Writing Fiction: Outlining Tips For Pantsers

In our recent writers’ group meeting we discussed writing fiction and the fraught topic of outlining.

Those of us who are pantsers wince when we hear the word: “outline”. Pantsers don’t do outlines; we write by the seat of our pants. We feel guilty about that, so we experiment with outlines every few years. It never ends well, so it’s back to pantsing for us.

Is writing fiction more challenging for pantsers?

We discussed whether writing fiction is more challenging for pantsers.

In some ways it is, because:

  • Revision takes longer;
  • Chances are we’ll hit a dead end at least once per book;
  • Not knowing where you’re headed is frustrating and stressful. It’s tempting to procrastinate when we have “blah” days: “I’ll write tomorrow, because I can’t focus today…”

Since strategies for outlining and pantsing are highly subjective, what works for one author may not work for you.

Here are several tips I found useful.

1. Focus on your main characters’ big problem and make it bigger

We discussed creating suspense with open loops and payoffs, as well as the importance of delaying:

Anticipation builds suspense. You need to delay, and delay some more, to build the reader’s anticipation, and suspense. Delay revealing information which closes an open loop.

However, if your main characters’ big problem isn’t big enough, you risk writing melodrama and unintentional humor at best. At worst, readers will give up on your story.

How do you ensure your characters’ problems are HUGE?

A suggestion from one author: “Keep asking yourself: how can I make this worse?”

2. Aim for three major plot twists and look for ways to build towards them

You’ll need a plot twist at:

  • The end of Act 1 (the end of the setup phase of your novel);
  • The midpoint; and the
  • “All is lost!” point at around 80% of the novel.

I like to create placeholder documents for these scenes as soon as possible after I start writing. I add an exploding bomb icon to the documents in Scrivener’s binder so that I’ll stay aware of them.

Ideally you’ll create cliffhangers along the way, but start building towards these major twists as soon as you can.

Think of these three twists as refueling depots. Your story explodes into a new direction.

3. Look for ways to turn scene and chapter endings into cliffhangers

When I think “cliffhanger” Nora Robert springs to mind, but many authors are wonderful at creating suspense.

Scene and chapter cliffhangers help to keep readers reading. Often, creating a cliffhanger is simple: you end a scene before its resolution, then begin another scene or two before you go back to the cliffhanger scene.

Big tip: avoid worrying about cliffhangers in your first draft. It’s easier to create them in later drafts, when you know your story.

This brings us to…

4. Always think “story” rather than “writing well”

P.G. Wodehouse is my favorite author. I read a biography which said that Wodehouse struggled with his story first, then wrote his magical prose.

What’s “story?” It’s the point of your novel:

… (story) is often referred to as the “story question”, or “dramatic question.”

It’s horribly easy to focus on your prose rather than on storytelling. At the end of a day’s writing session, you’re thrilled with what you’ve written, but if you focus on prose rather than story, you risk a reader rolling his eyes and muttering, “so what. Who cares?”

One of our group’s members suggested telling yourself the story of your novel as if you were telling a good friend about a brilliant movie.

As pantsers, telling ourselves the story of our novel can come perilously close to outlining, so stick to one or two sentences. Start with: my novel’s about…

If you’re a pantser, writing fiction can be scary. Try the above tips to create guardrails to keep your story on track.


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