How I Plan a Book, Part 1: Of Plotters and Pantsers
I’m not a traditional outliner when it comes to writing my stories.
Actually, up until a month ago, I actually would have labeled myself a straight-up pantser (i.e. writing a novel entirely by the seat of my pants). But I realized that wasn’t really true.
I also realized that many of my so-called “panster” friends were actually outlining–they just didn’t see it that way.
And I also realized that many of my “outliner” friends were never actually adhering to their outlines–it was just a fluid roadmap.
In fact, it turns out that a lot of us authors are doing the exact same thing but labeling our method different things.
But a rose by any other name is still a rose, right?
The simple truth is we all plan to some extent or another, and much of that planning involves mulling for weeks at a time, jotting ideas down long-hand, chatting with trusted critique partners/friends, listening to music, and generally behaving like a serial killer (minus the killing part).
Now, I should quickly note that NOT ALL writers plan (though every published author I know does to some extent), and there must be some writers out there who create detailed outlines to which they strictly adhere (again, I know none of those writers). Yet what I tend to see most often are authors who know generally where they’re headed yet are willing to constantly let go of what they’d planned in favor of something that resonates better.
Likely you’ve heard the phrase, “headlights outlining” which refers to knowing just as far ahead in your story as your headlights can see–and then writing according to that sort of short-term outline.
But the truth is that most authors I know still have an ending in mind as they write–even if that “ending” will probably change a hundred times before they reach it or even if that “ending” is just a vague gut feeling they’re shooting toward. I would definitely qualify myself as a headlights outliner, BUT I also always have an idea of my midpoint and my ending before I start drafting.
Ultimately, “outlining” can come in many forms and you may not even recognize it as such–which is why I think so many “pansters” aren’t really pantsers at all.
Some more traditional forms of outlining:
- Writing scene summaries on notecards
- Making a bullet-point list of scenes
- Writing a synopsis
Some non-traditional forms of outlining:
- Writing any ideas on post-its, in notebooks, on scrap paper, in your phone, whatever
- Making playlists that correspond to your story
- Daydreaming scenes and snippets
- Writing a terrible first draft of pure drivel and then rewriting based on what you discovered
- Talking out ideas with a friend/CP
- ANYTHING that involves thinking ahead in your story
Keep in mind that you might start 100% pantsing–pouring out dialogue and action without any clue where it’s going–but almost always, that approach will run out of steam. You’ll write the characters into a corner or realize you have absolutely no idea what happens next. Then, inevitably, you’ll either abandon the project (that was TOTALLY me in my early-early days of writing) or be forced to start planning so you know what to write next.
Also consider that you might start 100% outlining with something that you think is the most perfect organization of scenes and plot points. But then, as you write, you find it harder and harder to keep your characters on the train track you’d designed for them–maybe the actions you’d planned for them to make just don’t feel natural anymore. Or the love interest you’d crafted holds zero interest for you. Whatever the situation, many people come up against an outline that makes each word start to feel more and more forced. And yet again, you’ll either abandon the project or be forced to toss the outline and start writing what feels natural.
I have been in both situations many times–a despair-filled cave of not planning enough and a depressing pit of being stuck with an outline I hate. It has only been with my most recent few projects that I finally started to understand how I operate best–what sort of planning I need to do in order to write a first draft as hiccup-free as I can make it.
You tell me: Have you firmly labeled yourself as a panster or outliner? Do you think maybe you could actually fit into both camps a bit?
Read Part 2: Before I Start Drafting
Read Part 3: Scene-Level Planning
Read Part 4: Coaxing Out the Magical Cookies
October 11, 2013 @ 6:47 pm
I believe I’m mostly a panster, but I do some of the non-traditional outlining methods. I actually never thought of myself as an outliner. Very curious indeed. 🙂
October 12, 2013 @ 1:14 am
Right?! I never would have even considered myself an outliner since my method feels so CRAZY, but then I read OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL by K.M. Weiland, and it kinda opened my eyes… 🙂
October 15, 2013 @ 6:18 pm
I LOVE that book. So much. I used it for my first, and I’m working through it right now for my next NaNo.
October 11, 2013 @ 6:47 pm
Awesome post, Susan!! I thought of myself as a TOTAL panster for a long time until I finally got a REAL idea (ie, not just two random pages of writing with no where to go from there) and I still didn’t outline, but went the “non-traditional route”. My playlists and what I call “songspiration” are KEY and I’ve gotten tons of little snippets of scenes that blossom into full on pages.
I still don’t think TOO far ahead (maybe I’m doing a “headlights outline”?) but it’s far enough to know where I’m going from one scene to another.
Love your feedback on this!! Wonderful advice & insights!
October 11, 2013 @ 11:29 pm
I love that–songspiration!! Ha!! I totally rely on that too. And I know Sarah J. Maas uses playlists AS an outline–each song represents a scene and as she adjusts the story, the playlists moves around too. 🙂
Melinda Jane Harrison
October 11, 2013 @ 10:54 pm
I’m the planner, this goes back to my days when I had to write very detailed outlines to get contracts. Old habits die hard. But I assure you, even if you plan in detail, scene by scene, Susan is right, it’s gonna change.
October 11, 2013 @ 11:28 pm
I started out as a hardcore planner–like you, I think because of outlining with work docs. But I would get so frustrated when I’d make these fabulously complex, full-story outlines and then never be able to make them work! So I tried straight-pantsing…which totally didn’t work either. 🙂 Now I’ve accepted that I plan and it works only with a lot of flexibility.
October 12, 2013 @ 4:44 am
At first I start out as a panster but then I get stuck on the plot and have to compile what I have, try to put it in some order and figure out where the plot needs work on and what I need to expand on. With what I have been trying to work on since April I actually got stuck on the plot and ignored it for about a month or so and started to reevaluate what I have. Now I have some notes on: by this point this chapter needs to fit in and by about 3/4’s of the way in maybe be at this point in the action. With an ending having a big confutation with a satisfying result and the hint of a back plot leaving it open for a future antagonist that had appeared about halfway through.
So I guess I start out as a panster and about mid-way I plot to some extent. I hope all that made some sense. 🙂
October 21, 2013 @ 4:44 pm
Ha! I will admit I had to read twice to follow…;) But yeah, I get what you mean. I do that a lot too. Write pretty freely to start and then hunker down with more structure as the story progresses.
Sara (Page Sage)
October 12, 2013 @ 10:14 pm
I’m a weird plotser-pantser combination, too. I outline my stories chapter by chapter, but then usually change everything except the very beginning and the very end, haha.
October 16, 2013 @ 3:59 pm
Ha! I wouldn’t call that weird at all. If it works, it works!! And hey–you realize the importance of flexibility. That’s ultimately what matters most. 🙂
October 14, 2013 @ 1:55 pm
Trying to just dive in and getting drained because I don’t know where to go next. Outlining a “perfect” plot but then finding I’m completely bored and hate it all. I’ve TOTALLY fallen into both traps. Looking forward to reading your tips. ^^
October 16, 2013 @ 3:58 pm
I know the draining that comes from not knowing where to go next. You’re just diving in–you mean into drafting? If so, then that can definitely get tiring fast if you’re clueless as to what comes next. Maybe this post will help you: http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2013/04/01/a-conversation-between-critique-partners-maintaining-passion-for-a-story/
I’m going to cover this idea again next week, but maybe the post will help you now. 🙂
October 17, 2013 @ 1:40 pm
October 19, 2013 @ 12:13 am
I’d say I’m a 99% pantser, despite your well thought out post. Any planning would be done in my unconscious brain while a) sleeping, or b) running with my dog with loud music vibrating through my headphones.
When starting a new project, I just get this intense drive to write, and when I open a new document, it kinda happens along the line of automatic writing/drawing… a giant dump of words that usually surprises me.
Unexpectedly, my first-drafts are very clean, and I do tend to finish what I started 😉
I really like not knowing what’s coming next… in fact, I actively discourage myself from thinking about future scenes, because I’m writing to find the story… if I knew how it ended, well, I’d probably just stop writing then and move on to something else.
October 21, 2013 @ 4:43 pm
Wow! Good for you! That’s awesome that you can 99% pants AND manage a clean draft. Seriously, I think you might be the first person I’ve met like that. I super-super-SUPER envy your ability to plan while sleeping. 😉
Though dude! I definitely do the plan-while-running thing. Literally, every chase scene in my series was acted out during the course of my jog. 😉
And yeah: I feel you on the not wanting to know future scenes because it feels like it’s already “done” and loses its spark. That’s what SUCKS about proposals in this biz–having to write a 20-page synopsis for the book before you’ve written it drains every ounce of life from it for me. Which is probably why I *never* stick to my synopses and always turn in something completely different. OOPS. 😉
October 21, 2013 @ 11:01 pm
I think a good chunk of the reason is because I’m dyslexic (really), and I’m used to storing large portions of information in my brain.
I’m probably organizing/planning/etc, but I’m holding it in reserve instead of physically laying it down. By tucking it away like that (out of *sight*, and more as building blocks of ideas), it’s not as mentally exhausting as re-reading words/sentences.
That way, when I do sit down to write, the *images* are fully formed already, hence the clean first-drafts 🙂 It’s the most efficient way, for me, and keeps what’s coming next hidden, even if the *images* are already hiding in the dark crooks of grey-matter.
I think it’s really interesting how everyone thinks/works differently… and I’ve always been curious about things like that because I know I hold/remember/process information a little differently than most 🙂
Hahaha, yeah, the best way to get writing, is to go for a walk/run 😉
High-five to no synopsis! (I can say that ’cause I haven’t had to write one ;p)
October 21, 2013 @ 10:18 am
These were all such helpful points. I have labeled myself a pantser, but after reading your post I can see some areas where I may also be a plotter. But I know I have the spirit of a pantser all around, because it I outlined my story completely, I couldn’t write my actual book, because I’d consider the story already told.
Thanks for these awesome posts! 🙂
October 21, 2013 @ 4:40 pm
I get that! I think that’s why I only loosely outline–jot down a few Big Points to aim for. And then, of course, if what I’d planned feels wrong, I let it go and aim elsewhere. 🙂
November 6, 2013 @ 10:54 am
I already commented on the Publishing Crawl version of this post, but I just wanted to say that I think this post is spot on. I used to categorize myself as one or the other, but I’m starting to slowly accept that I’m a bit of both.
Amelia Robin King
April 27, 2014 @ 8:32 pm
I was a pantser until it stops working for me. So I became an outliner and also stops working. I got stuck and my characters couldn’t follow the actions I planned for them. I’m more flexible now. Glad to know I’m not the only one!
April 27, 2014 @ 9:49 pm
Definitely not alone–ha!!! Most people I know seem to be in this nebulous “Wtf are we?” camp. 😀 Thanks for the comment!
May 15, 2014 @ 6:23 am
What does friend/CP mean? When I google ‘CP’ all the results say Cerebral Palsy
May 19, 2014 @ 9:14 pm
A CP is a critique partner. 🙂 Sorry for not clarifying. You can learn all about critique partners in this post: https://susandennard.com/2014/05/05/first-reader-and-critique-partners/
July 24, 2014 @ 5:37 am
I’d say most people are “plantsers” 🙂
Though I do think I lean more towards planning, I do agree that both are necessary for a successful novel-writing experience.
By the way, I just want to say, thanks for being so awesome, posting stuff on the internet for aspiring authors, and actually replying to fans and stuff. Not something you see every day. Anyways, the insight is super useful.
July 24, 2014 @ 3:25 pm
Oh my gosh–PLANTSERS!! I LOVE THIS!!! hahaha, I am totally using that from now on!!
And you’re so very welcome! I love interacting online, so…it’s hardly a chore or anything. 😉
March 29, 2015 @ 7:29 am
Er, I was wondering whether you have already shared the SS&D Soundtrack or not, anywhere, because I wanted to listen to it :’)
March 29, 2015 @ 11:11 pm
Hey Janine–if you follow me on Spotify, I’ve got a giant playlist there. 🙂
March 31, 2015 @ 9:14 am
I SHALL FOLLOW SOON 🙂 Shucks
November 16, 2015 @ 6:55 pm
I think I’m a pantser. I might outline later after a great chunk of the story is written, then I go back and outline mostly to check for continuity and make sure there are no inconsistencies.
January 14, 2018 @ 2:55 am
I consider myself a panster now. I didn’t know what to call myself before I read this. I’ll come up with ideas and write them down in a notebook for later. I’m not good at planning out an entire story.
April 4, 2018 @ 4:11 am
I was wondering if you would be interested in doing a piece on how to higher the stakes in a story? I am currently working on my second book and I am struggling with the stakes. If you could please help us odd writers who struggle with this, that would be epic.
Thank you, your blog is amazing! And your books, too <3 .