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  • Writer's pictureRussell F. Hirsch

Lessons from a First Novel: Plotters, Pantsers, and Outlines—oh my!

Today, I continue “Lessons from a First Novel” by reflecting on the outlining process. In writer slang there are Plotters and Pantsers.

Plotters carefully outline their projects in advance. They may deviate or readjust from that outline as they write, but they have a good grasp of where the story is going in advance of setting pen to paper for Chapter One.

Pantsers write by the seat of their pants. They seize an initial idea, character, or setting and run with it, finding their plot developments and through-lines along the way—or in subsequent drafts. For Pantsers, early drafts involve an exploratory process unrestricted by a predetermined ending.

Image result for castle garden

You could also use George R.R. Martin’s terms: Architect (plotter) and Gardener (pantser). Here, Arundel Castle in England shows off both.

I always considered myself a Plotter. I outlined in advance. Sometimes those outlines swelled twenty pages long, with considerable detail. I envisioned the scenes I wanted and put them in the order I thought they would occur. I jotted down key events on index cards and arranged (and rearranged) them on my carpet!


However, as I worked through my first novel, I came to realize I was not as good at outlining as I initially thought. I was good at making long lists of the events I wanted to happen in the novel. I was not as good at thinking through how those events led, one to another, in a cause-and-effect manner.

For a really cracking plot (especially in a story with action and adventure), an event should trigger subsequent events and give them momentum, like falling dominoes. I was compiling lists of scenes but not thoroughly envisioning the causality that would link them in a logical progression. Characters would do one action, then go elsewhere and do something else, then interact with another character who showed up for another action, etc. Plot events occurred, but as I drafted the novel, they felt more episodic and disconnected than I wanted.


This left a number of plot holes and required a lot more time lying on the carpet with big sheets of chart paper trying to re-outline! Some scenes were chopped and reconstructed, but mostly, I had to add a lot of new scenes to better connect the originals. This ballooned the word-count of the manuscript and made the prospect of further plot changes an intimidating prospect!

In drafting my second novel, I paid much more attention to ensuring the scenes in my outline led one to another in a causal fashion. As I drafted, I still stumbled into an occasional plot-hole and I’ve uncovered more in revisions. (Even the most conscientious plotter will still encounter some plot holes!) But the plot holes have been considerably simpler fixes because of the upfront causality I worked into the original planning.


Another key part of outlining (especially for fantasy writers) is worldbuilding. A lot of us love fantasy because of the expansive creative possibilities worldbuilding affords, but it can quickly become unwieldy and inefficient. Next post, I’ll explore “worldbuilding from the inside-out.”

#gardener #outline #outlining #firstnovel #Plotting #plotter #architect #pantser #outlines #drafting

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