Writing Without Pants – Does Outlining Kill Creativity?

I’m not wearing pants. However, when writing novels, sometimes I like to sit in my jeans or maybe pajama bottoms. Wait a minute. I know what you’re thinking. “Is he really going to talk about the benefits of writing with or without pants?” Well, I was going to…

I think the more appropriate question might be, “How do you write?” Do you write with no pants (aka “seat of the pants writer” or “pantser”) or do you write with all your clothes laid out (aka “outline writer”)? This is an age old question that is often batted back and forth between writers of all types. When it comes to fantasy writing, boy, do you have a lot of work to do.

I’ll go point by point (with no pants), explaining why just making stuff up as you go along vs. outlining and world-building every minute detail can be both a pleasant and horrifying experience: like getting drowned by mermaids.

1. Is Pantsing for You?

“Pantsing,” or making everything up as you go, can be quite the liberating experience as a writer. A lot of people participate in National Novel Writing Month with just an idea and write furiously with no safety net. It can be quite a blast. As fantasy writers, however, some would say it’s near impossible to make up a whole world, fill it with wondrous creatures, develop magic systems, and all that jazz without at least pre-planning something. To which I say, “Hoo ha” and “Rikalummy Doo.” See I just made up “Rikalummy Doo.” It’s the sound a harpy makes when it lays eggs. Harpies don’t lay eggs, you say? Well, they do in my story. Why? I just made it up, that’s why. That’s pantsing.

So yes, I think it’s possible to pants your way through a fantasy story. Do I recommend doing it all the time? No. I think it tends to work better for short stories or maybe even individual scenes. If you’re taking a more “micro” approach to your fantasy writing (starting at a small place and then going outward), I think there is more leeway.

For instance, if you’re writing a story about a village that is attacked by a vicious goat man, we probably only need to know about the village, the goat man, and some of the characters. We don’t need thirty pages of exposition explaining why the goat man hates the village because they like feta cheese. If you’re planning an epic with 19 kings fighting a war over the dwarf princess’s hand because she has the one of the Three Keys of Dunkmar, then maybe you need to plan a bit of that (which I am already doing, don’t steal my idea).

A. Why Pantsing is Good

  1. You can just write and have fun.
  2. You can explore wherever your mind takes you.
  3. You can always go back and edit later, so get some stuff down on the page.

B. Why Pantsing is Bad

  1. It’s harder to pants exclusively in fantasy writing.
  2. Your writing may be a garbled mess of minotaur space pirates fighting intergalactic squids, Martian ninjas, and comet-spewing trans-dimensional spider dragons.
  3. You can’t write outside because someone may call the police.

2. Is Outlining for You?

Outlining seems to be something a lot of professional writers harp upon and for good reason. Having an outline and good world-building can save you a major headache when it comes to actually writing your stories or novels. If you have a great outline, you can just sit down, fully clothed, and hammer out your story in a flash. Well, then why even try any other way?

Because, outlining is hard. But it doesn’t have to be.

Depending on how much detail you want in your world, you can do a rough outline or a really rigid outline. A rough outline may look something like this:

I. Chapter 1
A. Jarlag slays the rabbit demon

  1. The town exiles him because the rabbit demon brought them carrots.
  2. Jarlag leaves to go on an adventure to find a new rabbit demon for his village.

Yeah, that’s pretty rough, but it gives you an idea what you need to do instead of just making it all up.

Fantasy tends to lend itself to lots of world-building. I think a lot of great fantasy writers do this with success. However, world-building is like a candied apple. It’s good, but if you have too much of it everything gets sticky and your mouth can’t open. Huh? Anyway, take it easy on the world-building. Too much world-building can restrict you. If you’re writing and suddenly say, “Wait, I can’t do that because…” then you could be holding yourself back.

Rigid outlining can be your friend, but it can also be a nightmare. If you follow a really strict outline point by point, it poses a danger of stifling your creativity. Try to follow your outline, but give yourself room to breathe. If Roland the Green Octopus Knight isn’t supposed to show up until Chapter 7 in your outline, but you get the urge to introduce him a tad earlier as a possible love interest, then do it. The outline can be changed. Even if it snaps at you and tries to take your fingers off, your outline can be tamed. Down, outline, down, boy!

A. Why Outlining is Good

  1. It’s great for fantasy stories with a lot of information to keep up with.
  2. It provides you an easier way to get the actual writing down.
  3. You can do it anywhere without the fear of arrest. (OK, that was the last pants joke.)

B. Why Outlining is Bad

  1. It can choke your creativity flow if there’s too much cow-towing to it.
  2. It can take away the mystique of writing and exploring your story gradually.
  3. Too much world-building can cause the world to spin out of orbit and become a rogue planet.

3. Conclusion

In conclusion, there are obviously benefits to both styles of writing, but you have to find your own happy medium. If you’re a free-wheeling panster, then sometimes a little outlining might help bring order to your chaos. And if you’re a stodgy outliner, maybe loosen your belt every so often and veer off course.

What’s your preferred method? Writing as you go or plotting everything out beforehand? Leave your answers in the comments below!

You can find Phil’s blog about Japan, writing, pro wrestling, and weird stuff at philipoverby1.blogspot.com.

Philip Overby
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41 thoughts on “Writing Without Pants – Does Outlining Kill Creativity?”

  1. Pants-less, sheer emotional wave rider.  Even deep, deep into revision, pants-less, HS moments will rear up and suddenly, one, two or more chapters appear.
    What I do a lot of is Larry Brooks-ing.  Divide the ms into four and go huh, look at that — hit the mark for first plot point, etc.  (Don’t know Larry?  www.storyfix.com Man will tie your brain into knots and then sit there, smiling, as you sort it out.) 
    Need to write the draft to see where the idea is going.  Then I take the tool kit of premise, concept to it.  Plainly, no problem ‘killing my darlings.’  Look at it as part of the 10,000 pages ‘needed’ to ‘master’ writing.

  2. I’m a strong outliner. I have to know where I’m heading before I begin. I also have a strong feeling about major scenes, including the final scene, before I start. @MarkPaulJacobs

  3. I tend to go for the rough outline, just a general guide map of where I am headed and leave the characters to figure out how to get there.

  4. But it’s not writing without pants — it’s writing “by the seat of” your pants. And writing with your pants down around your ankles has an entirely different connotation. 🙂

  5. Combination of plotting and pantsing throughout. I write snippets of scenes and instructions to myself for how to develop the stiry, including whatever dialogue I hear, then insert them into rough order of how it will appear in the manuscript. I then used all those pantser-led ideas as my outline and first draft. Then I go through and fill in holes and do transitions and generally revise so the story is written. Afterwards I then start on the polishing, revising and editing

  6. I will have a final point which the plot has to reach (e.g. final confrontation between hero and antagonist) but other than that its written as I go along. I may then outline a little as I go in order to keep continuity

  7. The disadvantages listed for outlining are anything but. An outline does not stifle creativity but buttresses it, providing it with the foundation roots for imagination to grow into the beanstalk that reaches the clouds. A proper outline provides a springboard, allowing a writer to scout out the narrative beats of a story ahead of time and plant fireworks to go off at the right moment. Outlining a fantasy novel does not encourage reckless exposition of the new world but exactly the opposite. If you know ahead of time what facets of the world are important to the story, you can introduce only those critical elements to the reader and hold the rest under the cloak. Too often I will read deluges of exposition in beginning novelists, backstory that should be in their personal story notes rather than in the narrative.Most importantly, an outline reduces the need to rewrite and edit, as a narrative written toward a four-act story structure is more likely to work at the plot level and resonate emotionally. An outline saves an author time and a reader grief.

  8. I outline a little, have an idea of where things should end up, and then just start writing and see where the characters take themselves. Sometimes, I come up with an awesome ending and need to figure out how the characters go there, or in the case of my RPGs, how to get the players to find that end.

  9. Yeah, I don’t know if there would be anyone solidly in one camp. I mean, when I read the title of the article, I thought, “Oh yeah, I outline all the time.” Problem is, most of my outlines are vague, but they help me understand where the story needs to go. It also helps motivate me in a strange sense.I’d say it’s a definite combination. Rigidly outlining everything seems too complicated, and just flying by the seat of your pants could have disasterous consequences. I say meet somewhere in the middle. Outline what the scene or chapter should be, and then fill in the rest off the top of your head.

  10. I’m a plotter and proud of it. 🙂 I’ve been known to pants my way through a scene or a flash-fiction piece, but often, if I like it, it becomes fodder for a longer work–and I’m back to outlining again.

  11. @mythicscribes Mixture (like most) leaning to outline… Chapter level outline followed by discovery writing within the chapter…

  12. My stories start with the characters. When I develop them, I get more and more an idea of where the story will lead to. I also have a rough idea how the story must end. But most ideas come while I write. I must say though; after finishing four books, I notice that this time I plan more inadvance than I ever did.

  13. Outlining is much easier if you start with a Goal Motivation Conflict chart. Once you know what the MC and the villain (and other major characters) want, and why, and why they can’t have it, believable plot lines and subplots present themselves. This is not to say a writer shouldn’t allow for flexibility and changes at a later date if an idea presents itself, but again the GMC chart wll help to see if the new idea logically fits within the story. Of course, if you are writing an epic on the scale of the Wheel of Time, a GMC chart itself may be a major headache….

  14. “Your writing may be a garbled mess of minotaur space pirates fighting intergalactic squids, Martian ninjas, and comet-spewing trans-dimensional spider dragons.” Sounds like a plus!

  15. I tend to do more thought based planning than physical outlining, and spend many a long evening of listening to either old 80’s hits or Celtic music simply brainstorming.  I’ve found that, if I get stuck, jotting down whatever ideas I have in outline format gives me a little push in the right direction.  However, I do not leave the outline where I can see it, but rather write it down, memorize it as it is, and toss the whole thing.  This way, as my mind churns out new brilliant or not-so-brilliant ideas, my outline changes gradually as I go, but still exists so that I have SOMETHING to keep me headed in the right direction.  🙂

    • @MasqCrew It means underwear in the UK and other places in the world (including Japan where I live now).  I didn’t even think of that…So to our friends all over the world, please wear pants.

  16. I tend to outline certain things and pants others. And by ‘others’, I mean the plot. :p *Really* bad at coming up with a plot before I’ve sat down and started writing things.I don’t think fantasy is inherently any harder to pants than any other genre. Having loads and loads of characters isn’t exclusive to the genre (or even a necessity of the genre), and there are plenty of authors who – though they may outline their stories or characters – don’t do much in the way of elaborate worldbuilding like some of us (myself included) tend to do. Michael Moorcock, I believe, makes up most of his world details as he goes along instead of planning it out.

  17. I’ve tried it both ways and found that I need an outline to keep me moving forward. I’ve also found that an outline can stifle my creativity a little. My solution is to let the creativity flow while working on a very detailed outline then use this as the basis for my first draft, adding in all the dialog and additional text as needed.

  18. I think outlining just brings the creative process to the start, rather than relying on it happening while you are writing. Only downside is that the actual writing can seem like going through the motions because the fun stuff is largely finished

  19. I try to jot out an outline, but I work on story ideas, mostly dialogue, in my head.I usually have the beginning and the ending worked out, it’s the middle that goes through the biggest rewrites. Sometimes it is fun to just start to type and see where things go.

  20. I’m a reformed Pantser who now outlines… With so many aspects to keep track of in fantasy writing, you sort of have to be an organized writer. But there is nothing wrong with pantsing it until you get stuck. XD

  21. I usually know how a book starts and how it ends.  No idea what’ll happen in the middle though!  My characters basically drive the plot.  It’s kinda crazy in a way.  ^_^

  22. I generally do a bit of both, mostly making it up as I go along for the first draft, while following a loose backbone of a story.

  23. I often create a thorough outline of one way the story could go, but I feel no particular compulsion to stick to it if I think of a better way. (A lot of my writing involves the combination of elements and characters from different genres, and I often don’t realize exactly how they’ll interact until I write out a “test” draft of their behavior.)

  24. I’m writing my first novel and its very adhoc as it comes I write no specific style however I do seem to get my best ideas in the bathroom!!!!

  25. I normally have an idea of the direction that I want everything to go in mind but filling in the details is a “touch & go” type of endeavor.


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