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  • Writer's pictureLiz Zimmers

Pantser to Planner? Tackling the Rough Outline

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I’ve always been a pantser (for those of you wondering, that’s a writer who just sits down and writes without the organizing structure of an outline). Overall, it’s worked for me. I’m pretty good at organizing things in my head and remembering the details of worlds, characters, and plots. However…

I have been a short story writer. Even the few novellas I’ve written, while more of a tangle, were not of such a scope that I couldn’t sort them without resorting to outlining. I’ve embarked on novel writing a few times and always found myself hopelessly ensnarled in the sheer volume of the project. Sort of like wrestling with a king-sized fitted sheet. Yet, I have been willing to abandon (or at least shelve) these projects rather than make an outline. Why?

I love the idea of an outline. I think an outline is an obviously smart tool to use. And I have found that writing one has invariably killed the magic of the story for me. This is a me problem, but one I think some of my fellow pantsers share. In setting out the structure of my chapters and making copious notes about the world I’m building and the characters who people it, I somehow lose the impetus I had to write the actual story. For me, stories run hot. I want to get them down before they have a chance to cool, and then I go back and do re-writes. As many as needed, and I never lose interest. I like the sculpting of the material, but outlining always just feels like cleaning the studio where the sculpting is done.

I am once again taking up the challenge of writing a novel. The idea for the story has been circling in my imagination for over a year, and I like the characters I’ve met. I love the world that has sprung up around them. Plot, though, has been a bit shaky. As you might surmise, I tend toward character-driven stories, so I’ve spent some time thinking about them. Wondering how their lives intersect, and with what consequences. The plot has become much clearer, but I am left with several arcs that must be smoothly intertwined. That’s a lot more material to manage than in my typical short story, and I have been feeling the familiar sense of drowning. If I want to see this WIP reach completion, I will need (gasp!) an outline.

I know I will kill this delicate spark of a story if I attempt a full-on outline, what I think of as a pre-book. I do not possess the fortitude for working that way. So, I’ve chosen a kind of hybrid pantser outline. It’s a rough sketch, just some quick framing. I chose a standard three act structure: setup, confrontation, and resolution. Within each act, I noted the most essential scenes of each chapter, taking me from the introduction of my protagonist and setting to the inciting event(s) to the climax and conclusion. I noted where the various arcs might converge and the most pertinent facts of my world and its characters. It’s really spare, like a map drawn with only a few lines on the back of an envelope, but it’s enough to keep me on the road.

I’ve always worked with a swirling maelstrom of scribbles, doodles, glosses, photos, and maps. Everywhere are sticky notes, index cards, and random slips of paper scrawled over with cryptic notes. I corral them all in a folder, and often I never look at them again. The act of amassing them is enough to keep them fresh in my mind, yet I wouldn’t like to be without that folder. I think my outline may serve the same purpose, with the same mind-focusing magic. Now that I think about it, both the collection of all my free-ranging marginalia and the creation of the rough outline are like writerly spellwork. The hope is not to conjure a toad! I’ll let you know how it unfolds.

Drop me a line and let me know what works best for you when tackling a large writing project.

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