From Pantser to Planner: Tips on Outlining your Novel

Would you believe me if I told you that not four years ago, I sat down to write a four-book fantasy series with nothing written down, just ten years of thoughts swirling around my head? What if I said I did it in Comic Sans because I had read on Tumblr that it “promotes creativity?”


Well, you better believe it because I did.


Since then, I have grown immensely as a writer, as we all do when we get stuck, research, learn from our mistakes, and improve our craft and habits. One thing I learned throughout these years was how valuable taking a little bit of extra time could be to get organized.


So, if you are interested in converting from frantic pantser to a possibly still frantic but more organized planner, then come along on a journey with me.


Let me dispel some notions first.


First, remember that every writer is different. It took me a lot of trial and error to find out what makes my writer-brain click when it comes to the process of laying down a story. Look at James Patterson who has written over 200 books. Co-authoring and writing style aside, the man can produce. If you watch his Master Class, he swears by meticulously outlining his books and redrafting those outlines two, sometimes three times. Now look at George R.R. Martin. Will he ever finish A Song of Ice and Fire? We may never know, but he will never, ever change the way he writes (“gardens”, as he puts it) because it works for him.


Second, just because you are outlining does not mean you are losing out on moments of creativity. Don’t let that scare you away from pre-planning. You may even become more inspired by seeing all your moments and scenes organized before you in one place. That’s where the magic happens.


Finally, remember that you don’t have to label what you do and therefore feel like you must remain in that bucket. Planner, pantser, plantser, gardener, architect, discovery writer etc. The point is that you write and you have to start somewhere, which is why I recommend doing a little bit outlining to help guide you in an organized way on your writing journey.


Now, let’s begin.


1. Start with what you know.

Do you know the ending already? Great. Write that down. Maybe you have had this vivid, exciting scene for the beginning of Act 2, but you don’t know what happens before that. Amazing, write that down as well. Then, when you have everything that you know about your story already, written down in the general order you see them happening in, just go in and fill in the cracks. Any major plot holes, how your characters got from A to B, important story beats that your character makes along the way, etc.

It’s like painting; one brush stroke at a time. At first it looks like weird chaos, but as you add more, cover some things, erase others, it starts to come together.


2. Decide on what type of “bones” you prefer.

The story structure that you like to write in is like the bones of a house. It’s structurally necessary to every house, it holds everything together, but there are many ways to construct it. When I outline my series, since I have multiple characters, I outline each character’s journey according to the Save The Cat! 15 Point Beat Sheet. It could be because film school hammered it into my skull, but personally I like writing each important beat for my characters to hit.

When I am writing a novel with one singular character a