Friday, February 12, 2016

Planning for Pansters (Writing without an Outline) -- by Rachel

I envy those writers who outline their whole novel before they even begin chapter one. They sit down at their computer, begin typing and already know what they’re going to type. A little expansion here, a little fleshing out there. There’s no fretting as they try to pick out their story’s path one step at a time.

O boy, do I wish ….

I’ve tried outlining, but except for a handful of scenes, I simply cannot tell what needs to happen in a story until I start writing in my character’s voices. One scene leads to the next.

As J.R.R. Tolkien famously said, “All those who wander are not lost.” If you’re a panster, trust yourself to discover your novel’s path as you write it (Tweet this). There are a few tips that will shine a light on your path though, so you don’t get so far off the track that you have a mess on your hands when you’re done.

Keep your premise firmly in mind as you write each scene. It may take you a hundred pages to truly discover where your story is going, but you should have a strong premise from page one, and each scene should build and deepen that premise in some way. Follow tangents as you wish, as long as you keep this in mind, and you’ll still have a coherent story in the end.

Before you write, choose two or three comparable novels to the one you intend to write as loose guides. That is, select novels you’ve read that have the type of structure and audience you’re aiming for. Even go so far as outlining them. When you feel lost in your writing, understanding the structure of similar novels will help you lay trustworthy paths of your own.

Know what your characters’ goals are and put obstacles in their way. Don’t be shy. Stir up the waters and create lots of trouble for your characters. They’ll enjoy some small successes along the way, but ultimately, if you write most scenes to make your reader worry, you’ll end up with a stronger story.

End each scene with a hook. This may simply mean that you’ve moved your character and his goal further apart. But anything that makes your reader want to read on will do (i.e., a mystery that is laid out in the last paragraph). Incidentally, ending on a hook may make it easier for you to know where to start when you come back to the computer as well.

Deepen your characters.  Lay them out for your readers until they’re as real as family and friends (although a little more dramatic, if you please). If you make your reader fall in love with your heroes and heroines, even a meandering scene here or there will sing.

Aim for the finale. Although I don’t outline, I generally have a fairly strong image of the catastrophe at the end, that great battle that makes it seem all is lost, but ultimately brings the character to his or her reward. If you know the finale, you’ll faithfully build to it.

If you follow these guidelines, you don’t need an outline to make sure your story stays on the lit path. But what about coming up with the story itself when you have no outline to refer to?  

Last but not least, leave time for your story to stew. If you’re not following an outline, you must give your muse time to dream up new scenes. For me, that means taking long walks or doing mindless activities (dishes or laundry) alone, while my mind drifts. When I let my unconscious mind free, I usually find images or snatches of dialogue that will take me through the next scene or two.

And while I don’t outline my whole novel, I do tend to jot down the basics of the next scene before I start. There’s something about the kinesthetic act of putting pen to paper that helps me plot out the skeleton of my day’s writing.

Tweetables: Writing a novel without an outline (Click to Tweet)


  1. Great thoughts as usual Rachel. I'm thinking that when all is said and done we both end up at the same point. I think you start a novel our as a panster and eventually move into a planner, whereas I start a novel out as an outliner and in the middle end up a bit of a panster.

    1. Very true. Although I envy your planning in advance skills. I often think first drafts might be less stressful that way.


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