How to Outline a Novel (Even If You’re Not an Outliner)

How to Outline a Novel PictureI know what you’re thinking:

How does the author of nearly 190 books, two-thirds of them novels, get off telling me “How to Outline a Novel” when he’s on record as a non-outliner himself?

Hey, not only that, but we non-outliners have a name! We call ourselves Pantsers.

Okay, so it’s not that creative. It just means we write by the seat of our pants. We could just as easily be known as No-Netters, like high wire walkers or trapeze artists who work without safety nets.

And it’s not like we’re some crazy offshoot, like the cousins you never talk about. We make up about half of all novelists, and there are some famous mega-bestselling types among us. Does the name Stephen King strike a familiar tone?

Why couldn’t we just be known as members of the Stephen King School of Fiction Writing?

Which Are You—Outliner or Pantser?

It’s a good thing to determine early, you know. You’ll save yourself a lot of agony, starts and stops, frustration. There’s enough of that in novel writing already. No sense adding more when you don’t have to.

Now, trust me, whichever you are—Outliner or Pantser—you’re often going to wish you were the other. It’s just like people with curly or straight hair. The curlies are always trying to straighten theirs, and the straights are always trying to curl theirs. Human nature, I guess.

When I hit the wall at the halfway to three-quarter mark for just about every novel, I yearn for a tidy outline that tells me where to go next.

But down deep I know better. Novel outlines just don’t work for me. Somehow, when I plot the story out in advance, things get predictable.

Plus, the organic nature of a story always has its way with me and the characters wind up taking over. They’re cantankerous sorts and never let me put words in their mouths or take the fork in the road I think they ought to.

Go Where the Process Takes You

The aforementioned Mr. King says, “Try to put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”

How fun is that? I live for it. It’s writing by process of discovery, and for me—and any Pantser—it’s the only way that works.

I grew up on television. Maybe that’s why I’m an intuitive plotter, and my stories tend to have beginnings, middles, and ends.

It doesn’t always feel that way while it’s happening, and sometimes I wonder why things are happening the way they are, but things always seem to come together and work out.

Be What You Are

Now, if you’re an Outliner and you try writing by the seat of your pants, you’ll soon know you’ve made a mistake. If you’re not an intuitive plotter, your story will be all over the place, your rabbit trails will take you to parts of the forest you have no business in, and you’ll never find your way back.

You’re one or the other, so decide and stake your claim. Neither is better, neither is right or wrong—unless you choose the opposite of what you are. Then you’re not going to be happy till you switch.

The Ultimate Novel Outliner

If you’re an Outliner and want to jump in with both feet or dive in headfirst or whatever cliché you choose to apply, you can’t do better than to tap into the very strange and wonderful mind of my friend, Dr. Randy Ingermanson.

Who’s he, you ask?

Only the Sheldon Cooper of novelists. Literally (and I use that term literally).

On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon has a master’s degree and two doctoral degrees.

Randy got his M.A. and Ph.D. in physics, specializing in elementary particle theory. He also did two years of post-graduate work on superstring theory.

Somehow he now applies his intellect to the science of novel writing and teaching novel writing, and he is the novel outline extraordinaire.

If you’re an Outliner, go to his site and check out his Snowflake Method of outlining your novel, and also invest in his Writing Fiction for Dummies.

But You Said…

I know! I was going to tell you how to outline your novel even you’re not an outliner.

If you’re not an outliner, you need to stay at least 100 yards from Randy Ingermanson. He’d tell you that himself. He doesn’t even want my business!

Randy agrees that Outliners are Outliners and Pantsers are Pantsers, and never the twain shall meet.

If you’re a Pantser, don’t try to be an Outliner.

Then How Am I Supposed to…

Okay, here’s how.

No one’s saying that just because you’re not an Outliner you should simply sit at the keyboard and wait till magic happens.

It doesn’t go that way. At least it never has for me—although some critics may disagree.

Though you may not have an outline per se, obviously you must have an idea or you have no business in that chair.

I repeat: don’t go to the keyboard with nothing to say.

Come with an idea! Be able to state it in one sentence. Tell me what your story is about.

My first novel was about a judge who tried a man for a murder that the judge had committed.

I had to have at least that much or I would have sat there all day twiddling my thumbs.

Now, if you’re an Outliner, Randy Ingermanson will have you inventing characters with names and backgrounds and virtually blueprinting your story before you keyboard “Chapter 1.”

As a Pantser, my thought was, come up with a couple of character names, put ‘em on stage, and start telling the story of that judge. Let’s see what happens. It sure won’t be predictable to the reader, because I don’t even know what’s coming.

And if a reader writes to demand why I killed off some favorite character, I can say, “Hey, I write by process of discovery. I didn’t kill them off, I found ‘em dead.”

Then What Did You Mean by ‘Novel Outlining’?

That there is a basic story structure that works whether you have a novel outline or you’re writing by the seat of your pants, and it looks like this, according to bestseller Dean Koontz:

1—Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. (That trouble will mean something different depending on your genre. For a thriller it might be life-threatening. For a romance it might mean choosing between two suitors.)
2—Everything your character does to try to get out of the trouble makes it only worse.
3—Eventually things appear hopeless.
4—Finally, everything your character has learned through all that trouble gives him what he needs to personally conquer the opposition.

That’s a structure that will keep you—and your reader—engaged and insured against boredom.

And that’s how to outline a novel, whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser.

So, which are you, an Outliner or a Pantser, and what will you do next?

Related Posts:

How to Write a Short Story That Captivates Your Reader

How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps

How to Write a Memoir: A 3-Step Guide

  • I outline my milestones–hook, inciting incident, first plot point, first pinch point, etc–and then pants my way from one to the next, setting it up or paying it off. I suppose that makes me an outliner with the heart of a pantser.

    • Sounds like it, Sue, and it fits right in with the idea that we run with whatever works. :)

  • Amy D. Christensen

    A “panster” through and through! Give me a character and a setting and I’m good to go. What will I do next? Try to get this dang novel done!

  • Oh, my goodness! A writer who actually acknowledges pantsing as a valid way to write a book? I’m sooooo happy to read this!!! You made my day! I’m very much a pantser, although I do use a plot beat prompt to keep me on track. The prompt for each section is generic so it can be used for most novels. I call myself a tailored pantser. :o) But plotting it all out first? Why bother writing the book then? Lol, the excitement would be gone. I love riding the roller coaster with my characters and feeling the rush when they do something totally unexpected.

    • It’s worked for me, D. :)

    • Hatfield

      As Mr. Jenkins said above, there are others including Stephen King. Me personally, I’m a fan of another noted Pantser, the late Dr. Asimov. I recall reading his biography, where he describes the two elements of his writing technique:

      He kept an office. Not just a room in his home, but an office he leased in another building. For him, his writing was his work and he treated it as such. So he would keep business hours and focus on his work. If he was working on one project and he started getting a block or was just getting tired of that piece, he would set it aside and work on something else.

      Though he didn’t use the word, he was also a pantser. He explained that he wanted the story to tell itself TO him. It did seem to work well for him.

      While I thoroughly enjoyed his Foundation books and the Robots of Dawn, my favorite work of his was a short story, “The Fable of the Three Princes.” True, ‘Dr. A’ was not a man of faith, but I respected that while his writings didn’t edify God, he also didn’t paint bullseyes on Christians either.

  • Becky Benedict

    I must be a panster because writing my story by beginning with outlining seems like it would bore me so bad my creative juices would stop following!

  • Excellent article Jerry – but oh the frustration! I initially started my writing career (if you want to call it thus far) dependent entirely on the principle of plotting the junk out of everything. Short story? “Show me Plot Point One, baby!” Novel idea? “Reveal to me the resolution!” I was notorious for trying to outline every single detail, believing – in my naive and whole-hearted way – creating a solid outline would a) Speed up the process to publishing, b) Make the job easier, and c) Ensure I had a great flow when I set down. Alas, I am no longer a staunch believer in such things. The most fun I’ve had lately with my writing has come about through a hybrid mix of the ideas you’ve presented here. I have a general structure and an idea, and if I simply allow my mind to wander where it will, I’ll have a great bucket of interesting scenes I see the characters in, which allows me to be both a plotter and a pantser… a plantser, if you will. It’s an interesting mindset, and one I’m currently using as I gear up and start on my first Novel. Again, excellent article!

  • Emma Right (YoungAdult Fantasy

    I have tried countless times to be an outliner but it has never worked. Somehow when i start writing i can’t seem to follow the outline and the characters either start having a mind of their own or bad things happen to them I never thought possible. It has been frustrating. It truly is like trying to straighten my curly hair. I bought the James Patterson novel writing series and he’d said that outlining is crucial and i see the wisdom of that but it’s still reassuring to see your opinion that once a pantser always a pantser. Thanks for the article.

    • You’re welcome, Emma. Maybe that’s why Patterson’s never made anything of his writing career. Wait…

    • Elizabeth

      Emma, could you tell me where you got the series? I attended to Patterson’s seminar but I am not aware of a novel writing series of his. I too attended a course on outlining and tried to outline but somehow can’t do it, and I began to understand why…I’m not an outliner , and somehow it is easier to understand those issues when we hear from someone with conviction, and I think success can really brings conviction to the table…there’s nothing like the experience of hearing from a pro…so those blogs help me a lot. I think I ought to play on my strengths, if any, instead of trying to become an outliner LOL Thanks for your post.

      • Emma Right (YoungAdult Fantasy

        Hi Elizabeth, if you google master class James Patterson teaches writing you’ll find it. I hope Jerry Jenkins won;t mind me putting it here…on tangent–i so enjoy reading /learning about fiction writing. Is it just me…?

  • Proud Panster! I knew that pretty much from day one, but early on while writing my book I made the absolute worst mistake: I outlined. Well, tried to anyway, and it threw me off course for over a year. Six months ago I came back to the book, scrapped the entire thing, and started over with two characters, and waited to see what would happen. It happened, and it doesn’t look a thing like the first version. It’s so much better.
    And I’m thrilled to say, your four steps to outlining are exactly what my book is! I’ve worked for 4 years to finally be able to say it. And I you to thank for that, Jerry, because I have held onto every tip and piece of advice you have written, and it’s paid off. I can finally say that I’m doing it right. Thanks for being there as a teacher for us writers!
    “Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men”

    • Credit where credit is due, Reagan. I learned those from Dean Koontz.

      • Then I have quite a few people to credit, because I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’ll give it all to the Lord. He orchestrates it all, and without Him, none of us would be here doing what we do. :)

  • Michele Huey

    Thank you for this. I’m a Pantser who was feeling guilty about not
    outlining. I do have an idea where the story is going to go, but
    detailing it out in advance to me is like letting all the fizz out of
    pop (or soda).

    I’ve enjoyed your posts on writing, learning something for each one of them. God bless you for your heart for writers!

  • Kevin Norberg

    Thanks, Jerry! I’m definitely a “PLANtser”! I plan in advance to self-discover. Permit me a brief explanation…

    When my wife and I plan a getaway, I love to PLAN our destination, our route, our accommodations, and means of travel. I book flights and hotels far in advance, so as not to be left paying high last-minute fees or wind up booking a room at the Fleabag Motel.

    But on our way there, we throw caution to the wind. We’re never afraid to take detours and side trips on the road less traveled and follow our inner compass. This has led to MANY undiscovered treasures and roadside stops we could never have anticipated would be so much fun!

    I’m of the opinion, it’s best to plan ahead, but it’s even better to leave room for discovery on the way and (especially) once you get there!

    How does this relate to writing a great story? Make an outline, plot signposts and define story beats. But don’t get so bogged down in the weeds that you forget: the journey can be and should be more fun and fulfilling than the destination!

    Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it!

  • D. Holcomb

    Oh, I’m definitely a pantser. So happy to read this post. I would have headed over to examine the snowflake method (actually, I think I have, in the past) and felt my eyes spinning.

    As a pantser yourself, how do you come up with a great plot? That’s my sticking point.

    • That’s the whole point of being a Pantser, D. I don’t come up with a great plot. I put interesting people in difficult situations and write to find out what happens. The characters come up with the plots, and my subconscious plays a role. But that’s the thing–since it’s my subconscious, I’m unaware of it and just trust it to come through. It’s intuitive. If I get too analytical, it doesn’t work. And it’s sure not predictable. The reader can’t predict what’s coming, because I don’t even know till it happens.

      • D. Holcomb

        I think I need to amp up the difficult situations. That would probably solve the problem for me. Thanks! Love your newsletter.

  • Elizabeth

    yeah, it is so true that a curly hair person wants their hair straight and vice versa…now working with what we have….I also had this question for you Jerry…how do you come up with a great plot (I finally had come up with some turns and unexpected suspense but I know there should be a better way to do this than the years that took me to add some spice to the story. I’d love to hear from you how your characters come to life. Thanks

    • That’s the whole point of being a Pantser, Elizabeth. I don’t come up with a great plot. I put interesting people in difficult situations and write to find out what happens. The characters come up with the plots, and my subconscious plays a role. But that’s the thing–since it’s my subconscious, I’m unaware of it and just trust it to come through. It’s intuitive. If I get too analytical, it doesn’t work. And it’s sure not predictable. The reader can’t predict what’s coming, because I don’t even know till it happens.

  • Debbie

    Ha, a definite Panster. In life I am what Kevin Norberg described as a Planster. But when it comes to writing outline would kill the desire to even get started. From what I’ve already started writing, it’s taken unexpected turns I never would have seen coming if I had outlined.

    In my momentary stuck state, I decided to do some research on writing and came across the very same question. However, if I recall correctly, the term used was plotter instead of outliner. They even mentioned that sometimes when you’re stuck, the idea of becoming a plotter, or outliner as mentioned here, is suggested. I attempted that for about two seconds, then trashed it realizing, nope that’s not for me. I decided to work on articles and blogging until something strikes a cord that sends me off flying into another unknown, unexpected place.

    The whole story is there, it’s just figuring out how to word it and visualize the new charterers that just walked in on the scene. I didn’t ask them to step in. They just did.

    It’s coming. I can feel the sentences forming.

    • That’s when it’s the most fun, right, Debbie? It is for me.

      • Debbie

        Lol. It will be once I get that second book written, because then I’ll have a better idea on how this game is played. Jerry, thank you so much for your encouraging words, especially when I felt at my lowest.

  • I outline. But if a character throws me a curve, I’m happy to adjust my outline.

  • Joyce E. Johnson

    I’m a pantser, I guess, because I have not found that an outline is something that works for me, nor can I stick to what I outline. :) In my story an American archivist/genealogist, a descendant of Jewish ancestors travels to Russia, finds an ancient buried journal with names and information on the Romanian Iron Guard responsible for carrying out Jewish massacres of thousands during World War II, and barely escapes with her own life when she exposes the truth. My own 30+ yrs. of research on my own German Jewish grandfather’s family from Russia helped prepare me for writing this story in fictional form, so I want to get it right and be believable.

    • Believability is the key, Joyce. Go!

    • B. Gladstone

      Sounds intriguing. Can’t wait to read it!

  • Kathy Rouser

    I’m . . . a . . . pantser-liner? Seriously, I tend toward pantser, but about one-third of the way through my novel, on the way to the “sagging middle”, I will sometimes put together a loose outline to help me focus, but very loose–nothing like the weblike myriads of information in a Snowflake outline. With all due respect to Randy Ingermanson, though, who has written some great material on writing.

  • Heather Hemsley

    I’m a pantser.., I never really knew people even wrote a story with a outline! But I don’t want to try it because I think writing a beginning sentence and waiting to see where it will turn up is more for me :)

  • Heather Hemsley

    A pantser :) it is more easier for me than outlining!

  • K. Shannon

    I am an Outliner! I am. I am. I am. I look at my outline before I start writing every day. At the end of the day, I completely change it to reflect what I wrote. Actually, maybe that’s called confused. Oh well. I’m writing.
    From someone who needs your advice, thank you Jerry.

  • Renette Steele

    I am a pantser all the way. Often writing bits and pecises of the story then having to figure out what order to put them in to make sense.

  • J Eliot Mason

    Sometimes it seems as though we share a psychic tether. Whenever I’m struggling with a question, you somehow blog the answer. Thank’s as always! Lately, I’ve been using the George RR Martin approach to writing. I have a basic idea of where I’m going but I allow the characters freedom to get sidetracked and maybe take an alternate route.

  • Sharlene McCorkle

    I’m a panster . But I know outline, as in essays, I struggle to use outline even in my Sunday School teaching! But I thought we all need to start our character out in trouble. Mine is choosin betweeg

  • Sharlene McCorkle

    I’m a pantser. But I know outline yet even in my Sunday School teaching I struggle to use outline!
    Aren’t we all supposed to have our main character start in trouble? Mine has the choice between two suitor, but one doesn’t know the Lord and one is a church worker.

  • Robert Murphy

    I have developed into a pantser…at least for my first draft. I was over halfway through my first draft before I decided that my main characters would have kids – then adult children – and so forth. In my second draft, I now knew who the characters were and how the story ended, so it is much more of an outline approach to make sure that the plot, sub-plots, characters, etc. flowed together logically. This allowed me to look at the story with a different perspective and see how one situation or action led to another, building upon each other as in “real” life.

  • Matthew Roth

    Does your method directly reflect your personality? I always feel like I should be outlining, because I get lost, distracted, and bogged down with backstory and rabbit trails. But outlining never really works. I think my writing tends to be as impulsive or spontaneous as the rest of my life is.

  • LJ Da Silva

    I’ve tried outlining, but my story gets away from me and the characters take on lives of their own – I’m just along for the ride and the ending is as big a surprise to me as my readers.

    It’s a cruel world.

  • Support

    Hey, just got this note from Randy Ingermanson. Feel free to respond, and I’ll pass your comments along to him.

    “You made my day, comparing me to Sheldon! And thanks for the shout-out to your people on the Snowflake. Works for some people; doesn’t work for others. The key thing is for people to use whatever method works for them.”

  • Hey, just got this note from Randy Ingermanson. Feel free to respond, and I’ll pass your comments along to him.

    “You made my day, comparing me to Sheldon! And thanks for the shout-out to your people on the Snowflake. Works for some people; doesn’t work for others. The key thing is for people to use whatever method works for them.”

  • Steph K

    I’m a total Pantser. I was hoping for revilutionary advice to make me defect though. I am unfocused with attention issues, and I have great difficulty moving forward with my plot because I fixate on every sentence. It’s maddening

  • Elizabeth

    That makes sense. Thanks for sharing your insights with us. It helps.

  • Zoe Ashcraft

    Really? …Ready to get serious…Ok, so if I do it, it will make a difference, right? “LET’S CHANGE THE WORLD, plant seeds of truth…spread a little hope!” I mean, why else bother? The world is getting screwier and screwier…My problem with story telling is I can never figure out a good ending, an appropriate ending, or one that fits with the overall metaphor I’m working with scripturally. Maybe that’s where I’ll start; the ending. I think I may just be a streaker looking for my pants.

    Truth be told, I wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t have a story to tell.

  • Elizabeth

    I’m sure he won’t mind. I attended the seminar. Now on the Snowflake…I had seem a method called snowflake used as a software, but it seems that this is a different one focusing on outlining, I’ll check that out; I’m sure there’s a link somewhere. I think Jerry mentioned about that. What did help me, was to go back and read the books Jerry had recommended. The second time around those books made a lot of sense to me, and truly helped me to trim the the chapters. Thank you for sharing.

  • B. Gladstone

    Panster and not a shamed of it now that I know it has a name and it is a legitimate way of going about writing, albeit not necessarily the easiest. A structure is always needed and I’m going with the Dean Koontz method.

  • B. Gladstone

    Seems Pansters outnumber the Outliners…

    • Rosanne

      Well, to be fair, this post is ABOUT being a pantser and using a loose outline of sorts, so it would appeal more to people who are pantsers. So, a pantser is probably most likely to read it, followed by someone who isn’t sure or who doesn’t clearly fall into one or the other category – as several responders seem to be. :)

  • Shannon

    I’m a Panster with a capital ‘P’. I am also a ‘Big-Time Planner,’ like Mr. Norberg. Which is a
    prominent trait that shows up in every other aspect of my life, except writing for some reason. Until I read this post, I thought I needed to conquer this flaw and learn to be an Outliner. Who knew there are not only others like me, but there is a name for us! Pansters! How great is that?

    I now have my first Jerry Jenkins quote proudly displayed on my desk.

    “Hey, I write by process of discovery. I didn’t kill them off, I found ‘em dead.”

    Brilliant. Just brilliant! I’m so glad I found you! :o)

  • Greg Turnquist

    Once I read about the snowflake method, I was hooked. My writing was crazy and unfocused until I laid out character sheets and sketched out the three acts. It illuminated flaws in my plot that blocked me for nine months. But once I solved it, the story flew out of my fingers.

  • A great post and very entertaining. I can’t quite decide which is better!

    I used to write by the seat of my pants. I still do sometimes.

    But it always seems like I have to sit down and map out the story at some point. I am familiar with Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method of story design and have used it frequently, but have since graduated to my own version of the basic premise.

    So I guess, given the two choices you offer, I’d have to say I’m closer to an Outliner. I don’t outline, per se. I usually start with a single-sentence summary, expand that to a paragraph, then a page, then more pages, then a chapter outline and then….

    You guessed it. The story.

    What will I do next? Finish the manuscript I’m working on. Then see which of the plans already in the works look good for the next story!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Sounds like you’re a hybrid, Carrie. I’ve been doing a bit of the same with my current novel.

  • bmlabelle

    My first book (which I’ve been writing for about four years now) started without an outline. I thought that as long as I knew the beginning and end I’d be fine. Not really. It’s probably important to note that I started the book at the age of 11 (simple math to find my age), but by now the plot is too mangled, cut up, and glued back together to see the big picture. It seems like a series of separate, similar looking plots each labeled as a chapter trying to pass themselves off as one book. Since then I’ve found that I work better with a set outline, a precaution which I had previously deemed unnecessary. I’ve now written the plot for the rest of the book, and am working on the plot for the rest of the series (six books). I guess it’s easy to see which kind of writer I seem to be. Hint: Not pantser.
    NOTE: Love this website. Has all the tips one could ever want about writing. Except, maybe, the formula to some kind of brain enhancing energy drink.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      The upside is that you seem to have all the elements. The downside is that you seem overwhelmed by the mess it’s become. Assuming you have it all in electronic format, you might do well to invest in Scrivener and take the time to learn how to use the virtual card filing system. That would help you organize it and wrestle it into shape.

      Thanks or your kind comments. I do think you’re going to find that a book–and especially a series–is where you arrive, not where you start. So, you’re in for a real learning experience. Most people who get a book published have years of learning behind them, lots of fits and starts and polishing their skills, honing the craft.

      Too often the ones who start with a book find their manuscript isn’t ready to be published and resort to self-publishing, because they didn’t start with shorter pieces and learn the craft. That doesn’t HAVE to be your experience, but just something to watch for.

  • Love this discussion! I am a Pantser. I wrote what is now part of my first novel on a train ride to work and back every day for over a year. When the train started up, I started writing — and didn’t stop until the train stopped at my station. It worked! I had a full manuscript and had taught myself discipline to let it flow! So glad that my method is considered normal! I love letting the characters drive the train!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Fabulous, Jamie. You know, Kenneth Taylor wrote The Living Letters, which became The Living Bible, that way–on his train commute to and from Moody and the Chicago suburbs every day in the 1960s.

      • Very cool…! My train ride was from the Chicago suburbs to the Loop. Ever-inspiring!

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Ken Taylor (The Living Bible) on the commuter train.

  • Karen Crider

    I recently learned a little about plotting points. I have never done that, because I am a panzer. But I don’t think it hurts to try new strategies in writing. Who knows? Maybe it is the avenue to improve the craft. Structure is important and I think it might supply a few rafters for support. (Sometimes that’s the only support a writer gleans. LOL.) I am working on a second novel, and appreciate your insights.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks for your kind words, Karen.

  • Ellamae

    I am not the sort of person to plan and like to write spontaneously. However, I want to continue a story that started in my first novel and readers want to know where it finally goes. I feel in his case I need to have a plot (that could be changed later). I assume I start with a prologue and wonder how much to tell. Is an outline going to squelch my imagination? I feel I need at least a sentence to describe what happens in each chapter.

    • There’s nothing wrong with being a hybrid, between an outliner and a pantser. However, I would urge you not to make your Prologue a chapter by chapter rundown of the first title. See if you can synopsize what the reader needs to know in less than a page. Those who’ve read the first will appreciate the update, and those who didn’t will know enough to be able to read on–and also be motivated to buy the first.

  • Ellamae

    Where can I find someone who can professionally review my first novel and let me know what I did right and where I failed? I feel I need this done before I begin another.

  • Denise I. Griggs

    Thanks Jerry, Looks like I’m an Pantser- unintentionally I have been both within the same book! According to the above 4 phases, my book, Return to the Table ( fits accurately. I have 100 scriptures hidden in it, and it is intensive and scary! I just love it. Took 5 yrs to write when I originally started writing it – pointing the finger at someone I knew. Hah! Didn’t realize the other 4 fingers were pointing back at me! I’m glad that I found your website, unfortunately at the death of your writing partner, Tim LaHaye. Condolences. Still, the work must go on!

  • John Tucker

    I was a children’s pastor for twenty years and used my dramatic arts: storytelling, acting, puppeteering, clowning and juggling as much as I could in several church venues. I was a pantser then and I write with as much of that gusto now as I did then. Story seems to flow freely from my lips. I get an idea, create a setting for make-believe characters, whether people, animals or creatures like dragons, and write like crazy. It’s fun, but the process of writing is hard work. Studying this craft is like doing the hurdles; it’s just hard work. But I love the outcome!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Couldn’t have said it better, John.

      • John Tucker

        Thanks again for your encourage-meant.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    I’m definitely a Pantser. I never knew this before today, but today I discovered the reason why I was having so much trouble writing my first novel. Today I sat down and spent three productive hours writing my first novel. It’s my fourth time starting it. I used to think I was having so much trouble writing because of my kids and being too busy. But that’s not the whole story, or the real reason why I was struggling so much. The reason I was struggling so much was because I was trying to be an outliner. I spent so much time trying to plan everything in the story in advance that by the time I sat down to really write the story, my mind was fried and I had killed the story. I can’t believe I never knew this until now. Today I wrote about 1200 words, 400 words per hour, which is really fast for me. I’ve never written that fast or that easily. The story just pored out of me. All I did was relax and let the story come naturally. I bought and read Randy Ingermanson’s book, Writing Fiction for Dummies, about two years ago. It’s a great book and I enjoy learning from Randy. I even subscribed to his Advanced Fiction Writing e-zine, and I enjoy it, too. I know about his Snowflake method and up until today I thought it was great. But now I know that method and the outline method don’t work for me at all. Thank you for sharing this post! It’s helped me get past the seemingly impossible roadblock that’s kept me from making much progress on my novel.

  • Wayne Mizerak

    I am a Panster. I simply let what I am experiencing sink deep inside of me and then record what I hear (kind of like Romans 8, “groans too deep for words”). I seldom know where it is going, though I have an essence that seems to lead me along. I follow the essence.

  • Mizuki Ukitake

    I’m a “pantser”, but I would like to become an outliner. See, when I write as it comes to me, my story becomes scattered and illogical. I hit my plot points, but everything between is rushed and has no relevance.

    • That’s a good reason, Mizuki, and you’ll probably wind up being a hybrid, using the best of both approaches.

  • Cassandra Malone

    I love inventing characters but now I’m having a little trouble getting back to their story.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I apologize if this sounds too mystical, but usually inventing characters spawns new ideas for your story. Ask the characters what’s important to them and see what they say.

      • Cassandra Malone

        Thanks. I’m excited again.

  • Karmalee Young

    I am just beginning to write my first book and after reading this I realize I am a hybrid. I have an idea for the story and a general idea of where it’s going, but it runs it’s course while I follow along. I do however, have character names and assorted information all written down as well as pieces of the story that come to me at random times. I recently stopped writing my book at chapter 16, wondering ‘WTH…this is not where I thought it was going at all!’ and began a new version, of which I got about 6 chapters done. Finally I just had to stop all together to take stock of what was happening in both versions. I really liked a few things that had emerged in the new version, but came to realize the original story was the true tale….and so now I am combining the 2…tucking the new ideas into the first story. Tada!!! Hybrid’s all around. :)

  • I do believe I am a Pantser. My plot takes place in my brain before I have time to make it to the keyboard. When I do get there, I’m not sure where to begin. I always try to start from the beginning but that seems to keep me from moving forward. And then I’m always afraid I’ll forget what I thought of or change things so much they no longer make sense. I think my brain moves faster than my fingers. Even if I’m at the keyboard, I stop to daydream because I’m enjoying the story so much. It’s hard for me to bring the plots out so others can enjoy.

  • Muriel

    Definitely a pantser. I make lists about everything in my life. I can’t imagine me trying to write a novel without an outline. I’d be a nervous wreck.

    Outliner forever!!!

  • Muriel

    Oops! I meant to say outliner, lol. Even the idea of being a pantser makes my mind go in a tizzy!

  • Mostly I’m a pantster. But lately, my muse isn’t cooperating. It is taking me three to four hours to write one chapter, or about 1500 words.

  • Dave Fessenden

    Jerry, I want to pick your brain a little about how a “pantser” works. In fiction, I tend to be an outliner, especially since I am coming from a nonfiction background. (It seems to me that it’s practically impossible to avoid outlining in nonfiction, at least for a book-length project.) But a friend of mine, a multi-published novelist, is a inveterate “pantser.” Imagine my surprise when he sheepishly admitted that he outlines his novels after he finishes the first draft! In fact, he says that his first draft is often not much more than an extended outline. (I kind of wonder if he means that when he gets to a rough spot in the story he adds in brackets, “And then a bunch of other stuff happened”!)

    Anyway — do you outline after the first draft, or at any other point in the process? It would seem to me that some rough notes about the general progression of the plot (and that’s what I mean by outlining — not a perfectly symmetrical outline like we were taught in English class) would be a big help at the revision stage — but then, I’m an outliner, after all!

  • Rosanne

    I’d be really interested to know how quickly pantsers write versus outliners write their novels. As an indie, it’s important to be able to get books out faster than those who traditionally publish. Anyway, I probably fall more naturally into a pantser category, but I am going to try to do some outlining since I’m starting a series. Kind of need to have an overall arc going before I start the first book! :)

  • Gail Tigner

    Well, I thought I was an outliner, and now that I’ve read your article, I’m beginning to think I’m a planster! Lol! I write different scenes, and arrange them like a puzzle until they fit! This way a lot of times gives me exciting new ideas as I go! Thanks so much for your article. It really helps!!!

  • Matthew Engel

    .Thank you for explaining this. I can confidently say I am a mix of both, though I lean more towards being a pantser.

    When I was in school, my teachers would always be trying to drill it into my head that I HAD to outline my writing. It frustrates me to no end as I would constantly be changing things from the outline they would force me to make.

    Though when I would be writing for the fun of it, I would find myself planning out each character. From their looks to their personality and even setting up a backstory for each of them.

    Yet then I would be torn on how I was to incorporate my planed out characters into my off the wall storyline.

    So once again I thank you as I’ve just started to become dedicated to getting my first book idea published and this has helped​me see that though I plan out my characters, I need to stop letting that make me try outlining my stories and I need to be willing to change things about my characters as the story progresses

  • Martin Braude

    Hi Jerry,

    How do I come up with a book concept?

    -that can be used as vision for my book outline, and ultimately for writing the book;
    -and, will sell books

    Thank you.

    (Christian author (self-help books),
    Cape Town, SOUTH AFRICA)

  • Cherokee Dawn Ibarra

    I outline, simply to keep a record of brain storms, brain farts, and the occasional genius discovery. I have yet to complete page one of my current novel, and, I have already changed nearly everything about what i originally WANTED my story to be. I began with two character names, and one theme. That theme has since changed at least seven times. I, myself, am a very forgetful person. I will forget basic and sometimes complex details that are incredibly close to the root of my plot, only to be reminded halfway through. Then I find myself going back through everything, nitpicking it, and replacing a good chunk of it before i can continue. Keeping a record of thoughts, both good and bad, allows me to keep myself informed of my thought process. This is especially helpful for those three in the morning ideas.,