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Seat-of-the-pants or outline writing?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ronald T., Oct 21, 2015.

  1. Ronald T.

    Ronald T. Troubadour

    I'm wondering about the ratio of pantsers to outliners. Which do you belong to...and why?

    I'm definitely a pantser. And here's why.

    I am such a visual person that I can't write a word without first seeing the scene in my mind. That's even true when I'm writing about emotions. I have to see the facial expressions and body language of the characters, as well as feel the depth of their various emotions. Otherwise, it's like seeing something in black and white instead of in color. In other words, less than it could be.

    My question to outliners is this:

    How do you avoid the tendency to lose interest? I know that you don't, because I've read some fantastic epic fantasy by authors who say they are outliners. And yet, it seems so limiting.

    I'll explain what I mean from a pantser's POV.

    I write the movie I see in my mind. I can see each scene as a 360 degree moving picture. Of course, my characters have a particular goal in mind. But most of the time they have a number of options as to which route they might take to escape a problem or to achieve that goal. Sometimes they have only one avenue of escape, as it should be. But if I've written an outline, I'd imagine I'd be somewhat predisposed to making them follow that outline. So my question is...doesn't that limit the natural and creative flow of the story?

    I ask because I don't know how a writer can know the immediate and emotional needs of the character in a particular scene, especially considering that they've structured a linear storyline back at the time they wrote the outline.

    But what do I know? I'm just a hermit in the woods.

    As always, my best to all of you.
    kennyc and Sheilawisz like this.
  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I'm an outliner, through and through. I always start with my ending in mind and work backwards in an outline until I get to the beginning. Usually I have a very dramatic scene or emotion in my mind (like you say about a movie). I will write that out in point form: The setting, the smells, the emotions, the conflict, etc. Then I will work backwards. How did they get to that point? What caused them to make that choice? Why is it significant? I build it up and build it up until it becomes something big, then I create an ending.

    So for example, in my posted story "The Lone Survivor of Gihon Pass" in the Showcase, I knew I had to write a character who was a jerk. I saw him in my mind beating on his disabled daughter, and I started to ask myself why. Why would he do that? I needed him to be sympathetic and redeemable, so I decided to make him afraid. He is afraid of something and in his mind he thinks he is really helping her. Then I worked backwards from there, making notes and compelling scenes, making sure to work in the details.

    I find when I pants that I can't create the tension/conflict and I always have to go back to rewrite anyway. When I plan I can look at a scene point form and say "How can I up the stakes here? What else can I do to make it really personal? Oh, I know… and then I can add that in, plus foreshadowing etc before I even write a word.

    I don't lose interest because by the time I have a good plan I feel really strongly about then I'm desperate to start writing it out. Until then I'm sort of 'meh' about the story.That is when I know I'm ready. If I'm not really feeling excited about writing it it is because there isn't enough tension or conflict yet. The stakes aren't high enough. I have to keep re-thinking and planning until I get to that point.
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2015
    Ronald T. likes this.
  3. Ronald T.

    Ronald T. Troubadour

    Fascinating, Heliotrope.

    Your technique is certainly alien to me. However, the way you describe your approach and eventual process is so interesting. I really appreciate your input. It's clear you've put a lot of thought into how you create your stories. And if this post is an example of your writing, I can't imagine that you won't have a dedicated and deeply interested audience for your novels.

    Thanks so much. I truly enjoyed hearing about your process.

  4. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

    I think the disconnect here is that you're imagining an outline being something that's set in stone. But outlines, like all plans and ideas, change over time. I'm constantly envisioning and revising my stories, and that goes into the outline. If I get a new idea, that goes into the outline. On the other hand, I use a very bare-bones outlining system--maybe other people do write it with enough complexity that it becomes concrete.

    For me, an outline has three main functions: 1) helping me remember all of my ideas so I don't accidentally forget that great scene idea I had, 2) writing things down and seeing if they make sense in the transition from thought to words before plunging in and trying to write it, and 3) exploring new ideas and how they would interact with the overall structure of the story, plot-wise, chronology-wise.

    I have done a lot of seat-of-the-pants writing, but I find that I tend to get bogged down and meander a lot, and that just results in a lot of editing work. If I know where I'm going my writing tends to be cleaner and pleasanter to read. I know which scenes are important and interesting and which ones should be brief and to-the-point. Of course individual scenes change and metamorphose while I'm writing them, but the really wild, large-scale creativity is happening in the conceptual stage, not while I'm drafting.
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2015
  5. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver


    I used to be a pantser, but I'm in the process of transforming myself into an outliner because it's much, much more efficient.

    I don't think that any challenge is boring, and to me, the challenge in writing a book is to create something that the readers will find engaging. Since each stage of the process is important in making the book engaging, each stage is challenging.

    Following your reasoning, you must lose interest with editing because it's the same thing. Once you've got that first draft down, you're really just going through and making things better by following what you've already conceived and put on paper.

    There is little difference, imo, between an outline and a pantsers' first draft. The outline is simply a first draft done in bullet points, making it take less time to write and easier to change.

    So my question is, "How do you maintain interest in your project after writing your first draft?"
  6. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

    I'll add this, because I'm not sure I addressed your original post that well. I'm also a very visual writer (blame all the purple prose on that, I suppose) and character emotion matters a great deal to me. When I write, I am immersed in the character's perspective, I see the scene, I hear the dialogue being spoken, etc. But I don't really see how this is antithetical to writing from an outline? When I've sat down to write a scene, I've almost surely envisioned it before, at least in vague terms. So you could say that my outlining and planning comes from what I know from the "rehearsal" scene--which definitely includes character needs and emotions--and the draft is the version of the scene that ends up played out on stage.

    (There are a lot of drawbacks to visualizing while you write, though this may be off-topic... Feeling the need to write out each detail and minutiae of the character's experience, for one thing. Experiencing something more that just the words you're putting down may create a barrier to understanding what is there for the reader. The reader doesn't have these images, these emotions, to fill in the gaps. Just the sentences on the page. Also, when it comes down to it, the medium of writing is more than visual, and it is about the nuance and interplay of the words, the texture of writing itself--not simply trying to get a direct representation of what's in your head.)
  7. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I will answer this too. It is because my scenes are not purely 'showing what is happening' my scenes are in place to show a particular emotion, or a reason behind a response.

    So for an example, with my Gihon Pass story I lay in bed thinking "When was someone a total jerk to me?" This made the story more real, so that I could draw on actual experience. My inspiration came from when I was 16 and my dad was teaching me how to drive. He was, for lack of a better term, a total A-hole. Once I actually stopped the car and got out and we did have the whole "I hate you" scene in that moment. So then I thought "Ok, why was he being such a jerk?" Well, likely because he was afraid of all the danger on the road. If I didn't learn how to be a safe driver there was a good possibility he could lose his little girl and that was terrifying for him. His response to that was to be really hard on me.

    OK, so transfer those feelings/emotions in a scene about a man beating on his daughter because he is afraid for her.

    Then I ask myself: What, in the story, is she doing that makes him afraid? And I make a list of possibilities. I settled on "Because she has joined the army". Then I ask myself, how can this be worse? How can you make this truly frightening for him? I try to come up with a list of at least 10 ideas. I push myself to really think it through, then I settle on my top 5 (or more). I settled on:
    1) Because she is disabled and he is worried she is too vulnerable and can't look after herself.
    2) Because he lost his wife in a war.
    3) Because he recently lost his son in the same army she just joined.
    5) Because he was an army commander and lost an entire legion and had to live with the guilt of that. (How can I make this even worse? He is haunted by the ghosts of his legion. He wishes he could join them. He drinks so that he doesn't have to think about it.)

    So then I create scenes or moments that "show" his feelings of despair, loneliness, fear etc.

    Good, but still not enough. Now we know why he is terrified of her going to war… but what is it about her in particular? She needs to be very significant. So again, I brainstorm 10 ideas:
    1) When he saw her as a newborn she represented hope and redemption and life.
    2) He realized that she was worth living for.
    3) She is the only reason he doesn't kill himself from the guilt and shame of deserting his legion.

    Etc, etc. I just keep asking myself "Why? How can this be worse? How can I make this more important, emotionally? And then I create scenes to show those powerful emotions.
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2015
  8. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    My answer is: I’m not sure—maybe someone here can tell me which I am.

    On the one hand, I have an overall plot for my novel. I know the MC goal, motivation, and arc, and I know the basic ending. I worked out a goodly amount about the main cast of characters beforehand. I have one subplot (so far), and I know where that’s going to end up as well.

    On the other hand, there are scenes coming up that I haven’t even thought of yet. I haven’t figured out every last obstacle that my MC will face. I have structure, but not a detailed outline.

    Back to the first hand again, I never, ever start writing a conflict or problem into the story until I know exactly how it is going to be dealt with, or resolved, or what the results will be. So I outline a little ways ahead while I’m working on the current scenes.

    If I’m pantsing the outline as I go, what does that make me? But whatever appellation applies (or none at all), it’s been more or less working for me.
  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Icanus, George RR Martin calls himself a 'Gardener'. He says that he plants a seed and sees how it grows, but he does have a basic idea of the structure of the garden before hand… Sounds like you are a gardener too?
  10. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Oh, yeah. I'm well aware of GRRM's terms, 'gardener' and 'architect'. (I think I like the terms better than pantser/outliner.)

    I'm still confused. I don't write scenes and improv along the way, finding out where it goes. I have to know already. That doesn't sound very much like a 'gardener' to me. Ultimately, the deed is more important than the name any of us might give it.
  11. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    Hello Ronald!

    I am very similar to you in this, because I am a very visual person as well and I like to describe my Storytelling process as something similar to having a movie inside of my head. I need to visualize the scenes, the setting and also feel what my characters are feeling, so I can translate all of it properly into the written story.

    Sure I have in mind how the story begins, evolves and ends before I even start to write it, but the creative process of telling it is similar to dancing with the story and I never know what surprises are going to come along the way.

    I like very much the Gardening thing described by George Martin, yeah... That's another way of describing what I do.

    In my opinion, it's a good idea to have some outlining if you are a Pantser and at the same time you should have some pantsing even if you are an outliner, because the balance will help you in telling your story more effectively.
    kennyc likes this.
  12. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I used to be a pure pantser. Now, I do both. The choice of which method I utilize, and to what extent, depends on the size or complexity of the project. Most short stories for example, I pants. However, if the short story is complex, I may need a bit more structure before writing. Novel sized works I plan and outline thoroughly, but most of that planning is brainstorming what if scenarios and fleshing out story points. I never have every single beat planned out, manly because I believe in the power of discovery writing...that unexpected turns can work out quite well. Or, as Ray Bradbury once said, "Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way."

    My outlines are like "points of interest" on a road map that I've circled for an upcoming trip. I don't plan the route though. I get there taking whatever roads feel organic and natural. In that way, the story remains stimulating. And sometimes, another more intriguing development will overtake the original plan. I allow that to happen.

    Only if you force yourself to adhere to your original plan. That doesn't work for me.

    That would depend on the process, I suppose. I know writers who plan a book for six months to a year, down to the nitty gritty details. Every beat. Where you might spend time figuring your characters out during the actual writing, they've already done that intricate work in the planning process by writing out character interviews, involved back stories, ten page character sketches and archetype profiles, etc.

    Here's another nugget on this topic from E.L. Doctorow:
  13. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I outline everything.

    I've given examples of now and then in threads like these, and I don't mind doing it again.
    My process is iterative. I start out with a very simple idea, and then I rewrite it in more and more detail with each try. That way, I keep the story within the boundaries I've set up, and I still get to discover new and interesting details about characters and events and history as I go. With each new iteration I learn new things about my story and in the end I know it well enough to sit down and actually write it.

    By this time it's a bit like painting by numbers. I know what's going to happen. I know who's going to stand where and say what and how they'll feel about it. I just have to pick out the best words to describe that. Then again, even at this stage, the story keeps changing and new details keep cropping up. There are no large scale changes, but little quirks in the characters' personalities and in their manners manifest.

    Even if it's writing by outline it's still quite a fluid process. The story continues to grow even after to outline is done, and from draft to draft.

    I can't imagine achieving this depth of character and setting by just making it up as I go along. Sure, I could come up with fantastic and interesting things, but I don't think I'd be able to weave them into the story in the same way I'm able to now.
  14. I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive. I believe there is a spectrum where a writer is more one way or more another. I have not found where I fit on that spectrum. I find pure outlining boring but pure pantsing is very sloppy and inefficient. So for book attempt three I am trying a hybrid approach.

    Part of this approach requires knowing what I want to end with for each character and knowing where each should start. I then leave the actual storytelling for pantsing.

    However, for character, world, and other things that require detail but are NOT the story themselves but have an influence I have a system of outlining that helps keep the details straight. There are three kinds of things I outline primary, secondary, and tertiary subjects. Primary subjects are MCs,villains, and world building elements that have a direct impact on the story where it is important and necessary to keep track of their various parts. Secondary outlines are for things that only indirectly impact the story or that directly affect a primary subject. These are things like non pov characters. Tertiary subjects are things that indirectly affect primary subjects or directly affect secondary subjects. This can be anything which is mentioned (like a persons parent) but is never seen or it can be seen but never really discussed other than the immediate impact it has upon the observer. These get only cursory attention and the details are skimmed over. I just jot down a line about each as needed.

    Note that a lot of the tertiary outlining usually happens AFTER I write about the thing so that I have a future reference should it become important later.

    This is a new method for me but so far it's worked well. We'll see what happens.
  15. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

    I write short, very short lately, flash, micro, short stories. Quite often the entire piece forms and I write it in my journal before transferring it to the computer and editing/enhancing as I do.

    Long ago when I did write a few novels I tended to work from a rough outline.

    Stephen King is a pantser, but I don't completely believe him, I tend to think he has the ability to see the story in his mind even if he isn't aware of it.

    John Irving writes the final scene first and works backwards to the beginning.

  16. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

    Outline novels, pants stories (although after a third I can usually see the other two thirds).
    Ronald T. likes this.
  17. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    Used to just take an idea and run with it. Usually ended up writing myself into a dead end or 'now what?' type situation. That was decades ago.

    Not wishing any more dead ends, I decided against starting a tale unless I knew the beginning, middle, and end. Works fine for shorts; I have written maybe three dozen this way up to around 15,000 words.

    Longer works, though...the middle can get tangled but good.

    This past spring, I started writing the second novella in a series. 35,000 words. I had 'mental movies' for a lot of the scenes - but I wasn't sure of the order all of them went in. Plus I discovered right off I had plot holes large enough to swallow a castle. So I did an outline. It helped a lot. Did I stick to the outline in every detail? No, but it gave me something to build off of.

    This summer I started the third novella in that series. Being rushed, I did only the first third of the outline, didn't put as much thought into it as I should have. Got bogged down big time. Lots of 'why is this guy standing around doing nothing during this time' type stuff. Ended up going back, looking at what I had, compared that to the outline, and realized they had almost nothing in common. So I redid the outline proper like, and resumed writing. (And I still have to go back and fix the hash I made of the first four chapters or so.)

    So...it depends, at least for me. A short work with a good 'mental movie' and reasonably solid beginning, middle, and end - just sit down and write. Longer works, a well done outline keeps the various clips in order, and helps identify/solve problems.
  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I'm a hybrid. I started out as a pantser but went to outlining and then settled in on something in between. Sometimes I pants short stories if I get a flash of an idea, but otherwise I outline broadly without getting too-too deep into detail.

    One thing I've learned about outlines. They're like battle plans, none survive the first encounter with the enemy. I'm constantly revising my outlines on the fly as better ideas and deeper understandings develop.

    It doesn't matter if your a pantser or an outliner, in the end the both end up doing the same amount of work. A very simple way of stating this is a pantser gets the words out and then starts organizing and limiting the story. An outliner organizes and limits the story then starts getting the words out.

    As for limiting creativity, not in the least. If you want someone to be creative, one of the best thing you can do is impose limits on them. If you don't limit people, they tend to instinctively take the path of least resistance. In story terms that means the most obvious paths.

    Having limits helps one focus on solving problems with what you have at hand and a lot of times that means using things in creative and unconventional ways. Think MacGyver.

    Also just because you have more choices does not mean the choice you make will be more creative. More choices is just more choices. It's what you do with the choices you have available to you that determines creativity.

    I mean if you had a prisoner in a cell and gave them an infinite choice in tools to escape their cell would that end up being more creative than if you limited them to a roll of toilet paper, three walnuts, and spool of dental floss?
    Heliotrope likes this.
  19. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    If the premise is relatively simple and I know how I want to start out the first page, I'll just start typing and see where it goes. If it's a big project then I rely completely on an outline.
  20. acapes

    acapes Sage

    Hybrid all the way!

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