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?


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?

Letters from Anne Lamott


No, I have not written correspondance with Anne Lamott, and I don’t have copies of any of her epistles. I do, however, have a copy of Bird by Bird, which I reread cover to cover today.

Two things that resonated with me particularly during this read had to do with letters, namely the first five of the alphabet.

Alice Adams’ ABDCE

In her chapter on Plot, Lamott reference’s Alice Adam’s formula for writing short stories. It goes like this:

  1. Action—This is how you start, how you get the reader reading.
  2. Backstory—This is how you set up for that action, after the fact, when the reader is already hooked and curious about your characters.
  3. Development—This is when you develop the characters based on their personalities and what’s at stake. If you know your characters, the plot will flow naturally.
  4. Climax—Everything comes together for the characters during the climax. Lamott says the climax needs to include a killing, a healing, or a domination. These could be literal or metaphorical. Either way, the characters are not the same after the climax.
  5. Ending—After the climax, the ending needs to make sense. “What is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?” (page 62)

Plotters and Pantsers

There are two basic types of writers: the plotter and the pantser. I’ll use extremes to illustrate my point, and hopefully you’ll find yourself somewhere in the middle.

The extreme plotter plans before writing and risks writing something plot-driven rather than character-driven (I talk about that here). These are the people that write 28 trashy novels per year and somehow end up on the best-seller list. Their films generate a buzz and sell a lot of popcorn, but end up in the discount DVD bin five months after release. The extreme pantser writes by the seat of his or her pants, letting the story develop naturally and organically, and risks having an artfully written convolution that is unpublishable. These are the people who write fine literature that nobody particularly understands. Their movies are discussed primarily in film classes.

Sometimes you plan out a 4-foot-by-4-foot garden plot. You plant the seeds in even little rows, pushing them inches down into the Ph-balanced soil. But then you have a number of cold days, or not enough rain, and the spinach wilts and the corn grows and casts an eternal shadow over the unsuspecting peonies. Before you know it, the tomatoes are creating their own political party of radicals, hatching a plan to overthrow the oligarchy that is your authorship. Then you have to wonder if your garden needs a serious thrashing, if you should just plow it up and turn the whole thing into a compost pile, or if you should start a new, nonfiction book entitled “1001 Uses for Tomatoes.”

Sometimes you wander, barefooted, into a patch of wildflowers and lie gazing up at the clouds and enjoying the smells and sounds of the rustling, absorbing them into memory. You come back, day after day, while the Earth spins around and the seasons change, observing and absorbing, until you have a collection of lovely vignettes. But your editor just doesn’t see a story there. So you go back to your wildflower patch with a shovel, find a spot with a nice view, and you dig yourself a grave there and bury yourself up to your waist in dirt, and call a friend to come finish the job for you, because you can’t cover yourself completely without leaving some arm waving around pathetically.

Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, whether you’ve got a messy draft or are in the middle of a draft with no foreseeable future, you might want to consider a plot treatment.

Plot Treatment

A plot treatment addresses what happens and why. It tells you “who the people [are] and what the story [is],” (page 91).

Here’s how Lamott did it:

“I sat down every day and wrote five hundred to a thousand words describing what was going on in each chapter. I discussed who the characters were turning out to be, where they’d been, what they were up to, and why. [And] I figured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B. And then how the B of the last chapter would lead organically into point A of the next chapter. The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream.” (92-3)

Sound familiar? It’s a lot like Suzanne Johnson’s Relationship Arcs. Try my twist of a plot treatment with my Chapter Outlining Like a Pantser technique.

Don’t be afraid to plot. Plotting helps make your story a story. It gives you that beginning, middle, and end. Without it, you might have some nice images, but so does the Alzheimer’s patient down at Happy Acres. They might be real, truthful, and beautiful, but if you don’t link together the cat with three legs, your great aunt’s penchance for covering furniture with doilies, and the lingering smell of buttercream frosting together in a logical order, no one is going to have any idea what you are talking about, or why those things are important.


I’m a plotter, and I have an outline, but that plan has grown from my knowledge of my characters. They still surprise me from time to time, so if my outline changes, it changes. I don’t change my characters to fit the story, I change the story to fit them, but I have a pretty good idea of what decisions they’ll make for themselves based on their character.

I’ve spent half a decade with my characters, virtually taking them out to eat. Gareth and I always get cheeseburgers or waffles at indecent hours, constantly wiping our mouths of the ketchup or blueberry syrup as we talk about movies. Isolde and I get frozen ice cream topped generously with fruit and white chocolate or coconut, unless we are having a self-conscious day, when we’ll chat over salads between sips of lemon water. Robin is less predictable, wanting salmon one day and Wisconsin cheese baked macaroni another. I gaze at the menu in indecision while he talks about his latest wedding gig.

If you know your characters, the story will develop while they develop. If you don’t know your characters, take them out for coffee and let them order whatever they want. Listen to their story, and then go home and write it down.

I recommend borrowing Bird by Bird from the library, at least. If you are a habitual highlighter or underliner like myself, however, you can buy the book on Amazon here: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life