Outline or Seat-of-the-Pants?

I’ve always considered myself a seat-of-the-pants writer rather than an outliner. Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s an in-between technique that can also work.

At the 2010 Pikes Peak Writers Conference, Carol Berg did a session on alternatives to outlining. She spoke of the “minimum you must know” before putting pen to paper:

Character(s) to care about

POV (Whose eyes are we looking through?)

Setting—time, place

What will be the moment when everything changes? (Catalyst)

I like to write the beginning of a new book knowing only those things, and with a tip of the hat to Nancy Kress, the primary throughline as well as the promise I’m making to the reader. (See her book, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends for more on these.)

Another piece of advice from Carol Berg that resonates with me: “Live the story with the characters.” Is it possible to do this if you’re following an outline?

What I’ve done with recent books is begin an outline at about Chapter Four, after I’ve got the story’s momentum going. The outline is rough, but helps me stay focused on the throughline and the major turning points. Doing this allows me to “live the story with the characters” while still having some guideposts along the way.

I stay a little ahead of the story with my outline, and as I write scenes, I go back and make adjustments to it as necessary. When I’m done with the book, the completed outline is a great help in revising, as I can read through it quickly and determine where to splice and dice.

This method works for me. What works for you? Are you a diehard outliner, seat-of-the-pantser, or somewhere in between, like me?

(FYI, Carol Berg was also on this year’s PPWC faculty. Her sessions included “What is this Thing Called Voice” and “Words, Words, Words.” Her talks are filled with astute observations about writing craft and many examples to illustrate her points.)

6 comments on “Outline or Seat-of-the-Pants?

  1. Great post–I agree that there are many points between the two.

    I am a mostly seat-f-the-pants writer, but I think that when I am between writing sessions, my brain is always working on the virtual outline. I find myself thinking things like “okay, I’m about 1/3 of the way in, I need to shift the plot direction soon.” I always start knowing the beginning and the end, and then puzzling through how one gets to the other, my mind always a chapter or two ahead of my pen.

    I also think it has to do with what kind of story you are writing. I recently wrote a detective-style novel, and found outlining much more necessary.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jeannie. Several years ago, the mystery writer, C.J. Box, spoke at PPWC about outlining and how much he depended on one. I love learning about how different writers work–it proves the point that there’s no right or wrong way!


  3. This is so great to read. Thank you. I’ve written novels, but each time I start, I can’t remember a thing. (I had the same thing happen with potty training my kids.)

    I’ve written by the seat of my pants, but I really like the idea of stopping once you’ve waded out just past the shallow water to take stock, and semi-outline the waters ahead. Thank you.

  4. I’m mostly a pantser, though I do usually see later scenes as I get into the story, and I jot down ideas for plot as they come to me. Sometimes I start with little more than a concept and a character, or even once, a concept and a first line. The writing leads me, and while I might have bigger revisions than an outliner, I get to know my characters and story well enough that the revisions are usually easy…once my brilliant critique groups have told me how to fix it, of course!

  5. Hi Laura,
    I agree, the extra revising does help delve deeper into characters. Certainly, the brilliance of your critique groups is unmatched!


  6. Audrey–I like the way you put that! I’ll have to remember it for future reference. It is, sometimes, hard to remember parts of your own book; if something was just in your head or you actually wrote it.

    Thanks for your comment.


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