Outliner or Pantster?* The Question is Irrelevant

After agonizing for years as to whether I should outline my novels in great detail, or whether I should just sit down and write them, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter; the end result must be the same. It’s only a question of process.

A novel must tell a story. A story, like it or not, has a certain structure.** It must contain certain elements, such as well-developed characters, a protagonist, an antagonist (or antagonistic force), conflict, and resolution. There must be turning points that occur at specific points. There is flexibility as to where the turning points occur in a novel (as opposed to a screenplay), but they have to be there, or it’s not a story. The question of whether you outline or write “by the seat of your pants” relates only to how you get to that point.

There are dozens of books on story structure, all using their own (generally confusing) terminology, and each with their own idea of how a story is structured. They refer to “beats” and “Beat sheets,” “saving the cat,” “lights out,” “pinch points,” and other enigmatic terms. Some gurus say there is a three-act structure. Others say it’s four, five, six, or even eight.

If you understand this structure (however you might define it), it’s not difficult to put together an outline showing where the turning points are, and generally what must happen in between. Even if your’re a pantster, you should write with this structure in mind. I have it on Scrivener to remind myself.

I’m essentially a pantster. I don’t outline. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a plan, or that I ignore story structure. I start with an idea/concept, and then do what I call a freeform outline. Basically, I’ll just start telling the story in a summary fashion. No dialogue and no description, just telling what happened, or at least what I have in mind at the time. This will change as I go.

I’ll end up with a few pages of what’s really just a slightly fleshed-out version of my concept. I may write alternative events. I brainstorm a little. I will refer to this as I go so I can get an idea of where I am, and where I want to be.

I’ve tried making a detailed outline. I’ve tried to figure out what happens at each milestone, what happens in between, and how the whole thing comes out. I personally can’t do it. I find that as I write ideas come to me. The subconscious is working in the background (what Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement”) working out what should happen next. The characters sometimes shift things around. But I feel that this “organic” style of writing leads to a richer story. But that’s just me.

Many of the structure pundits tell you you’ve got to outline. That outlining helps you stick with the structure, while at the same time speeding up the writing process. One such pundit, herself a writer, tells you specifically how she does it so she can crank out a book in a matter of weeks, and have everything in place.

Another tells you that if you outline according to his plan you will have copy that’s all but ready to submit without the need for massive rewrites.

Both of these people have useful systems, and you should take a look at their books. But what they are really talking about is process. 

The criticism of “pantsing” is that it’s inefficient. If you write by the seat of your pants you are just searching for the story. You will end up with four-hundred pages of an unstructured mess that must be rewritten, perhaps several times.

There is some truth to that, unless you think about it as you go, or you’ve developed an innate sense of story structure (i.e., you’re Stephen King).

I submit that writing a detailed outline is, in many ways, no different. You have to brainstorm. You have to think of alternative events and alternative outcomes. If you plan to the scene level, you have to think of what happens in each scene. What character is in the scene, what their goal is, what the conflict is, and what the outcome is. You could spend weeks doing this.

Granted, that if you are able to do it you will be able to pretty much sit down and fill in the blanks and crank out your novel in a matter of weeks, or even days.

In the mean time, however, the pantster is doing the same thing. Less efficient? Perhaps, but for me it’s a much more fulfilling way to write. I find thinking through the whole story from beginning to end to be unbearable drudgery. Other people thrive on it.

The point is, we all think and work differently. Just as we all have different handwriting and different mannerisms, we have different ways of getting a story on paper. What difference does it make if it takes me a year to write a novel (not that it does), and it takes you six months? That’s how I work. What would I do if I had a deadline? I would do whatever it took to meet it, but I would have to do it how I do it.

So, because whether you are an outliner or a pantster the result must be the same, the process you use to get there is irrelevant. Do what works for you.

*Sometimes referred to "pantser" or "panster." To me, pantser sounds too much like a German tank, and panster is an incorrect version of "pantster."


**If you deny that a novel has to have structure, you’re not ready to write novels.