I 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.
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?