S01E07: Outlining Vs. Pantsing

This transcript has been adjusted to correct minor mistakes and provide you with the most up-to-date addresses for all the referenced links…

Hello, and welcome to Season 1 Episode 7 of The Write A Novel podcast.

Today I’m going to be opening a metaphorical can of worms, pitting two classes of writers against each other in a symbolic fight to the death, winner takes all… Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit.

Let’s start over. Today, I’m going to explain why outlining and pantsing are the same thing, so that we can establish common ground as writers. Then I’m going to dash that common ground to pieces by explaining why outlining is superior in every way.

But first, let’s go over the writing term of the week. This week’s term is “Primary characters”.

Primary Characters

Primary characters are the characters who have major roles within your story. This does not, however, mean that the character has to be a point-of-view character in order to be a primary character, nor does it mean they have to be the hero of the story. Primary characters can include any and all protagonists, antagonists, or others who have a major effect on the plot of the story.

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is the hero. Samwise and Gandalf are support characters who help him on his journey. And Saruman is the antagonist. All four of these individuals, however, are primary characters. Frodo is a major POV character. Samwise has a constant presence in the story, supporting Frodo and helping him to make good decisions. Gandalf has major effect on the plot of the story throughout the trilogy, starting Frodo off on his journey and leading the armies of Middle-Earth against the forces of evil. And Saruman is the primary antagonist for the first two books, as well as an occasional POV character in the film adaptations.

Ensemble stories will have a large number of primary characters, while other stories may have relatively few. You can usually plan on having at least three, the main character, the side-kick, and the antagonist. For example, in Nightcrawler, Louis Bloom is the main character, Rick is the side-kick, and Nina is the antagonist. In Z For Zachariah, Loomis is the main character, Ann Burden is the side-kick, and Caleb is the antagonist. On the other hand, in Adrift, there are only two primary characters. Tami Oldham is the protagonist and Richard Sharp is the side-kick, and the inclement weather takes on the role of antagonist in the story.

Once you get down to having only one primary character, you often see aspects of said character’s personality being personified by objects in the story. For example, in Cast Away, the inanimate volleyball Wilson serves as the side-kick to Tom Hanks’ character Chuck Noland.

How many primary characters do you have in your novel? Let me know on Twitter @QJ_author, or head over to my website at TheWritersEverything.org/transcripts so that you can comment on this post directly.

Outlining vs. Pantsing

Ok. So I like to believe that authors are fairly understanding and reasonable individuals. After all, you can’t very well develop characters with varied opinions, points-of-view, and beliefs if you’re not. However, there is one topic that inevitably transforms writers into fanatics of the highest order.

That topic is whether or not authors should plan their novels ahead of time, outlining the major events to various degrees of detail, or if they should pants their novels, flying by the seat of their pants, writing their first draft with nary an inkling of direction.

This debate is at the foundation of what it means to be a writer. It can come to define the entire writing process for an individual, and the validity of their preferred method of writing is tied directly to their validity as authors.

However, in this podcast, I would like to propose a radical new idea. Here it goes… Outlining and pantsing are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing. They are identical processes that are completely indistinguishable from each other in all but one key difference.

I know. I know. But hear me out before you press that skip button.

How do pantsers start their stories? They begin with an idea. They usually have a few key details established, such as who the main character is and what the setting is. There may be one or two pantsers who take exception to this, but as far as I’m concerned, you need to know whether your story takes place on a 24th century starship or in a medieval castle before you begin writing.

How do outliners start their stories? They begin with an idea. They take the time to establish a few key details, including who the main character is and what the setting is.

The next step for both methods is the greatest matter of contention among writers, and also one of the greatest similarities between these two schools of thought. Outliners imagine what challenges their characters will face, what they will do first, what they will do next, what problem they’ll have to solve after that, and where they’ll end up after that. Then they organize what they come up with into a series of events. Pantsers begin writing down what challenge their character is facing. They write down the first thing the character does, the next thing they do, the problem that they face after that, and where they end up after that. The events of the story are thus laid out within their finished first draft.

See what I’m getting at? Outliners and pantsers both think about what should happen next, then write down what they discover. I would like to propose that the first draft of a pantser is identical in function to the outline of an outliner. The only difference is that outliners use their bullet points as their own version of shorthand for the much larger events of their stories, and they’re thus able to see the big picture at a glance, while pantsers lay out every detail of their ideas on paper as they come up with them, not risking to lose anything in the process.

The next step is the same for outliners and pantsers as well. They both refine the series of events, moving things around as needed and adding detail to the scenes as they begin to write their second telling of the story. For outliners, the second telling of their stories is a tremendous undertaking, because they may be taking as little as one sentence and turning it into a chapter. For pantsers, the second telling of their stories is also a tremendous undertaking, because they have to juggle thousands of words at a time as they attempt to shape them into a perfected form.

Of course, pantsers are quick to make the claim that outlining hampers your creativity. It doesn’t allow things to develop naturally. But is that really the case? Isn’t there just as much creativity involved in writing an outline from scratch as there is writing a novel from scratch? In both situations, you’re looking at the world through the eyes of your character, and writing down what happens. In one case, you’re writing a paragraph. In the other, you’re writing a chapter.

Imagine a pantser writing this scene:

I exhaled sharply as I stepped out of my car and began the arduous trek between the far-too-distant parking lot and the office. The fact that I was ten minutes late was nothing more than a footnote in the back of my mind, an appended afterthought to one of the most surprising turn of events I had experienced in recent memory. So many years of concerted effort, just to forget her face, her smile, the dimples that enclosed her lips… All done away with in that one instant, as I turned to leave the coffee shop and found myself standing face to face with her… with Sophia.

“Excuse us.”

My wandering mind was jolted to reality. My instincts took over and I side-stepped to the left, nearly falling off the curve, still unsure of what I was reacting to. I looked behind me and saw the wispy white hair of a bent over old man brushing against a tweed jacket. His wrinkly hand was intertwined with another, that of a much smaller woman with just as white, and just as wispy, hair.

It amazed me to see the two of them walking down the street, hand in hand, as if the last forty years had never come to pass, and they were still two young, impassioned lovers strolling down the street on a mid-summer’s day.

Why had I tried so hard to forget about her? Why had I fought so profoundly to wipe her face from my memory? The inevitable heartbreak I had long suspected stood in stark contrast to the aged couple that were still in the peripheral of my vision, and in the forefront of my mind.

I know. I’m not that great at prose. In my defense, this is my first draft, and it’s about as close to pantsing as I’ll ever come.

Now imagine an outliner who arrives at a similar scene. They write down:

On the way to work, the main character reflects on a chance meeting with the woman he’s spent years loving from afar, and imagines the life they could have together as he skirts past an older couple walking hand in hand.

Did the fact that the outliner summarized the scene in one sentence hamper his creativity? Hardly. This outline expressed the same concepts as the prose did. It started in the same place and ended in the same place, and had just as much meaning for the character. The only difference is that the outline would allow the writer to get the idea out quickly and move on, while the pantsing would allow the writer to lay it all out on the page and not risk forgetting any of the details.

Now as far as I’m concerned, there is only one valid reason to pick one method or the other for your writing process: You need to do whatever works well for you. A pantser may not be able to see their story from a bird’s-eye view. They may need to see things unfold organically before their eyes. An outliner may be incapable of writing without direction. They may find that the lack of structure means their story does not have the purpose and meaning they want it to.

So choose what works best for you. The most important thing isn’t how you write. It’s just that you write, that you show up to the keyboard day after day and get the work done, committing fully to your process.

That being said, it’s time to shatter all that common ground and good will I just established. To end this discussion, I would like to list four reasons why outlining is a fast superior choice for those hoping to advance in the writing craft.

First, outlining gives you an all-encompassing view of your novel at a glance. An artist doesn’t start a portrait by drawing the wrinkles on three forehead of his subject and going out from there. Rather, he establishes the shape of the entire head and the location of the eyes, nose, mouth, etc. It isn’t until he has that basic framework, or outline, that he adds the little details.

Second, outlining allows you to intricately weave theme into your story. Your role as an author and a wordsmith is to create meaningful and resonating stories. That means there has to be a point to your novel. The best way to establish that point is with theme. The best way to add theme to a work-in-progress is by plotting it, making sure that every scene is essential and important to the development of said theme.

Third, outlining allows you to discover plot holes and inconsistencies long before you’ve wasted months writing your first draft. You don’t want to be 50,000 words into your murder mystery before realizing that the murderer couldn’t have committed the crime because you referenced him appearing on live television that night in the first chapter. Outlining, simply put, helps you to keep your ducks in a row.

Fourth, outlining allows you to economize your writing time more fully. Writing out whole conversations and descriptions of events, only to realize that you aren’t happy with 90% of it and promptly do a Select All>Delete is just a waste of your time. Your writing time will be infinitely more efficient and productive if you know exactly what scenes you need before you write them?

So where do you fall on the methodology spectrum of writing? Are you a pantser, an outliner, or something in between? Let me know on Twitter @QJ_author, or go to TheWritersEverything.org/transcripts and leave a comment on the appropriate post.

Character Development Question

Now it’s time for this week’s character development question, which is:

How does the character feel about his nickname?

Just as we saw in Season 1 Episode 6, not every nickname is a term of endearment. In fact, some nicknames are an extension of the bullying the character faces from the one who gave them the nickname.

Whether the nickname was intended to hurt the character, or it was simply a misunderstood expression of affection, there will always be characters who hate their own nicknames.

In Get Smart, Max is highly frustrated by the barrage of nicknames the other agents bestow upon him, and he offers up sarcastic responses to try to dissuade their behavior.

Likewise, in Big Hero Six, Wasabi demonstrates a great deal of annoyance at being given the nickname Wasabi, considering that it was inspired by a singular act of spoiling wasabi sauce on his shirt.

Writing Prompt of the Week

And finally, we’re going to have our writing prompt of the week. This week’s prompt is to write about a butterfly that is as deadly as it is beautiful. What is its secret? Let your imagination run wild, and let me know what you come up with on Twitter @QJ_author.

Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of The Write a Novel podcast. If you’d like to read a transcript of this episode, you can find it at TheWritersEverything.org/transcripts. If you’d like to listen to future episodes, be sure to subscribe on whatever platform you’re currently listening on, and be sure to give it a rating while you’re at it to let me know what you think of the podcast. The Writer’s Everything is also available as a free downloadable magazine. If you’d like to read it, simply go to TheWritersEverything.org/magazine, and download the issue of your choice. If you’d like access to exclusive bonus content, such as my list and review of the top Character Name Generators on the web, you can go to TheWritersEverything.org/newsletter. If you’d like to support the podcast, you can do so at Patreon.com/QJMartin. For your convenience, all the referenced links will also be in the show notes.

Listen to more of Season 1 of tWE.


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