How to write a Pantser outline

Categories Blog, Writer's Life

Hello writers. How are we today? Good? Bad? Feeling the crushing weight of existential crisis bearing down on us with each word we type? 

Ah, yes. That’s the writing life I know. 

It goes without saying, some days are worse than others in this crazy creative space we’ve carved out for ourselves. And with National Novel Writing Month coming up (for six NaNoWriMo writing day essentials, check out this post), life can be a whirlwind. For me, personally, when I stare in the face of all I have to do for a project, the doubt creeps in, my heart palpitates, and I truly wonder if this feat is something I can conquer. 

So, today, I’m writing about something that will hopefully make that feat a little easier to manage: an outline. 

If you’re a Plotter, outlines are nothing new. You probably fill out a template for the hero/heroine’s journey, then fill out more details for that, then write a skeleton draft, and just continue filling in the meat as you go. You guys are surely pros by now, and you’ll probably skip this post altogether. I wouldn’t blame you. 

No, this one is for the Pantsers. Because though you say you love to fly by the seat of your pants while writing, I know you secretly wish for something a little more substantial than an idea to guide your way. I know just having that North Star to follow can lead down a path of frustration and hopelessness. I know, because I’ve been there.

But I also know writing detailed outlines, sketching out each beat, knowing every twist and turn in the whole story, that’s not appealing. Pantsers—and Plantsers, like me—crave the mystery of the written word. We don’t want a roadmap; we want to be able to veer off course, take the scenic route, maybe try and find a shortcut. We don’t like being confined. We want to roam

And we can roam. But it doesn’t hurt to have an itty bitty outline to start our journey with. And when I’m not feeling like a scene-by-scene breakdown is right for my work, I simply answer five questions about it:

Who, What, When, Where, and Why. 

When I was a journalist, those were the five questions I asked interviewees before writing an article, and I quickly realized they were the questions I needed to ask when outlining, however sparsely, a book. In today’s post, I’m going to answer each one as they pertain to the novel I’m querying, The Marked Ones. And though the questions seem pretty self-explanatory, some may ask more than one thing… 

Who

This, of course, is the most basic question: who is the main character? I suppose you could fill in details about side characters and antagonists here, too, but I’ll keep this as simple as possible. 

The Marked Ones’ Who: Lilly Norton, a high school senior

What

This, too, is pretty clear: what’s happening in the story? I think it would be easy for Plotters to get bogged down while answering this question, while Pantsers can settle with just a sentence or two to explain the main conflict. I’m going to take a leaf out of the Pantser book. 

The Marked Ones’ What: Lilly is devastated after a violent confrontation at her mother’s home, and she escapes to the surrounding woods—where she encounters a cloaked creature. The Cloak promises to help her out of her bad situation, but in exchange she must become its Marked one—and allow all of her desires to be unleashed. 

When

This is a question that could mean many things. If you’re writing a period novel, this question could ask when in the history of the world your story is taking place. If you’re writing a time travel or multi-generational story, this question is asking when each plot point occurs. Answering the question will help you keep in mind when big moments happen in the story, and it’s especially helpful when there are historical markers you must consider. 

For my novel, I’ll answer the question as if it’s asking for the amount of time covered by the story. 

The Marked Ones’ When: From mid-March, just after Lilly’s spring break, to the end of May, right before the high school’s graduation 

Where

The setting. Worldbuilding. I’ve heard from other writers that worldbuilding for urban fantasy/supernatural fiction can be just as difficult as crafting a whole universe, and I must say I agree. Because with every place, you need to think about the culture of the location, its economy, its geography, its demographics, etc. 

And even if the place already exists, you need to consider how the characters and supernatural elements interact with the setting (like how Forks, Washington is a real place, but Twilight’s addition of vampires to the small town caused some changes in its fictitious development). 

But worldbuilding comes later in the process. Right now, I’ll keep it short and sweet with just a sentence. 

The Marked Ones’ Where: Clarksville, a moderately-sized town in Virginia, but filled with people who cling to a small-town mindset

Why

This, I believe, is the question that addresses the crux of the novel, even more so than the What. Why does your main character make the decision that causes her or him to embark on a journey? Why couldn’t they just maintain the status quo? Why does this story need to be told?

I could spend all day just answering this question, but, in keeping with the outline’s purpose, I’ll keep it brief. 

The Marked Ones’ Why: After her terrifying encounter with the creature, Lilly tries to ignore its offering. But when a girl is attacked in Clarksville, Lilly is left with blood on her hands, and her only chance at clearing her name is to ally herself with the Cloak, and thus release dark impulses she’s long tried to bury. 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

And there you have it. Answering those five questions pretty much outlined the first act of my novel (and it reads similarly to the query I’ve been sending out). Plotters, you’ll probably want to outline the rest of your acts, but Pantsers, you now have something a little more robust to reference while drafting—and it took less than 10 minutes to write!

Feel free to share your own Pantser outline, and, as always, happy writing! 

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