Chapter Outlining like a Pantser

I know, I should be writing my novel and not using up words by blogging. But there’s something about a baby’s screaming that sucks the creativity right out of me. So say hi to baby R, everyone. He’s on my lap sniffling while I type this one-handed. 
Chapter Outlining Like a Pantser | Write Lara Write

I wanted to share how I’m outlining my novel. I’m a pantser, but my pantsing has yet to flesh out a working manuscript, because novels are so very different from short fiction and because I can’t write by the seat of my pants when I’m writing about a setting I’m still largely unfamiliar with (England, 12th century). Research has to come first, and then the exposition follows.
My last few attempts at fleshing out this manuscript have been as a plotter, but after all the planning, I have a skeleton and some ligaments. Now it’s time to add the meat, then the skin, the hair, the eyeballs, some freckles, and some pimples before I can present it as a living thing that can go out into the world.

Step One: Have (at least a vague idea of) a plot.

I’ve written many posts on plot for you, complete with my own method for plotting and downloadable worksheets for you to try. If you don’t have the 8 C’s, though, at least have an idea of the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Obviously I came up with my own method for a reason—the other methods weren’t hacking it for me, because I needed something more spelled out—but I also recommend the Plot Rollercoaster found in the novel planning workbook from NaNoWriMo. Download the workbook for free here.

Step Two: Outline

My outline is basically a Plot Treatment. Read about plot treatments and its value for both plotters and pantsers in my post “Letters from Anne Lamott.” But instead of writing paragraphs for each chapter, I’ve basically made it into a hybrid plot treatment and beat sheet.

Here’s the basic format.

Chapter [number or title]

Point A (How it begins)

Point B (How it ends)

What happens between those points?

What questions are answered?

What questions are still unanswered?

What needs to be researched?

That last one is especially applicable for me, because I’m writing historical fiction, so it might not be as important for you.

I suggest being open with the beat sheet part (the “what happens between those points”) at first, especially if you’re a pantser, so that your outline doesn’t limit your creative juices while pantsing it from A to B.

Here’s the format filled out for the first chapter of The Hunger Games:

Point A (How it begins):

This is the day of the reaping

Point B (How it ends):

Prim is chosen

What happens between those points?

  • Introduce Prim and mom, Buttercup the evil cat
  • Establish setting: District 12, the Seam
  • hunting is illegal
  • The capitol, dystopia
  • Gale; he wants to leave
  • Establish setting: The Hob
  • Madge
  • the reaping: its system for choosing tributes, getting ready, Effie and Haymitch

What questions are answered?

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • Who are her friends and family?
  • Where does this take place?
  • What kind of world is it?
  • Why should I read this book?
  • What’s Panem? What are the Hunger Games?
  • Will Katniss be chosen?

What questions are still unanswered?

  • How will Katniss react to Prim’s being chosen? How will every one else react?
  • Who will be chosen as the boy tribute?
  • Who will survive?

Research:

Suzanne Collins may have needed to research hunting for this chapter.

I’ve got the first twelve chapters laid out like this so far. I make sure the chapters will end at a point that leaves more questions than that chapter has answered. Then the next chapter either begins with a reaction to that point, or it goes somewhere else entirely, and then comes back to that reaction. I’ve heard the quote, “Never take your reader where they want to go.” In this context, another way of saying that is “Don’t answer your reader’s questions right away.” Your suspense will keep them reading.

Since my book will have a sequel, there will be some questions that won’t be answered at the end of this book, but most of them will be tied up to form a conclusion. Try to answer at least a couple questions per chapter to appease the reader. They need to be far enough away from the answer to keep them running after it, but close enough that they can remain interested. If you want a dog to chase a rabbit, the dog has to be able to smell the rabbit.

Next steps for me are finishing this outline, choosing a chapter I want to write, doing the research for that chapter, and then writing that chapter like I would write a short story—with as much pantsing as possible to connect from point A to B. If I end up at point x, then I adjust my outline once I get stuck, and then I keep going.

Do you outline? Do you use beat sheets? Do you use them while writing? During revisions?

24 thoughts on “Chapter Outlining like a Pantser

  1. The Bewildered 20-Something Writer says:

    I love your outline format! It’s loose enough to allow creative wiggle room, but keeps you from deviating too far off course and going off on a tangent.

  2. tatl33 says:

    Great article as always Lara. (Quick side note: I’m fascinated by this pantser/planner and have read through some of your entries about it/surfed the web- do you think it has to do with P’s and J’s?)
    Personally, I’m the type of writer who loves thinking outside the box and coming up with new ideas, but my downfall is I am focused on every person and sometimes forget/lose track/go too far with it. It usually forces me to plan everything out, being a planner who gets too dazzled and a feeling of incompleteness when writing like a pantser, hence I end up writing everything up in a plan. This usually limits my creativity in a sense; planning out makes the rest of my story straight forward- I’m working towards an endpoint rather than letting an end point happen itself. Do you know what I mean about the limited creativity as a planner, and how do you stick with being a pantser?
    Additionally, do you have any future in mind while you write or do not think ahead AT ALL.

    • wifosaurus says:

      It probably has a lot to do with Ps and Js. I might assume that Perceivers are more likely to enjoy the process of writing, and that they value the creative outpouring whether or not they have a complete or marketable novel at the end, and Judgers spend more time thinking about plot and writing to an audience. I’m an INTP, but when it comes to writing, I might be a bit more of a judger because my internal editor is LOUD, and I have trouble turning it off while writing. But my internal editor is just about the only J part about my personality.

      As for your other questions, I’m sorry to say there is no one-size-fits-all answer. When I’m writing short fiction, I can write like a panster and end it where it seems right. In writing classes, when an outline was due, I’d write the whole story out and then outline what I already wrote. I do the same thing with essays. But when I tried to do that with this novel, I only got a few thousand words before I was done with the plot! (Read more about my struggles with that in the link I posted on your other comment).

      I think my advice for you would be to think of the driving analogy. Have a destination in mind so you have at least some focus, and head that way, but when detours come up, decide then and there whether to take them or not. Maybe you’ll end up at your original destination but you took a more scenic route. Or maybe you’ll end up at a completely different destination, and it will be all the better for it. The only thing you can really do is write. It’s easy for me to overthink things and get lost in my head, but writing, writing, writing is the cure for all ills concerning writing. That, and reading novels. Maybe one book on writing every once in a while, but the best way to learn to write is to write yourself and read FICTION and read like a writer, asking yourself questions about how those writers did it.

      Thank you for your comments! Keep them coming; I always enjoy our dialogs.

      • tatl33 says:

        Yeah, see I think that’s where I differentiate from you as a plotter- I usually know exactly what’s going to happen in the story before I even start writing it- it takes away some of the fun writing the final thing!

        I’ve read around that J.K. Rowling is a planner whereas George R Martin is a pantser. It certainly makes J.K. Rowling’s stories always make sense and have a clear direction, but it makes his less predictable. Sort of like both styles.

        I think another thing about J’s is they will be less likely to explore a stupid idea. A P will epxlore every idea they have, no matter what it is, whereas the J will focus on the one idea that they know has been proven to work. Sort of limits their creativity, imo, which is why there are probably more INTP/INFP writers than INFJ/INTJ. I also think INFJ/INTJ writers are better at elaborating on other ideas, especially as editors. Opinions?

        Will do, I also enjoy them. Your comments have been very interesting and insightful!

      • wifosaurus says:

        I was thinking the other day, and I think that T’s are more likely to plan and F’s are more likely to write by the seat of their pants. But then maybe N’s are better at writing by the seat of their pants, too.

        To write by the seat of your pants, without clear direction, you definitely need to be able to use your iNtuition to answer the question “What happens next?” Feelers are more likely, maybe, to write character-driven plots and Thinkers are more likely to write plot-driven ones. Judgers are more likely to know their destination, and Perceivers care more about the journey.

        Which is probably why most writers are INFP.

        I feel like we should do some huge survey to correlate writing styles with the MBTI of the writers…

      • tatl33 says:

        I feel like that’s a great idea, let’s make one 🙂
        My personal guess is that ISTJ’s are the plotters and that ENFP’s are the pantsers. But whilst I think ENFP’s are more likely to be pantsers, I don’t think they are more likely to come up with the best ideas (that’s INFP’s.)
        I’ve just created a SurveyMonkey survey if you wanna make an account we can create it together. I’m just as interested in you at the results of writing style/MBTI correlation.

    • Lara says:

      That’s what many people do, including Anne Lamott! This method works well as a plot treatment while revising, to make sure the scenes flow and build suspense.

    • Lara says:

      Haha. It ended up being too involved for me while I was writing (I only did the A-B while writing and revising), but all the steps were really useful in planning out my troublesome scenes.

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