How To Outline Your Novel (For Pantsers)

June 5, 2017

Authors usually fall into one of two different groups: Plotters or Pantsers.


Plotters, as the name suggests, are little more than conniving, scheming marsupials (you know, in the best way possible). Their notebooks or tablets are filled to the brim with charts, notes, outlines, and anything else that fills in every crevice of their novel. They usually know everything that happens before they actually write it, and they are double, triple, and quadruple prepared for any bouts of writer’s block.

One of the most famous plotters to speak of is J.K. Rowling. If you Google it, you can find some of her outlines and plans for the Harry Potter novels, like this one right here (yep, people, those are the scribbles of Ms. Rowling).

For many of us, though, the problem with plotting and outlining is that we never stop. We can spend weeks, months and years planning, charting, drawing, and researching only for it to dawn on us one day that we haven’t actually written a single word of our novel.


Words has it that J.K. Rowling spent five years outlining her Harry Potter novels before she actually started writing. But because of who she is and the massive amount of success it brought her, she gets a pass. The rest of us, though, only get an allotted (and short) amount of outlining time before we need to just put the outline down and actually start writing the damn thing.


Now, let’s take a look at the second group, AKA the Pantsers. On this side of things, we have authors such as Margaret Atwood. An idea pops into her head, an image or a scene or a character, and she plops down and starts writing “by the seat of her pants” (hence the name). Stephen King, another famous Pantser, slammed the art of outlining as a last resort for untalented writers. Ouch. (I wonder if Ms. Rowling heard about that?)

I think there are merits and pitfalls of each type, and I think that you should write however you feel comfortable. Don’t feel obligated to be a Plotter just because J.K. Rowling is. Don’t be ashamed to be a Plotter just because Stephen King doesn’t approve.

How to Outline (Even if You’re Not a Plotter)

That being said, I am here today to make a case for outlining (even if you’re a Pantser at heart, like I am).

My process is usually like that of Ms. Atwood. I get an idea, run to the computer when I get a chance, and start writing the opening scene. Sometimes I write more, or other times I have to stop and think before I come back to it.

And while I enjoy working this way (it allows a lot of room for brainstorming), I always run into the same problem: I don’t write as much per day as I want.

I think the absolute hardest part of writing a novel is actually writing the first draft. After that, the pressure comes off a little bit. I can revise, edit, cut, and rewrite all day long. As long as I actually have something to work with, then it’s okay.

Which means that a blank page is the worst thing in the world to me. It also means that I try to write the first drafts of my novels as quickly as possible. I enjoy speed, and the more words I can write in a day, the happier I am.

As I’m sure most Pantsers will tell you, sometimes you get a really great idea and your fingers are like gasoline on a flaming keyboard with no sign of stopping. Other times, it fizzles and you get…nothing. It’s not really writer’s block so much as not really knowing what to do next or where you want things to go.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you should totally ditch your Pantsing ways and join the Plotters. What I am suggesting, though, is you can do both.

So, when you’re ideas are booming and your fingers are flying, then feel free to “Pants” away. And when it slows down and you don’t know where to go, then try my method called The Threesome (and no, I don’t mean you should lead three of your characters to a group orgy. Unless that’s what your book it about. Then, by all means.)

The Threesome

Instead, while you’re sitting at your desk and nearly ripping your hair out, grab your notebook and jot down three questions. Then, answer them with a few sentence or less. Here are the three questions:

  1. What has happened so far?
  2. What is happening right now?
  3. What is going to happen in the end?

As a reference, let’s use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a reference, pretending we’re at the point where Harry, Ron, and Hermione first encounter Fluffy.

  1. Harry, a young boy, has discovered that he is a wizard and been brought to a school of magic to learn. He is learning spells and potions, as well as who to trust and who not. He has heard stories of a Dark Wizard that nearly killed him.
  2. Harry and his new friends Ron and Hermione encounter a large, three-headed dog while trying to discover what secret item is at the school. Professor Snape, teacher of potions, is acting suspiciously and appears to be trying to steal it.
  3. Harry discovers that Professor Snape was actually innocent and the real culprit is Professor Voldemort. He encounters a badly dilapidated Voldemort, but manages to save the Stone (the secret item) and thwart Voldemort’s attempt to take it.

That’s all you have to do. As for question number three, you may say that you don’t know that yet. But you should. If you know how your novel starts, then you should, rather quickly, if not immediately. know how it ends. That’s the first thing you should know after getting your idea, in fact. Don’t start writing unless you know the ending.

Because if you don’t, then what are you writing towards? You need to have a goal, and if you don’t, then your writing will be sloppy and misguided. You will also waste a lot of time, which is never fun.

So, answer yourself these three questions to remind yourself of how things are. If you feel inspired and want to write a little more, then do so.

And continue this process for each scene that you have trouble with.

Cause a Little Trouble

For the “in-between” scenes, or the part where things need to happen but you’re not sure what, all you have to do is throw in a monkey wrench.

If you know where your main character is and where he needs to go, but not sure what to do in between, then create a problem for him and watch how he solves it.

Think of all the obstacles that Harry faces in the beginning. I don’t mean the big things, like certain death from Voldemort and the Death Eaters. I’m talking about the little things that make it harder, or sometimes impossible, for him to get where he needs or wants to be.

He tries to read his letter from Hogwarts, but the Dursleys take it and move him away.

He wants to be liked and accepted by the magical community but one teacher (Snape) seems determined to make him feel like crap.

He tries to find out more about the Stone but is not allowed.

And so on and so on.

I’m talking about tiny, little obstacles that just push the protagonist’s goal a little bit farther away.

So, when you hit a snag in your Pantsing heaven, here is a recap on what to do:

Ask yourself the Threesome questions about your current scene and answer with a few sentences. After that, you should have a reinvigorated sense of where this is going. And to connect the dots, simply start throwing problems at your character/s like you’re a speed pitcher.

It can be something as simple as your character needs to get downtown and a car accident is blocking the way. Think about where your character is headed right now, in this moment, and then think about all the ways that you could make it harder.

Before you know, you’ll have yourself a mini scene outline to boost you back onto your merry, pantsing way.

Have at it!



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