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a: Outlining for Pantsers

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Posted 29 August 2017 - 11:00 AM

That title doesn’t appear to make much sense, does it? You might be thinking, do you even know what those words mean? One is either a plotter or a pantser. If you’re a plotter, you outline. You like to know where you’re going before you set out on your novel’s journey. You may choose to turn right where your outline indicates you will turn left, but that will be a conscious diversion. Order. You must have order.

Pantsers, on the other hand, thrive on spontaneity and the unknown. If you’re a pantser, you just get in the car and drive. You introduce yourself to your characters and let them navigate; you allow yourself to become their instrument. Outlines are like nasal-voiced GPS programs constantly chirping reprimands at you each time you deviate from the pre-approved route. SHUT UP, they make you want to shout. Don’t bother me with directions. I will feel where I want to go.

Me? I’m a pantser. When I write, I always hope to find myself in The Zone, that place composed of buzz and bliss where I forget I’m typing and the words surprise me as they appear on the page, outcome unknown. What do you mean it’s 5:00? Wasn’t it just lunchtime? Whoa, did Sage just drop the key to the whole story in her admonishment to her sister? I didn’t know she was going to do that. Did Michael just die in that accident? Where did that come from? That’s not where I thought this was going, but it’s great. I’m going to follow this trail and see where it takes me.

I may sketch out a few guideposts in advance, maybe identify some oncoming trouble points, but overall, this is how I draft new material. When I complete a draft, I follow the advice of wise author and teacher Jenna Blum: I write a chapter-and-scene outline of the completed manuscript.

“But why outline when you’ve already written the book?” This is a valid question. Here’s why I do it:

  • Reduction. I’ve just written roughly a hundred thousand words. That’s a lot of little puzzle pieces. I need to step back and see how that puzzle looks when all the pieces are put together, and a scene-by-scene outline lets me do that. I assign one bullet point per scene, and then I can see the whole puzzle in a few pages.
  • Structure. See Reduction above. What does the book look like? Where are the rises and falls, where is the climax, where is the inciting incident or incidents, where is the resolution? Is there a ton of backstory, delivered too early? Is there not enough conflict? Use your outline to draw a physical picture of your structure. What do you see? A “W” or a jagged incline with a steep but short drop on the far side? (If it’s a flat line, you need to rework it.)
  • Whoops, what happened there? When you’re looking at your book from a macro perspective, you can see big-picture flaws like abandoned plot threads, unnecessary scenes or minor characters, missing or unbalanced elements, the place a faulty ending really began to go wrong, etc. I use a different color pen to note these types of problems on my outline so I fix them early on. (See next bullet point.)
  • Enforced big-picture revision. You see the big picture; now fix it. I know I’m not the only one out here who can’t resist fixing wording, grammar, punctuation and countless other details as I read. It’s so annoying to find those errors and so easy to fix those manageable problems. But what’s the point in doing all that work if later you end up cutting the whole chapter? Evaluating your manuscript via a scene-by-scene outline helps cut out some of that superfluous editing of words you’re going to throw out anyway. (But most of us have a little of the grammar-freak compulsion within us, so don’t feel bad if you still do a little of this editing as you read your manuscript.)
  • Make adjustments. Get some scissors. Print out an extra copy of your outline. Cut the outline up scene by scene, then pin it to a big corkboard. (Or you can do this on Scrivener.) Ready, set, play. What if you moved the gas station scene to the next chapter? What if the father’s backstory went after the funeral instead of before? What if you cut chapter twelve, except for the fight? Get messy, then clean it up. What does the big picture of your book look like now? Once you see an outline you like, then you can revise your manuscript without feeling like you’ve been dropped into a swirling story vortex.
  • Pace. Where are you heavy, long, light, short? Is your book dark except for a couple of humorous scenes? Okay, but did you realize all those scenes were within a few chapters of each other? Is your book almost all loud moments? Is it too quiet throughout? A big-picture view is invaluable in making these determinations.

By outlining after writing, we pantsers can draft in the manner we work best but still make use of the organizational benefits of outlines. You can do this after every major revision; revise your outline, too, and take a step back to see how things look through a wide-angle lens. Your characters will thank you for the freedom you’ve given them, and your readers will be grateful for the extra steps you took to ensure your story works on every level, big and small.

About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com.

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