Whether to Outline Your Novel or Not.

Us writers typically fall into the category of Pantser or Plotter. While some authors claim that we’re equally divided, we certainly don’t live in harmonious union. Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are Plotters and happily reside on their Deathstar. I don’t get too upset that these Plotters are hell bent on world domination. But I’ll be totally honest with you, reader, when the subject comes up there’s a bit of value shaming involved. Plotters proudly pull out their hundred page outlines, waving them through the air if it a lightsaber in the hands of an imperial stormtrooper. It’s meant to shame us Pantsers into coming over to the Dark Side.

But I’ll never go over to the Dark Side and become a Plotter! Not when we have the Force on our side.

For those of you not familiar with these terms, I will explain. Plotters are the Darth Vader’s of the writing universe. They spend weeks and months detailing their novels. All the subplots are in different ink. Every character has a name. There are separate notes for “character motivation” and “Timelines”. They do a “Hero’s Journey” synopsis and a meticulous “Story Map”, which they cover the walls of their office with. Oh, and there are index cards. Hundreds upon hundreds of index cards. Plotters are the evil force in the writing universe, and Pansters are part of the Rebel Alliance. Plotters snuff all the creativity out of the story, we believe. They seek to control the universe and expand their control over the literary domain. They are proud of their accomplishments and hold their massive outlying tombs up as a badge of honor.

Pantsers, on the other hand, have the Force behind them. We tend to live and let live, and often feel like underdogs in this galactic war, and are often made to feel inferior because of our quiet preference to use the Force (Subconsciousness) to our writerly benefit. We are the Yodas of the writing universe, only wanting to live our lives fully and be left alone. We create wholly using the Force, writing under the motto: May The Pantser Force Be With You!

All kidding aside, this Star Wars analogy is a fun way to explain the two methods, but it does have some truth to it. And I must admit, I’m often jealous of those writers who can produce a detailed plot outline for their novels. It must make the writing that much easier. Then it’s merely a matter of execution: writing the novel.

So why have I never been able to successfully plot? It goes to the point that everyone creates different. We’re all unique and our brains process and produce differently. What works for one person has no relevance for another.

I must, however, take exception to this conflict and introduce a wholly different concept; an idea that is quite contrary to the accepted wisdom. I posit that Pantsers are actually highly advanced Plotters who are just too timid to admit it. I’m here today to tell you that the first drafts of our novels are merely exceptionally detailed plots outlines. Mine usually run between eighty to ninety thousand words. Now that’s pretty good plotting.

Lee Child claims he does absolutely no research before writing one of novels. Amazing, huh?So that begs this question: how does creativity spawn? In my case, once the seed of an idea hits me, I utilize mental tent poles. I think of myself as a nomadic scribe, traveling to spaces that are creatively more fertile than others. Once I come up with the initial idea, my mental tent poles provide me with a loosely based map of where to go. When things change, I simply pull out my shallow poles and stick them into the new grids. Thus they keep shifting depending on where my imagination wanders, and where my characters dare take me. The few times in my life when I made detailed outlines, I found my tent poles where so far pounded into the ground that it was difficult for me to move them. The novel then died of malnutrition.

I suppose what I’m saying is this: flexibility is key to Pantsers like myself. We develop a novelistic way of thinking that allows us to internalize plot devices while at the same time freeing us from the rigidity of central planning. Pantsing allows us to be nimble and cut through the red tape of outline. It gives greater currency to the Force—subconscious—then it does to Darth Vader like outlines. Grass roots creativity versus Top Down dictatorial control.

Just joking, my Plotter friends.

So us Pantsers should stand tall and unite. There’s room for all of us, so don’t be made to feel like second class citizens in this wonderful universe that we call literature. And may the Force be with all you authors the next time you sit down to write.

About joesouza

I am a writer of crime novels
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4 Responses to Whether to Outline Your Novel or Not.

  1. I’m firmly in the pantser corner. Half the fun of writing is to discover where you’re headed as you go there.

  2. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I have friends with boards covered with multi-colored sticky notes, each chapter–each scene–planned in detail. I, on the other hand, never know what the hell is going to happen even as I’m typing, and often haven’t decided who the killer is before I start the book. Everybody’s guilty until proven innocent, LOL. I wish I could plot more, especially when writing a synopsis for a proposal, but I’m hopeless! Though I sometimes find my subconscious has left Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs directly to the witch if only I’d notice them.

  3. Karen Neary says:

    As a fellow pantser, I love your wonderful explanation of the writing process!

  4. Amber Foxx says:

    I’m on what must be the eight draft of a book, and I’m still not sure how it will end. Pantsing the revisions!

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