Episode 025 | Outlining Systems
This week we’re going to address outlining systems (AKA plotting systems AKA planning systems), but first I need to talk to you about a few common terms tossed around in the writing community: pantser, planner (or plotter), and plantser (or plotter).
Now at the beginning of this episode, when I mentioned outlining systems, my guess is that some of you just felt a little flutter of excitement in your heart, while others might’ve felt a cold wave of panic wash over you. Lean into these feelings, people! They’re telling you something important about yourself.
For those of you who got excited, you might identify as more of a planner (or plotter). You like to know a lot about where your story is going before you sit down to write. You may not take it as far as James Patterson famously does with his outlines that go on for dozens and dozens of pages, but you feel more comfortable writing, have more fun writing, in fact, when you have guideposts to follow.
Pantsers, you panicked when you heard we were talking about planning. Or maybe most pantsers saw the topic and moved on their merry way, putting some distance between themselves and this week’s topic. Pantsers like the surprise of writing, They like to sit down with a basic idea or question, perhaps a flash of an imagined scene or character and then just follow the story where it takes them. Stephen King is a big pantser. In his seminal book On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, he talks pretty extensively about it, in fact.
People have finally come to terms with the fact that this isn’t a binary condition, but instead a continuum. There are lots and lots of “plantsers“ (or “plotsers,” if you prefer) among us. In fact, few of us fall into the outer ranges of pure pantsers or planners. Most of us live somewhere in between the two writing extremes.
So which are you? How can you find out? You can’t necessarily base it on how you respond to other situations. Your affinity or aversion to structure in your daily life may or may not carry forward into your writing life. We’re complicated creatures and sometimes we simply don’t make sense.
For instance, In my twenties I had a friend from work come over for the first time. She’d only seen me at work, where I kept my desk super organized and my workflow streamlined. Not so much at my apartment. She just kept saying, “How are you the same person?”
In Judy Blume‘s Master Class (and I may have told this already, but if so, here we go again!), she talks about how her agent had a similar reaction when he went into her writing space for the first time. The rest of her house was reasonably orderly, whereas the office where she wrote most of the time looked as if a hurricane had blown through. It was how she felt most comfortable writing and she leaned into it.
You may be the kind of person who alphabetizes your spice rack and still not be a planner/plotter/outliner, but instead prefer to fly by the seat of your pants when you’re writing.
Like me, you may not know where your car keys and phone are half the time, but you may be someone who actually enjoys the plotting process.
There are lots of reasons why you may be seemingly inconsistent. (And it’s even possible that you’re not as inconsistent as you think!) For instance, are you a little less than rigid about your physical space and/or systems, but hate wasting anything? Then the hard truth that pantsers often have more revision (and therefore more cutting) to do than plotters do on average might be challenge to your natural aversion to tossing anything.
The larger point in all of this is that there is no one right level of plotting, no matter what anyone tells you. There is, however, a right way for you. Go find it!
Below you’ll find a chart of one person’s take on this continuum. They believe most writers cluster into one of nine categories. It’s a fun little thing to scan and ponder for half a second.
But the most important thing I can say here is that finding your right level of preparation for writing makes all the difference. You have to go find yours.
I didn’t win NaNoWriMo for the first time until I finally broke down and tried plotting out a novel. Turns out I liked it more than I thought. I still like to follow particularly appealing “side trips” on my writing journey even after I’ve mapped out my course for writing my novel. And that’s fine. It works for me.
Check out the resources section below. It’s a gold mine of links for everything from quizzes to help you guess at where you fall on the pantser/planner continuum to advice for different types of writers to general information on plotting itself to links to plotting systems of all kinds. There’s even an amazing cheatsheet from Eva Deverell that lists the basic approach of 11 of the most popular outlining approaches.
Some of the plotting (or outlining) systems evolve from that single idea and build layer-upon-layer that way (like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method or The New & Improved Gary Provost Paragraph approach). Others (like The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell) or Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need) offer a set number of defined stops along the plot arcs for you to nail down before you even open that novel file the first time. For some, knowing that a few key plot markers are there, waiting for them is enough. For others, like James Patterson, their outlines may balloon to be almost as long as the NaNo wordcount challenge itself. Explore a little and find out which approach makes sense to you, is helpful to you.
And remember, getting “meta” works here, too. When you’re trying out different approaches or tools, pay attention to:
How you feel when you’re using different methods
How much work you get done
The quality of the work you get done
Next week I’ll be giving you an overview of the types of writing tools out there that might make your job a little easier. Obviously, Scrivener will be there, but I’ll be inviting quite a few others to the party so you can become acquainted.
Until then, happy writing. people!
Pantser/Plotter (AKA Planner) Continuum Quizzes
Writing Quiz: Are You a Plotter or a Pantser? – TCK Publishing
Are You a Plotter or a Pantser? – Lara Ferrari
Writer: Are You A Plotter or Pantser? Take This Quiz Now! – Writer’s Relief
Are You a Plotter or a Pantser? Take This Quiz to Find out! – Nicole Dieker
Pantser/Plotter (AKA Planner) Advice
Why You Should be a Plotter AND a Pantser – NovelSmithy
Pantser vs. Plotter vs. Something in Between – Jami Gold
Plotter or Pantser: The Best of Both Worlds – Cindi Myers
Pantser vs. Plotter – Chuck Wendig
General Plotting Information
Plot Formula Cheatsheet by Eva Deverell
25 Ways To Plot, Plan And Prep Your Story by Chuck Wendig
How to Use a Plot Planner – Martha Alderson
Evolutionary Plotting Methods
WriteMapper (Mind Mapping App)
Four Ways to Develop an Idea by NaNoWriMo
Writer Igniter Plot Generator by DIY MFA
Free Novel Outline by Eva Deverell
How to Outline | 3 Act 9 Block 27 Chapter Example by Katytastic
RECOMMENDED BOOKS ON STORY STRUCTURE/PLOTTING
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