to a certain length when I know how I’m going to get there.

The fact is, I have been more conscientious about outlining all of the Thieftaker books than I was with any of my previous work.  Again, this is due in part to the very nature of the series.  The books are historicals, and so I am constantly blending my fictional narratives with real world events.  That takes planning.  They are also mysteries, and mysteries need to be plotted carefully, so that clues are doled out in the correct order at suitable intervals.  But just because the Thieftaker books, by their very nature, require a certain level of planning, does not mean that I can’t draw lessons from the process of writing them.  It is no coincidence that these books, as a series, represent the best work I have ever done.  I would argue that the structure imposed upon my writing by the nature of the stories has contributed to the quality of the finished products.

“But I write organically.  I can’t deal with that kind of structure.”

Sorry, but I don’t buy that.  First of all, I write organically, too.  When I say that I outline, that doesn’t mean I know every single thing that is going to happen on each and every page.  My outlines are rough; they consist of maybe three sentences for each chapter of four to five thousand words.  There is plenty of room there for me to let my characters roam and surprise me, to allow myself to create organically and in the moment.  To my mind, the dichotomy between “writing organically” and “outlining” is utterly false.  One can do both; I know, because these days I do both with every book I write.  In fact, I would argue that when you know where your going, it’s easier to write organically. It’s like driving with a road map:  When you know the main route, it’s easier to take those scenic detours.  Or it’s like cooking with a recipe:  When you know the basics of making a dish, it’s easier to take chances and add in personal touches.  Pick your metaphor.

“All right then, how do I start outlining?”

The first thing I would suggest is that you simply write out your key plot points, even if you have to do it bullet form.  I did this with Dead Man’s Reach (and with the other Thieftaker books) when I pitched them to Tor.  I used my brief synopsis of each plot as the basis for an outline.  I assigned each plot point to a chapter, and pretty much had my outline written.  With this key caveat:  My outline for the new book is not quite complete.  The Thieftaker books usually wind up being twenty-four or twenty-five chapters long.  The current outline for book four only has twenty chapters.  That’s all right.  All books change as we write them.  Because, as I said, the process remains organic even when we have an outline in place.  At some point I will find that some part of my narrative I thought I could write in two chapters actually requires three.  Or an important subplot that I hadn’t thought of previously will develop as I write.  The book will evolve, grow, mature.  And I will probably need to reconstruct my outline two or three times.  I’m fine with that.  It’s how I know that I have a living, breathing story to tell.

This is a long post already (I probably should have outlined it . . .) So let’s stop there and talk about this stuff.  If you outline, what do you think you gain from that structure?  If you don’t, what’s stopping you?

David B. Coe

20 comments to On Writing: Outlining Vs. Pantsing Revisited

  • Julia

    David, thanks for this post, which is very timely for me. I’m an academic and while I’ve been teaching for a while, I just accepted a new position at a research university with significantly higher publication standards than my previous institution. So in order to crack the old “I can’t really write during the academic year while teaching” canard, I’ve created a writing schedule for myself, weekly target word counts, and loose written outlines of projects I’m working on. I am *stunned* at the difference it’s made in my productivity.

    Part of this, of course, is that my new job allows me more time to write. But I also realize that I am being much more productive and focused with the time that I have, and that I know more about what I’m doing. I waste less time and have to throw out fewer words. Just now, I completed a 10k article — and only came in 750 words over my word count. That’s a huge change for me. I used to count on having to cut somewhere between a quarter and a third of my words, in order to get the piece down to the size and tightness I needed.

    All this is leading me to think about how to apply these strategies to my fiction… At the moment, my novel is on the back-burner because of a series of time-sensitive other writing commitments. But I’m thinking that I could and should use all of this for the good of my fiction, and soon!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Okay, I’ll jump in with mine.
    I need my outline. I love my outline (I spend time playing with it when I should be writing). My outline is a series of entries in an excel spreadsheet (actually two excel spreadsheets in different styles, but…).

    In my case, the outline is necessary because this story follows three or four different storylines (depending on how you count them), and I use color coding and a date-in-story column to help me keep track of both when each character is getting time and also how the events unfold in a time series that I hope is plausible. Toward the end, most of the events are crunched up into just a couple days because of a big single event in the larger storyline that everyone is going to be reacting to and doing things with. Except one character who is nowhere *near* that event, and I use my outline to figure out where to place her chapters so that she still gets time in that section of the book and it all feels normal and works (and I have a *strong* aversion to presenting chapters in an order noticeably different from their real-timeline order).

    *However* I did *not* start this project with an outline, and I really don’t think that I could have. It’s my first novel, and I’m the sort of person who *really* likes to work from a recipe, *especially* the first time I do things. But this is *my* story and *my* storytelling style and there really isn’t a recipe out there for something like that. This is something I had to play with, and teach myself as much as I could as I went along (and sites like this are *great* for that, but you really have to have your own thing that you’re working on to really learn anything from them). So I didn’t really have much of an outline until I was about half-way through the first draft of this book, and it’s been during the revising that my outline has been my lovely, crucial tool. But now I’ve also been working the outline of the book that will follow, because now I have a vague sense of how to construct *my* recipe. And I’m pretty excited because I do believe this from-the-beginning outline will get the next book written *much* faster than the first.

    But, I will add that David’s statement of “only three or four sentences for each chapter” still sounds daunting to me. My outline is *much* more nebulous (Excell entries, remember), and in most places it’s more like three or four *words* per chapter. So remember, finding a way to *organize* your storyline is *extremely* helpful, but only if you use the sorts of organizational tools that work for you.

  • The very first book I wrote didn’t have a solid outline when I began, and it took my three years to write. Then it took me four months to outline it and write it again, from scratch. My second (third?) novel was outlined from start to finish, and though I ended up rewriting that as well (probably because I wrote the outline the day before the first NaNo I participated in), it only took me three months to write.

    I love outlines. I always need to know at least my trajectory before I get started. These days, I outline, then refine my concept until I can write a decent blurb, then boil it down to a 35-word pitch, then revise my outline to highlight the most important conflict (which I often discover during the writing of the blurb/pitch) before I even begin writing. That means I can keep my book focused and on track, even if I change the details of the scenes.

    There are different levels of outlining. I have issues with pacing and beats, so I like to have my conflicts for each scene clear.

  • Cindy

    I keep my outlines pretty simple too. But I have found if I don’t outline, I spend way to much time staring at the computer screen. I have a much higher word count with an outline.

  • sagablessed

    outlining is awesome. When my laptop crashed I was afraid everything had been lost. But thanks to finding a printed outline, I can pick up and continue.
    So backup and print your outlines. You never know when it might come in handy.

  • I didn’t do any outlining or synopses when I first began writing many, many years ago, just letting the story flow. Problem was, it didn’t always flow and it frustrated me to the point I’d give up and start something else. I have a whole bunch of things on my drive that were never completed because I sort of lost sight of where they were going. The first thing I actually finished was the first thing that I wrote a synopsis for before I started.

    I’ve realized since then that I don’t always need something as structured as a full synopsis to get me from point A to point B. I think of an outline anymore as more of a ladder, a tool that helps me get to where I’m going without getting in the way, should I have to add something in between the rungs I hadn’t expected. I’ve also noticed that for me at least, each thing I’ve written so far has needed different levels of outline, and sometimes, different levels of complexity in the outline from scene to scene. So I guess, I could more imagine it as a ladder and I’m a spider, building the story webs in-between.

    I think the third book in my epic fantasy romance trilogy is going to need a more complex treatment than I gave the first two. The characters need to split up and do different things to bring the story to a close and I’m going to need to know the when’s and where’s of each, because, as I always like to say in my RPG campaigns, the rest of the world doesn’t just stop while you’re resting for a week. The villain will still be plotting…and preparing if he/she knows you’re coming (and may even have some nasties out looking for you). Wars are still moving forward, people are still dying, etc.

    I already have an outline method I’m using for Deadboy, which looks much like an actual outline. However, I may try something simpler on whatever I do after. I’m thinking of trying a chapter heading approach. Like:
    Chapter 1—A knock on the door brings opportunity, danger.
    Chapter 2—On the run, swept away by dark tides.
    Chapter 3—A friend from a shady past returns to help, but what’s the angle?

    Etc, etc. It’ll give me pause to wonder on each piece, filling in details. I can even go under each of them and add bullets as ideas hit me. And each of those scenes could happen anywhere in the chapter, but will likely end up falling out at the end of each.

    But everyone does it different. And I’m sure there’s probably great authors out there who don’t do any prep or outlines. It’s just how I have to do it to keep the story on point.

  • David, as you know, I am a dedicated outliner. Like you, I have to be to reach a word count. That said, there are a lot of different kinds of outlines and I don’t use the same kind for each book. Some have been bullet point outlines, some from the character’s POV and in the character’s voice, some start out as grape or bubble outlines. Every book and project demands a different approach, and I appreciate that you said that. When I first started out outlining I thought they all had to *look like this* and be arranged *like that*. When I discovered that outlines were as personal as the book itself, I was able to relax and let my mind get (and be) creative even in the outlining stage. How I wish I had had an MW back then. My journey to publication (and beyond) would have been so much easier.

  • Julia, I have recently — again, since I started writing the Thieftaker stuff — been making work schedules for myself, using them to plan out my year and to make room in my work schedule for several different projects. And like you, I am amazed at how beneficial this has been. I have do doubt that when you take these practices and apply them to your fiction, you will love the results. Best of luck!

    Hep, that is all wonderfully put. We have to find out own path to the system that works best. I do think that most writers will benefit from using an outline, and to the degree that people can change their work habits to incorporate at outline into their process, I believe they should. But everyone’s outline can and should look different. Some folks love to use a really detailed outline. I can’t. Others, like you, prefer something much looser even than mine. Whatever works. Thanks.

    Scribe, I like the sound of your process, particularly the linkage between outlining and pitching. Very clever. And again, yes to the different levels and different approaches.

    Cindy, I find that, too. When I spend too much time staring and not enough time writing, it’s usually a sign that I need to give myself more direction. Interesting. I might need to try outlining in greater detail in those chapters where I still get stuck. I bet that would help me a lot. Thanks for prompting an idea!

    Saga, that’s a great point. I back up everything, but I should print my outlines, too. Just in case.

    Daniel, I love the ladder/spider image. Works very nicely for me. And, yes, I’m sure that some great and successful authors don’t do any sort of prep. But I find it hard to imagine that I could ever write that way.

    Faith, this is also a great point. It’s not just that different writers use different methods, but also that different projects demand different levels of preparation. That’s really well put, and something I should keep in mind for future projects; I don’t have to treat them all the way I have treated Ethan’s books. Thanks.

  • That’s exactly it: I plot because it keeps me focused on where I’m going. When I don’t, I flounder and stall. And the times I find myself most frustrated are the times where it takes me a moment or ten to realize that I didn’t have a proper outline. But when I take a moment to plan things out, I am way more successful and productive. I just have to get better at remembering this!

  • I desperately want to plot. But my brain refuses to give up the goods right now. Which means, as you know, a whole lot more work on the novels because I think it adds layers of revision. I have tried and tried to outline. I used to be able to do it without trouble. I don’t know if it’s been the stress of the last few years refusing to let me focus in that way, or something else. I’m one of these days I’ll get back to being able to.

  • I’m also a convert to outlining. I never used to outline anything–in fact, when I started the current WIP I had no outline, just a general idea. But in the past I’ve never finished anything, either, and it slowly dawned on me that the main reason I never finished anything to my satisfaction was largely because I had no outline. I ended up with a bunch of scenes that more or less followed each other, but didn’t have a clear storyline.

    When I realized that, I went back to my current WIP, and have subsequently developed an outline. It’s forced me to think about how the pieces fit together. I’ve written a synopsis for each of the scenes I know I’ll need to write–the synopses range from a few words to a few pages, which turned out to be helpful in understanding which scenes I was excited about and which scenes I really didn’t understand (or love). I’ve also played with moving those scenes around into a different order and checking to see where I’m missing connections. Because this is ultimately a mystery set in the future, I’ve also been trying to figure out how and when to introduce the clues and the red herrings.

    This is taking time, and I’m having to fight my tendency to ignore this plotting and get to the writing, but I can see this making a difference already in terms of really knowing what it is I need to do for the plot and mystery and character development to fit together. For the next book, I’ll definitely plot first.

  • quillet

    As Cindy said: if I don’t outline, I just end up staring at the screen, trying to figure out what comes next. If I *know* what comes next, I can concentrate on the words. And I find that those two things — figuring out *what* to write, and figuring out *how* to write it — use different kinds of thought, different parts of the brain or something. I definitely get more words done if I know where I’m going with them. Plus it’s more fun, somehow, not sure why. Maybe because the hard(er) part is done…and I get to play with language…or maybe I’m just weird… 😉

  • Razziecat

    The first thing I ever outlined was a short story for an online workshop. I planned it out as four scenes, the first two in one MC’s POV and the last two in the other MC’s. Writing it was easier than I’d thought it would be, which was due in part to the outline. I also outlined my WIP, but on that one I outlined way too much and lost a lot of the spontaneity that makes writing exciting and fun for me. Still, it came in very handy when I wrote it for NaNo–I didn’t have to wonder what I should be working on next.

    On the other hand, one of my “backburner” things was started as a “let’s see where this goes” project, and before I knew it I had over 40,000 words. A few plotlines were vague and sort of petered out, but I have lots of ideas for expanding them. I believe I can turn it into a full-length novel because I know where it starts, what happens in the middle, and where it ends.

    I do like the idea of only using a few sentences as an outline. I’m going to be planning my next thing more carefully but I want to be sure to preserve the sense of wonder, sort of a blend of pantsing and plotting.

  • Laura, I know just what you mean, although for me, it wasn’t forgetfulness that stopped me; it was laziness. I wrote a couple of books without outlining because I just couldn’t bring myself to do the prep work. And the books were harder to write because of it.

    Di, I totally get being in a frame of mind where you can’t do it. I hope that as things calm down for you and life becomes less stressful, you can get back to working the way you want to work.

    SiSi, that’s very cool. Finding the coherence in a storyline is one of the best reasons to plot that I can imagine. Best of luck with this project, and the next one.

    Quillet, I don’t think that’s weird at all. When I can concentrate on the writing, on the creative process of letting characters develop and watching plot lines unfold, that’s when I’m happiest as a writer. Makes all kinds of sense to me.

    Razz, if I outline too extensively I have the same problem I have when I talk about a book or story too much. I lose that spontaneity you mention. I’ve used the coke bottle analogy before — if I open up the bottle too much, it loses its fizz, and I don’t want to write it anymore. An outline that’s too detailed takes all the fizz out of my stories. So I totally get what you’re saying here.

  • The place where I think pantsing is helpful is finding the character voice. I like taking a character and creating a scene and see how s/he deals with it. This way I get to know the character as a person. Sometimes the scene ends up in a larger work, but most of the time it goes into my round file once the larger project is done.

    As for outlining, I love it. It is awesome for the days the muse doesn’t show up. Since she and I already had a meeting and outlined everything she wants done, I can move forward with the project while she has her sick day (probably after hanging out with Dionysus as muses are known to do – not she will ever admit to it). When she comes back, we go over the revisions.

  • Erin, I would certainly agree that sitting and just writing, be it for a scene to test out character voice, or a short story to explore worldbuilding background, is a great thing to do, for all the reasons you point out here. I’m talking mostly about novels in this post — for a big project I feel that outlining is important. And it’s nice that you and your muse have such an understanding relationship. 😉

  • Julia! High five for getting a newer/better academic job in this market! and another one for setting yourself a research schedule. It’s the only thing that keeps me producing, especially with a full teaching load and what feels like umpteen million committees. (I volunteer for the committees, so I have no one to blame but myself.)

    If I don’t have some kind of plot outline or structure in mind, my WIP is dead in the water. I keep changing the plot as I go because some ideas just don’t work out, but I couldn’t get that far if I didn’t have a plot outline to write around. That and I keep having to stop and ask myself “what is this story about?” If I can keep focused on that, I can keep the plot moving. If I lose sight of it, I run out of scene ideas because I have no idea what needs to happen next – basically, I can’t move the plot forward until I know which direction is forward and which direction is a random bunny trail. Of course, some of those bunny trails turn out to be the main path and my original ideas turn into blind alleys, but I’d never keep it all sorted in my mind if I didn’t scout ahead.

  • Julia

    Thank you, Sarah! I just saw your comment — I appreciate the congrats and good wishes so much. And I’m glad to hear the research schedule/writing schedule works for you too.

  • Sarah said “I can’t move the plot forward until I know which direction is forward.” That is so well put, and absolutely true for me as well. Yes, we might be surprised sometimes by the paths our stories take, but the preparation makes those discoveries easier.

    And Julia, I should have offered my congratulations as well. Well done.

  • Julia

    Thanks, David!