How to Outline a Novel...and What the Heck is a Pantser?
Updated: May 5
As promised, this post is going to focus on how to outline a novel. I'm going to breakdown the different kinds of methods and later give you an example of how I personally do it. As mind-numbing or maybe as scary as that seems, stay with me, outlining is actually one of, if not the most crucial stage for your book. Why? Clarity and vision.
You cannot have a book without an idea.
We all know that epiphany moment when a great idea has struck...think light bulb over the head.
That's what it feels like when a great concept for a book is born. Now, sometimes what we think is a great idea is quite the opposite, but don't worry about that. Celebrate a bit, fist pump the air, kiss your cat, thank the heavens, you completed the very first stage of the novel-writing process. But, now, it's time to get to work if you're serious. You see, most people will stop here. They call it a day, won't even write that idea down, but they'll talk about it all the time until that too eventually stops and the novel fades away. Instead, take the next step and watch as your thoughts merge with your idea and start to take shape...then maybe more thoughts attach to the concept and form a bigger picture in your mind's eye. Now, you may have an entire scene. But what do you do next?
So it Begins
Before you officially begin to outline, I recommend just writing all your thoughts and ideas down. There is no right or wrong way. This can include plot points, character descriptions (we will go over character outlines in the next post), or anything and everything else you deem relevant. There is just something about getting everything out of your brain and visibly onto the page that untangles the idea and breathes life into it. Suddenly, the pipe dream of writing a book becomes very real once you have a few thoughts on paper. After you have your stew of thoughts and ideas out of your system, outlining can come in handy when getting organized. Also, this stage is where you can decipher pretty quickly if the idea that sparked you to get off your ass in the first place and write a freaking book can stick around or not. I've had a lot of book ideas that I thought were great. Then I started to put the pieces together in an outline only to find around the third chapter I had nowhere to go and nothing left...it was dead, gone, and already drifting into a rotten sea of broken ideas and forgotten dreams. Dramatic, right?
Hear me out...this is much different than just coming to a blockage when you're writing. Sometimes, actually, a lot of times, you just got to plow through that shit like a 300-pound linebacker and beat your stories heart until it convulses back to life. But, usually, you'll be able to feel it out and decide for yourself if that needs to happen or not. To put it a little better, the dramatic and desperate beating will usually occur when you're in the middle of the actual writing part...but while you're outlining, you should be able to finish it without any major hiccups or mental blockades to plow through. Again, no promises, though...when you sign up to write a novel you are committing to the unknown, the great mystery that resides within yourself and those kinds of things need a shove sometimes to come out and appear onto the page for others to see. There is no rush...be patient with yourself and the process.
Okay, so what the heck is a pantser? I'm sure you've heard of the saying, "I just fly by the seat of my pants" before. Basically, it's someone who has no plan, but they either thrive or barely survive depending on who you ask. But how do you know if pantsing is the way you need to go?
If you've been reading this so far, and have felt the cold decrepit hand of death slowly grip its fingers around your throat just thinking of outlining, then...you might be a pantser. I can make an entire list of what can make you a pantser just like Jeff Foxworthy did with rednecks...
I'm not going to do that...but to summarize, a pantser is someone who just says, for lack of a better term, "f*** it" and starts to write a book. I'm not saying this is entirely a bad thing. I wrote my first novel as a pantser. I didn't even know what an outline was, let alone how to do it. I was 21 and literally just sat down and starting writing...I didn't even double space my entire first draft of 70,000 words...the madness! So, if you fall into this category, it's completely fine. I will say, though, this may make your editing and writing process harder if you forget some of the details that happened in chapter 1 when you're in chapter 25. If that's the case, you'd have to sift through thousands of words you wrote way back when to try and connect a current thought. Please don't think I don't recommend being a pantser, I'm not. In fact, there are times when you should be one. Especially when it comes to fiction, you'll be in the middle of writing a scene, and your outline will clearly lead you a certain way, but in the heat of writing, your main character may decide to do something different in your mind, and it's way better than what the outline you wrote weeks ago says...so, just feel it out, and more times than none, your creative instinct is right. Don't be afraid to step off the outline and create something new in the moment. After a couple chapters, you and only you will know what your characters are wanting to do/accomplish. That's why I'd recommend, even if you are sure you're a pantser, to find a balance between a pantser and the next type of writer.
Stage Five Clinger
A stage five clinger stays true to the outline at all costs. This may work for some writers, especially those that outline in great, almost excruciating detail (not me).
With the clinger style, you will know exactly what's going to happen, and when it needs to happen. If you're stuck, you should have no problems getting unstuck when you check the outline. And that's the best thing about being a clinger. But, just how the pantser has weaknesses, so does this style. After a few chapters, your readers might start to sniff out what's going to happen before it even happens. How? Well, if you clutch onto the outline so much, the stiff structure can leak into your novel and make your book feel formulaic, almost like a step by step process or instructional manual. You don't want that. Not in fiction. If you're writing a step by step manual then...ignore what I just said hah! My point is, your readers need to be along for the ride, and when that big plot twist comes, you want them to feel it deep in their guts and not see it coming from a mile away. Again, this may not always be the case for those that cling onto the outline and don't stray from it, but I firmly believe the outline should be the backbone you lean on to keep you on track or give you a light at the end of the tunnel if you're stuck in a scene and can't get out. So, what's the solution?
Easy... be a mix of both. I'd say just play around with this process...try pantsing and then try to make an outline and strictly follow it. You are your own writer and will find what feels right for you and your story.
Here's a link to another resource that has more info on outlining and the many different ways of doing it.
My Outline Example
I am about halfway done in meeting my deadline by completing my own outline this Friday. I will make sure and make a post as soon as I complete it this week. But, for your reference, a few paragraphs below is how I do my outlines. I usually use Google Docs to do this...but here is the layout for the first chapter of a random idea (not current project) I've been playing with. Here are some notes about the sample outline before you look it over. MC - That means the main character...sometimes you won't know the name of your characters at this point. Or their names will change 20 times before you even start the story. If you see the + symbol, that's the main idea that'll take up a few pages to work through...I don't need a lot of details in my outlines...that's where I am a pantser at heart...I simply use the outline for something to lean back on and keep me on track if I lose focus. The indented bullet points would be details I want to include within the central thought (+). Most importantly, the Ending Hook...that should be self-explanatory...but at the end of each chapter you want to hook your reader into not putting the book down...keep them in your world a little longer. Think of each chapter as an episode...that's what I like to do.
I follow this layout for each chapter until the end of the book. Keep in mind I wrote this around midnight, it's very raw, and it's not final... but it should give you a good idea of how I go about outlining.
CHAPTER 1 (Outline Example)
+ Reader meets the MC...Rye? Raised by his father and has a younger sister, Mel? Mother was killed from the global water famine before the “Ancients” arrived.
+Rye is 17 years old and is about to turn 18...on his birthday he qualifies to receive an invite to join the “creed” or the “right” whatever it is...it’s the system that now governs the world through the church of the “Ancient’s” HIGH HONOR and given to those the Ancients see fit.
+We introduce the reader to the Ancients through Rye fetching the daily water rations for his family. He sees a few along the road...they interact in some way...expand on this... Basically, the Ancients are an Alien race who declared themselves sent from god (they weren't) to save the dying planet from running out of water...now they rule the planet not with an iron fist...but with a strict religious belief system and fear of death. Ancient’s are not violent or anything like that, but they are powerful and very smart...they have healing powers and read emotions/feelings stuff like that…
During the water run, Rye is reminded by everyone that tomorrow is his big day. The day of the ceremony welcoming him into the possibility of getting an invite to join the “creed” and to become a “man” according to the Ancient’s. Only 12 are chosen...(play on the disciples).
But...The “father” hasn’t found any of the 12 worthy each year and those 12 usually end up vanishing forever...where do they go? Even though it's so unknown, it’s still an honor to even be considered...Rye is scared, but mostly intrigued...will he get picked?
Ending Hook - Rye brings back the water and after sitting at the table for dinner with family or something...there is a knock at the door...Dad and MC look at each other...no one moves to answer...is it the invite from the Ancients?
I hope this example helped you out.
Next week we will address the character outline process...you need to know your characters as if they were your best friends.
Yes, you'll literally have imaginary friends to some degree, lol!
After that, we will go over story structure...this may cause you to tweak your outline a bit.
Also, don't hesitate to ask any questions you may have. If you've outlined a book before, let me know how you prefer to do it.
Thanks for reading!