Outlines and Pantsers and Plots, Oh My!

You’ve got your idea and your characters, now you’re ready to begin. But before you do, you should decide whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.

Some writers come up with their idea and simply sit down and start writing. They have no idea what’s going to happen until they write it. These writers, who write by the seat of their pants, are known as “Pantsers.”

Being a pantser allows you far greater creative expression. If you don’t know where the plot is going, then the reader won’t either, which can result in an exciting story. It’s more interesting to work on the story and you’re able to push through to the end easily.

The downside of being a pantser is revisions. Plot holes and inconsistencies are harder to fix because the bulk of the novel has already been written. Revisions can become tedious and problematic.

On the other side of the coin we have writers who outline, or plot, their entire novel before getting down to the serious business of writing. They have detailed character sketches and reams of notes and know exactly where the story is going – it’s right there in front of them on paper. These writers are called “Plotters.”

Because plotters write detailed outlines before fleshing out their writing, they can often catch, and correct, inconsistencies and plot holes before they start writing. It’s certainly easier to make changes to an outline than to the finished novel. Many plotters depend on the outline to control the pacing, action, and suspense of their story. Scenes can be switched, or added, or deleted with ease. Another benefit is the outline can be used to help write the synopsis when the novel is finished.

The downside of being a plotter is that it can hamper the creativity and enjoyment of writing. The middle of the novel can bring on a decrease of motivation. You can start to lose interest because there’s nothing surprising about it. Being restricted by a specific series of events can be intimidating.

An outline is basically a blueprint of what’s going to happen in your story. For plotters, there are many methods of outlining to choose from.

Point-Form – Write down a point form list of everything you want to have happen in your novel. Once you’ve finished, go through and assign a priority number so you know what order they should be in.

Index Cards – Colour coded index cards are a great way to keep track of your characters and what their motivations are. Jot down brief descriptions of your scenes and keep adding cards until you can’t think of any more. Organize your cards in the order you want the scenes to occur in.

Post-It – Write your scenes on Post-It Notes and stick them to a piece of Bristol board or even your wall. You can change the order, add, or remove them. Colour code them so that each kind of scene has a different colour. This way you’ll know at a glance if you have too much or too little action, description, or suspense.

Spreadsheets – A spreadsheet can hold a vast amount of information. You can list all your characters and their information; make notes about plot points; and move scenes around with ease. If you want to use a lot of detail, you can even do a spreadsheet for each chapter.

“W” Folder – For this you need a file folder and a pen. Open the folder up and write a giant W on it, with one V on each side of the fold. Your story starts at the top of the first V and your initial crisis at the bottom. The middle point is where some of the problems may be resolved. The bottom of the second V is where the darkest crisis takes place and the top of the last leg is the resolution. Notes and other scenes can be penciled in between.

For more information, try checking out one of these links:

The Snowflake method
Writer's Digest Novel Idea Summary Sheet
Novel Outlining 101, by Lynn Viehl
Plot Diagram
Outline Your Novel in 30 Minutes

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