How To Outline By the Seat of Your Pants

 

 

by Stephanie O’Brien

When you start to create a novel, one of the first questions you have to ask yourself is, “Should I start by creating an outline, or just fly by the seat of my pants?”

Both of these options have their merits. As I noted in a previous blog post, creating an outline first helps to keep the plot more coherent, avoid plot holes, and stop writer’s block before it starts.

But many writers probably share the same fear I had before I started to embrace outlining: what if the outline stifles my creativity? What if I lose the spontaneity that I need to write the characters naturally, and to let the characters be themselves?

One of the best feelings in writing is when your own story pleasantly surprises you, and not everyone is willing to sacrifice that feeling on the altar of a strict outline. I know I’m not.

That’s why I’ve started to use a hybrid of the two approaches.

If you want to have the clarity and coherence of an outline, while keeping the spontaneity that “pantsing” provides, maybe you’ll find it helpful to see how I combine outlining with flying by the seat of my pants.

 

I start by pantsing the outline.

Usually, when I first start planning out my book, I have a few key scenes that need to be connected, and a few elements I want to include. At this stage, my primary challenge is stringing them together into a plot and justifying their existence.

As I commented in one of my other blog posts, it’s kind of like a game of connect-the-dots, where the dots are the parts of my story I know about, and I need to figure out the lines between them.

This is one of the biggest areas where I fly by the seat of my pants. I start with the scenes that I know will happen, and write as much of them as I can, just letting it flow.

In this stage, I don’t worry about good grammar, coherency, or even making sure that the whole scene is there.

Sometimes, for example, I know that the characters have to do something in order to enable the next scene, but I’m not sure how they’ll do it or what will motivate them to do it. So I write as much of the scene as I can, make a note that says something like “then they do X”, and then I continue writing the parts I’m already clear on.

The goal here is to get as much of the information in my head into the document as possible, so I don’t lose any of it like I’ve lost many good scenes in the past.

If I kind of like a phrase or event, but I’m not sure whether it will fit in properly, is really in-character, or is the best and most poignant thing that could happen at that point, I put a (?) next to it to indicate that it’s especially fluid.

And if a segment is definitely necessary for a future scene, and its absence would make a later moment or plot point fail to make sense, I make a note about where it will come into play in the future. That way, I know that I absolutely cannot omit it, unless I replace it with a functional equivalent.

In this stage, I don’t force myself to write parts of the book I don’t know about.

If the characters need to end up in a place or situation, but I’m not sure how, I just write a quick note to figure it out later, and sometimes jot down a couple ideas that I may or may not use.

 

Next, I flesh out the outline.

One nice thing about having an outline is, it lets you have a bird’s-eye view of the whole story. You can see how each moment leads to the others, without having to scroll through hundreds of pages of first draft in order to see them all.

This helps you to locate missing scenes or plot holes, like a character accidentally teleporting from one place to another, an injury disappearing, or Chekhov’s gun being fired without any prior indication that it existed.

Once again, I don’t force myself to write scenes where I don’t know what will happen.

I just make some quick notes about what needs to happen in these empty spaces for the scenes that follow them to exist, or about effects of previous scenes that need to be explored.

I also make notes about possible scenes, subplots and plot threads that I might add in later, with comments like “need to do X to make Y happen” or “maybe do Z”.

On the other end of the spectrum, if a fully fleshed-out scene forms itself in my mind, even if it occurs in act three and I haven’t started writing act one yet, I’ll write it in full. As mentioned above, I’ve lost too many great scenes by waiting until I got to the point in the book at which they occur.

So if you have a really good scene in mind, I suggest getting it written, and then putting it into the document wherever it fits best.

 

Then I start writing from the beginning.

Now that I know which events need to happen in order to create the scenes I know I want, and the scenes that were already formed in my head are safely stored in my computer, I start writing the story from the beginning.

The fleshed-out story and the notes are in the same document, with the notes below the story. At this point, I usually have at least a few quick comments about almost every scene, and I can easily glance between the scene I’m writing and my notes about it.

As I write the fleshed-out scene, I delete the parts of the notes that were relevant to it, paragraph by paragraph. That way, I don’t have to muck through the stuff I’ve already covered in order to get to the parts I still need to read.

If you’re worried that this will kill spontaneity, take heart: at this point, I’m still more or less pantsing. Unless I already pantsed this scene into nearly full fruition when I was first writing it out, I basically just let it flow, while making sure that the important bits get added in.

For example, even if a conversation was already largely written, if a character decides they have something new to say that wasn’t in the original outline, I let them say it.

Then, after they’ve added that new dimension to the conversation, I find a way to bring the topic back around to the things that I already knew needed to be said.

That way, I’m not ignoring new flashes of creativity and inspiration in favor of shackling myself to an outline, but I’m also not leaving out vital information because the seat of my pants forgot to fly me in its general direction.

 

Will this method work for everyone?

As you probably could have guessed, the answer to that is a definite “maybe”.

The creative process is a very personal, subjective thing. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone.

But if your personal style is enough like mine, then hopefully this blog post helped you to understand your own process more, or to refine your process into a form that’s easier to use.

 

 

 

Alternately titled “Should You Outline Your Novel or Fly by the Seat of Your Pants? Why Not Both?

Stephanie O’Brien has been writing novels since she was twelve years old and has published three of them on Amazon’s Kindle. When she isn’t writing novels and running her marketing business, she’s usually creating comics, music videos, and fanfiction. If you’d like to get more writing tips, or to check out her books, art, and videos, you can visit her website. You can also connect with her on Facebook or on Twitter.

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40 thoughts on “How To Outline By the Seat of Your Pants”

  1. I just brought this up in my last post. I did an outline before writing my first draft for NaNoWriMo last year. Now, I’m at the point where I am going to redo my outline, in order to find the plot holes and help with character development. I was afraid that outlining would stifle my creativity, but it’s done just the opposite!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I am in the process of rewriting my outline. I created one for my first draft last November during NaNoWriMo. I was worried that it would hurt my creativity, but it did just the opposite. After spending some time on rewrites, I’ve reached the point where my outline needs an update. This time around, it will allow me to fill out my story and correct plot holes.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Another hybrid here, but I don’t outline per se. Instead, I pants from the beginning as I get to know the characters/background/situation etc. Then, around about 20-30 K I know I have to start thinking about the plot – why are my characters in the story at all? What is the story? This is the point at which the dot points start to flow. For me, it’s also the hardest part of the writing process and involves a lot of restructuring. Once the middle is done, I tend to pants the last 1/3 again.
    As you said, it’s an intensely personal process that’s never the same for any two writers. Nevertheless, it’s nice to know that writing doesn’t have to be an either or decision. You can pants and you can outline, both at the same time. How much of each you do is up to the individual. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I never read anything about writing this way until now. This was and is my approach and it’s organic for me. My story lines come in tsunamis. I need the outline so I won’t for get. My novel M.A.T.L. was born this way. As I began to flesh out the story and characters, the novel took on a life if it’s own. At times I was shocked at how intensely the story and the characters themselves were guiding me and not the other way around.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s always interesting to compare writing practices.
    You’ve definitely given this more thought than I have, though in some ways I think I use a similar method.
    I know I tend to use outlines as a starting point, so that I’m not confronted with a blank page, but in the moment I always try to remain open to other possibilities, particularly if what I planned isn’t working.
    In the end everything is a maybe until the story is finished.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks for the insight Stephanie. I use a hybrid approach myself but I do lean toward a more plot driven approach since I write commercial fiction. My goal at this point is to develop my writing style to have deeper character development. Your article has me thinking of ways to do just that. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a perfect solution for me. I have a habit of writing a few pages then obsessively going back and line editing them.
    I’m going to do an outline, enlarge it, and hang it in front of my desk!
    It’ll be a reminder to keep the story headed in the right direction.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. My basic issue with an outline is the same thing as having a plan for a combat operation. It never survives first contact with the enemy. Once my characters starting taking control of their own little universe, almost anything can, and usually does happen.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Of course some people work better without an outline and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just commenting because your analogy (which I like) has reminded me of something my dad told me years ago that I think works as a counter-analogy.

      He told me that aiplane pilots never end up following their planned route because there are always unexpected things that force the pilot to make sudden detours. However, the only reason that flights get to their destinations at all is because the pilot had started with a planned route to work with.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on Michael Seidel, writer and commented:
    This is such an organized approach. I just wing that mutha, myself.

    We all need to find and develop what works. As Stephanie O’Brien wrote, “The creative process is a very personal, subjective thing. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone.” I’ve always considered it as personal and unique as enjoying sex.

    Like

  10. Wow this is great. I am a plotter and I have a friend thats a panster. She swears by her method and I’ve never been able to keep on track without an outline. I sent the article to her to try and convert just a little. She writes about 2 paragraphs a day and needs very little editing because she rethinks a lot of what her words say. Its a solid method, but I think she cold be a bit faster if she did a halfway-outline and glanced at it once in a while.

    Its an idea.

    Like

  11. It sounds a lot like my methode, though I write a very detail aoutline, then pant the first draft… which normally resembles the outline very loosely.
    Then starts the job of revriting and editing.

    I also hear many writers fear that an outline will stiffle their creativity. My experience is that this is not the case. Outlines help keeping a direction, so that you don’t lose yourself, but nobody says you can deviate from the path when you see a mor einterstign one 😉

    Like

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