Planning for Novelists Who Hate Outlines

My story is out there... somewhere!
My story is out there… somewhere!

As a writer, I am a panster*, not a planner. The fun in being a pantser is I find out about the story as my characters do. I’m as surprised as anyone that the witch is a princess or that the sorcerer has a lion for a familiar. On the other hand, I ride off into the wilderness chasing my exciting story and there’s no guarantee I’ll discover a decent middle, let alone come to a good ending. As a result, I’ve got lots of half-novels full of potential, books that start off with gusto, then run off into the woods and vanish.

For this year’s NaNoWriMo**, I decided to push myself by adding something to the usual word-count goal. As I was gearing up for November, I came across two ideas that inspired me. One was the suggestion that the point of NaNoWriMo is to experiment. According to Chris Baty, if you aren’t doing something new, you aren’t really doing NaNoWriMo. The second was that planning your novel doesn’t mean you have to write an outline that’s 20 pages long. A short list of plot points or even a single log-line that tells the main thrust of the story can qualify as a plan.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a love-hate relationship with planning. I love the idea of outlining my novel. It sounds so organized and efficient, and who doesn’t want to be organized and efficient? In October 2012, I tried to plan ahead for NaNoWriMo. The more I did, the worse things got. A good story idea grows; new possibilities keep popping up and each option generates more ideas. But this story was heavy, wilting, dragging, dead. I wound up chucking the entire thing at the last minute. Having my story curl up and die made me even more gun-shy of outlining and planning.

Still, the idea haunted me. Planning would be trying something new, and given my history, also a major challenge. I decided to pick up the gauntlet. The various methods for structuring a novel all require you to know what happens before you begin, so those were out. I hoped to come up with a log-line to use as a target, but even that was something I couldn’t flesh out until I finished my draft. In the end, I listed the three life-changing plot points that occur 25, 50, and 75% of the way through the story, and forgot about everything else. I made sure that these guidepost scenes would be big, traumatic events for my character. I also paced my writing so that these scenes came at the right time. I kept a close eye on both my word count and the calendar as I wrote.

Because of my goals, I was forced to make things happen quickly. 12,500 words (about 40 typed pages) sound like a lot when you have to write a term paper. But when you are introducing an unknown world and have a tendency to wander, 12,500 words goes by in a flash. Fortunately, summarizing the boring parts and making lists instead of writing detailed descriptions saved me words as well as time.

Despite my tricks to keep me from being too verbose, I reached my guidepost scenes later than I intended. For each of them, I did the same thing: recalculated my final word count goal based on my actual word count, made a list of what had to happen before the next guidepost scene, calculated how many words I had to work with, and then decided what needed to be written as scenes and what should be summarized.

My complete draft is 63,000 words long and contains a complete story arc, so this simple guidepost plan worked for me. The story grew more complicated, richer, and deeper along the way, thanks to my generous muse (who is also a big NaNoWriMo fan). In fact, some of the wonderful gifts she brought me suggest I’ll be writing a sequel. First, though, I’ll have to figure out how to re-write what I have so that my complete draft is no longer sketchy as well.

*Pantser = someone who writes by the seat of their pants. Some people make charts, spreadsheets, and outlines before writing a novel. Others just wing it, and I am one of these.
**NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month, aka November. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

5 thoughts on “Planning for Novelists Who Hate Outlines”

  1. Great article. I used a slightly different approach where I made a three sentence objective that I needed to hit for every chapter. I would revise the objectives of future chapters every time I finished a chapter. It helped a lot.

    1. Sounds like a great idea, although way more organized than I usually am. However, it might be something I could try for my second draft, which is going to require a bunch of new and re-writing. Since I have a better idea of what happens, I might be able to make something like that work. How did you decide on three sentences? Were there certain things you were focusing on?

      1. I got the idea from the 2011 film Like Crazy (on Netflix instant). When filming the movie the actors would improvise but had to achieve an objective for each scene. The objectives were usually three sentences so thats where it comes from

      2. Sounds like an intriguing way to make a movie. I was just wondering what example objectives look like. Are they really broad or specific? I’m imagining they are about the action in some way (Darcy proposes to Elizabeth) though maybe more generic (Darcy says something surprising that upsets Elizabeth)? Or are they about outcome (Elizabeth learns she has misunderstood Darcy’s attitude towards her)? I’d love some examples if you feel like sharing more about this.

  2. For the ones I do, they usually express some state of emotion the character will be in by the end of the chapter. (Tom understands the fault that holds him back) I don’t try to make them to generic because then I just get confused by them. So they usually express an emotion the character is feeling and what actions they are thinking of doing.

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