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?

The Storybook Synopsis



Today we talk about using as few words as possible to tell a story. It’s a great exercise for synopses writing, query letters, and elevator speeches.

I’ve been reading more picture books to my son lately, and some of his favorite are the five-page, itty bitty board books by Disney.

my first library

His collection seems to be out-of-print. I’d like to think it’s because those stories were so blatantly sexist. But I digress. I’m supposed to be comparing this to a summary of a story.

Think of a Disney movie. Take, for example, my favorite, The Lion King. We’ve already examined The Lion King using my 8 C’s of plotting, so we know that there’s a full story there.
But Disney merch has shown us a plethora of synopses for the story. There are chapter books, story books, picture books, and yes, a 5-page board book. Each is the same story, condensed in varying degrees of complexity.

Some of the 5-page board books have no plot at all. They have one page per character in the story. And you know what else? They are stupid. When agents/editors/publishers read your query letter or synopsis, they don’t want a page per insignificant character. They want to know what your story is. Yes, that means they want to know the plot, right down to the happy or unhappy ending.

Another digression:

I read in How Not to Write a Novel the chapter “How Not to Sell a Novel.” One mistake new writers sometimes make when trying to sell the book is not giving away the ending . Maybe in children’s merchandise you don’t want to tell little 2-year old Sally about the prince slaying the dragon, but I’m pretty sure 3-year old Sally wants to know that the prince is worth his salt. And Publisher Sally wants to know that the new writer she’s considering is worth his salt and can write a decent ending. Don’t annoy the publisher or agent in an attempt to be mysterious.

The best of the 5-page books are like a good movie trailer. They spell out the plot in a condensed manner, but they don’t give everything away. Still, they at least hint at the ending. My husband and I hate watching TV Spots for movies, because lately they seem to never actually tell you what the movie is about. There’s more fading to black than there is content.

Disney will probably sue me and take my puppy away if I give you an example of one of the stories they published, so let me make up an example. Each page has 1-2 sentences. No page has more than 15 or so words. Here’s my uninspiring “5-page board book” of The Hunger Games:

  1. Katniss is a skilled hunter with trust issues.
  2. Peeta can decorate a cake like nobody’s business.
  3. Katniss and Peeta have to fight in the Hunger Games.
  4. They fight for themselves. Children murder other children.
  5. Katniss and Peeta fight for each other.

There, see? I just wrote a synopsis. You can do it, too. Try this method—it’s less painful than gauging your eyes out with a pipe cleaner.

Optional Part One: Pick a Disney movie. Find all the Disney-sponsored books you can about that movie. Chapter books, novels, story books, picture books, coloring books, story books. Read them.

Optional Part Two: Write your own 5-page board books of your favorite books or movies. Then try it out on your own stories.

Non-negotiable Part One Point Five: Enjoy yourself. If you aren’t having fun, pick a different hobby, like coil-building clay pots or macramé.


The 8 C’s of Plotting: Worksheets


If you haven’t read Part One, the introduction to the 8 C’s, read it here!

Use these worksheets to:

  • plan out the main plot skeleton of a novel
  • reduce a complex novel into one, overarching plot
  • understand the main plot of your novel, all the better to pitch with
  • get an idea of what to put in your synopsis
  • recognize how virtually all movies and novels use a similar structure
    • (and how each modifies the structure to fit its own needs)
  • make your other writer friends jealous of how organized you are

Do not use these worksheets to:

  • make money publishing or reposting my work
  • create your own blog post on the 8 C’s without linking back here
  • make paper airplanes (unless you recycle, of course)

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