Creative Writing 101,  Tips

The Pantsing Plotter

I’m a big fan of outlines. I think they keep you from getting derailed and help you write faster. But outlines change. Sometimes a lot. And it’s tempting to try and stick to your outlines because you put so much work into them.

Enter the Outline-As-You-Go. ^_^

I started doing this by accident about 3 years ago. I was in the middle of a scene, but the next one was burning a hole through my hippocampus. I didn’t want to mess up the scene I was on by rushing through it, and I didn’t want to skip it, so I outlined the next chapter, about a paragraph, right below the scene I was working on. I got so carried away and ended up outlining a few more chapters as well. It worked almost instantly. My brain calmed down, and it helped keep me on track AND helped me write faster.

Why Outline-As-You-Go?

1-It takes the pressure off. You don’t have to have everything figured out before you start. Though if you do, that is awesome! It happened to me once.

2-It keeps you from going off on crazy side-trails that don’t need to be gone off of.

So what it exactly?

It can be as brief or as detailed as you see fit, but the point is to outline at least 3 to 5 chapters ahead of where you are. This is especially helpful if you don’t know where the story is going yet. Something in the earlier chapters may inspire you, and you can outline it out (right under the last paragraph if you wish!) and you don’t have to worry about forgetting anything in your burst of inspiration.

I love this method because it marries the planning aspect with the fly by seat of your pants approach. As the saying goes, why not have your cake and eat it too?! It’s perfect for me because I’m scattered brained at the same time I’m disgustingly organized. (Seriously, you should see my condo. I’m really really absentminded and ditsy sometimes, but there is nothing on the floor. I even pick the lint off the floor.) And this is also a great way to introduce outlining for people who are afraid of it.

Before I start a story, I try pen at least 2 or 3 chapters. If I can do more, GREAT! and I do. But if I can’t. No matter. I’m usually in pretty good hands with my characters. I let them take over, and they can always tell me where to go from there if my mind goes blank. They love telling me what to do! ^_^

If you’re not an outliner, I encourage you to try this approach with your next project. Trying new things is always fun. ^_^


  • Michelle A (@SunflowerRei)

    I’ve been doing this, actually. I have an outline all worked out, but the beginning bits were more summary than outline, so I was getting stuck on figuring out specific scenes and beats. So I wrote a few lines of what needed to happen next in my notebook and it’s going much better now.

    Think I’ll call myself a pantsing plotter now 🙂

  • Cheyenne Campbell

    This is perfect timing! I’ve never been a complete pantser, and I do get pretty anal-retentive about organisation, and I’ve heard so many rave reviews about how outlining and knowing the story’s end and middle make a huge difference in your drafting. Rachel Aaron’s blog post/book has been a big part of this for me. So with my current WIP, I started with a 3-act structure and 1-page synopsis, but have found outlining every single chapter, like Rachel does, before writing anything to be a challenge. Now I know why — because as you say, ideas sprout while you’re drafting, so if I try this outlining just a few chapters ahead of time, it might take the pressure off. Thanks for sharing!

    • krystal jane

      Awesome! ^_^ It definitely takes the pressure off for me. I’ve tried outlining ahead of time, but I either ending up spending a lot of time rewriting it a bunch of times every time something changed, or it started stressing me out. I have actually ruined a couple of stories by forcing some of the plot out before it was ready. Now if I don’t know, I just trust that it’ll come to me by the time I get there. So far so good anyway!

  • Randi Lee (@lee_randi)

    Hey lady! Great approach! I typically have to go back through my story and add new things a gazillion times because I don’t ever outline–and then I think of this and that and that and that and have to retrace myself and fit it all in somewhere. I’m such a mess….but you knew that already!

  • authorcrystalcollier

    I used to write this way. In fact, my first full novel came about this way, and next three or so, but I’ve graduated to full-on plotting. It’s not a rigid, paper-sketched outline. It’s knowing the major plot points (beginning, ending, midpoint) and a couple major changes along the way, including character arc, important symbols, aspects I’m going to need to foreshadow, etc. When I’ve got all that organized, I go forward like a bulldozer and since adopting this system, I don’t get stopped in the middle.

  • Diane Carlisle

    I wish I were a pantser, sounds more fun. When I plotted my novel, I stopped writing for my manuscript. :T Go figure!!

    • krystal jane

      It is fun, actually! I thought I would hate it, but it ended up working really well for my brain. I’ve plotted stuff all the way out only to get overwhelmed and drop it. Lol!

  • Thea Landen (@TheaLanden)

    I definitely make some notes to myself go along, especially if, say, I think of a REALLY good line of dialogue for something that’s going to happen ten chapters down the line. Sometimes I have a whole separate document for my outlines/notes, sometimes I just wing it.

    Also, I always seem to get my very best ideas as soon as I turn the computer off. Good thing I usually keep a notepad nearby to scribble something down. 😉

    • krystal jane

      Why does that happen?! I always get fixes for scenes that way, as soon as I give up and turn the computer off.

      I also use a voice recorder a lot since some characters like to talk to me when I’m driving. That gives me a nice running list of story notes at the bottom of the document, in a notebook, and on my phone. O_o

  • Ifeoma Dennis

    Nice! I think it works the same way even if you’re a plotter. Reason being I’ve outlined my chapters from the first to the last FIVE times (in the course of my million drafts), and well, my characters still act out of line. So, each night before I start writing, I outline the next couple of scenes I want to write that day and the next in my head. Since I already have them all outlined on Scrivener, the only thing I do is see if I should kill a scene or take another forward/backward and all what not, depending on how my story is going.
    So that’s quite similar to what you do. Sometimes, I also go back to my outline (it’s a four-act-story structure) and make notes on what changed/what I still need to change, and what I just foreshadowed in a scene that I should take note of in future scenes. This works wonders for me and I’m almost sure I won’t get bugged down at the middle!

  • Tonja Drecker (@TDrecker)

    I tried panstering at first, and it was a disaster. So now I make a type of note map (I cringe when I see an outline). Although the general plot direction usually doesn’t change too much, the rest twists and turns at will. I simply readjust (note cards are so easily switched around, destroyed or added) while going through to make sure I maintain some sort of story line and know what things need to be wrapped up by the end.

    • krystal jane

      I have never thought about using note cards! I just started last year using index cards to organize my revision notes. I’m going to have to try this, probably really soon. Like tomorrow. Trying to keep my current story organized in my head is driving me a little batty.

      I’ve tried completely pantsing a few times. It always ended in me making some kind of really horrible mistake in the plot somewhere. The kind you need a major rewrite to fix!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: