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Great Outlining Strategies for Plotters and Pantsers

Great outlining Strategies for Plotters and Pantsers

“Great Outlining Strategies for Plotters and Pantsers”  by Joan Y. Edwards

Outliner or Pantser…which are you and are you willing to change?

Is the grass really greener on the outlining side of the fence? Perhaps you are like me. and you have the idea that outlining isn’t a good fit for you. You like to write first and get those creative juices flowing on a journey with your characters. 

Or perhaps you believe the grass is greener on the outlining side of this argument. You know where the story is going. You’re happy with the outcome.

If you’re a pantser, perhaps you’ve got the outlining thing all wrong. If you could find a way to outline that seemed clear and meaningful to use in my mind, as a friendly way to outline. One that didn’t overwhelm you.  Then you’d be able to do it and it would enhance your writing experience.

I watched Michael La Ronn’s video, “How to Outline a Novel in 10 Different Ways:” https://youtu.be/BhjRZ18JwpY/

It contains lots of food for thought.  I also found other blog posts with ways to outline a novel.  All these methods to outline sent my head in a spin, but they held information that I think you and I could use as great strategies to outline our stories. 

Please be open and look at these methods of outlining. They might work for you. Then you can sit down and write your prize winning novel on the seat of your pants!

Here are two ways to outline as you are writing your novel, play, or screenplay. 

(What did you say?) I said, Here are two ways to outline as you are writing.

I think many of you pantsers do this without even knowing you’re doing it. But you’re doing it in your brain rather than on paper.

These two outlining methods to use after you write or while you are writing are Flashlight and Writing into the Dark:

Flashlight –  Write first. Afterwards, outline what you’ve written and as much of the story as you can see right then. As you write more, you add more.

Writing into the Dark. No outlining before you write. Build your outline as you write your story.

Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith

Here are a few tips if you outline before you write or if you want to refine the outline you’ve been using as your story template.

Outline First Plans

1.  Beats and Pre-Production

Beats are the smallest unit in a novel, play, or screenplay.

Act, Scene, beat.

Action Beats of the Story: list every action in your story.


Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet

Write story in paragraphs for beats. They add names and pictures of people they want to play roles. They add photos of places and things in the story.

  • Action Beats – The small action/reaction units of a scene. A beat is the timing and movement in a film, play, or novel. It is an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal.  Beats are bubbles of action, of thought, of mood of characters, which add to character or plot.. An indication of a beat might be when image changes on screen. That’s a different beat.
      • When a character realizes something
      • To reveal a twist
      • When a character is “backstabbed”
      • grabbing keys
      • walking out of room
  • Plot Beats – The 8 plot points or 15 if you want to get technical as listed in “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. A plot beat is an occurrence that changes something.

Opening Image
The Inciting Incident
Break Into Two… Act Two, that is.

B Story
Fun & Games
Bad Guys Close In
All Is Lost
Dark Night of the Soul
Break Into Three Third Act
Final Image

Write. Publish. Repeat by Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt: Amazon 

2. Chapters Outline with Scenes and Sequels

Context for each chapter  Outline location, weather, time, Clothing of each character if noted.

Each chapter contains a scene and sequel.

What’s the difference between a scene and a sequel?

A scene contains action of the main character.  The sequel shows his reaction to what happened and his inner feelings and possible action he can take, and his choice. This choice is goal of next chapter.

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight B. Swain hero action/hero reaction

Mike Klaasen Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction: https://www.amazon.com/Scenes-Sequels-Write-Page-Turning-Fiction/dp/1682229076

3. Characters First

Before you write, and while you are writing, it will help you to know big things and little things that might trigger each character to action or to freeze them in terror.

Here are a few articles  to help you discover the nitty-gritty about your main characters for your novel, stage play, or screenplay.

4. Dent’s Master Plot Formula

Lester Dent Formula – Everything2.com

Divide the total number of words into 4 equal parts with plot twists at the end of each section. Dent’s Master Plot is good for mysteries, detective stories, westerns, etc. Den’t’s master plot was based on short story of 6,000 words.

    • First 1500 words
      Introduce the cast
      End with a twist (25%)
    • Second 1500 words
      Double the Trouble
      End with a twist (50%)
    • Third 1500 words
      Hero Makes Progress
      End with a twist (75%)
    • Fourth 1500 words
      All seems lost
      Hero triumphs
      End with a twist (100%)

A plot twist is similar to setup and  payoff.

Your outline should mention the setups and payoffs for your story.   Setup and payoff is form of foreshadowing, whereby a line of dialogue, an action, a gesture or prop is planted early in the story.  Its importance is shown later in the story.

The setup could be a special thing that will help your main character reach his goal or hinder him hinted at early in the story.  Readers will wonder what is going to happen. That heightens the tension and holds their interest in the story. If it doesn’t happen as the reader thinks it will, it will be a surprise to the reader.  

K. M. Weiland. “Setup and Payoff the Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing:” https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/setup-and-payoff-the-two-equally-important-halves-of-story-foreshadowing/

Lisa Kron. “Writing the Craft of Story/example-Setups-Payoffs and the Clues in Between https://www.linkedin.com/learning/writing-the-craft-of-story/example-setups-payoffs-and-the-clues-in-between-2

Sheri Sheridan. “Writing A Great Script Fast: Step 16 Setups & Payoffs – YouTube” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1pa9Vr2EUU

What is a plot twist?

  • A plot twist is a radical  or shocking change in the direction or expected outcome of the plot in a work of fiction.  Readers love stories with surprise endings.

Readers believe the killer was an acquaintance but he was a total stranger which is a surprise twist to the story.

Did they murder the wrong person? Was it a case of mistaken identity?

Did the murderer think he had the perfect alibi, but the detective figures out that they killed by remote control.

“70+ Plot Twist Ideas/Examples”  https://blog.reedsy.com/plot-twist-ideas-examples/

Storyplanner.com. “The Lester Dent Pulp Fiction Plot Formula:” https://www.storyplanner.com/story/plan/the-lester-dent-pulp-fiction-

Jane Kalmes – Fiction Technician. “How to Plot a Mystery Plot Twist:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92P4dflDYW

6. Hero’s Journey  or  Heroine’s Journey based on Joseph Campbell’s ideas.

Different people have interpreted the steps with different names. Find the one that you understand best at a glance to use. Make up your own names of the steps.

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Supernatural Aid, Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the Threshold (Accepting the Call    Entering the Unknown)
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Belly of the Whale (approach to inmost cave)
  8. The Ordeal (The Road of Trials)
  9. The Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. The Resurrection
  12. The Return with the Elixir

7. Mind Map 

Mind map example
Thank you, Pixabay

A Mind Map is a drawing of the scenes in a book as they relate to each other. 

Chelle Stein. “How to Mind Map a Novel Plot;” https://thinkwritten.com/mind-map-your-novel/

Magnetic Memory Method.
“What is Mind-Mapping?”   https://www.magneticmemorymethod.com/what-is-mind-mapping/

Self-Publishing.com. “How to MindMap a Book Step-by-Step https://self-publishingschool.com/mindmap-a-book/

Our Little Books. “How to Use Mind Mapping to Outline A Book:”  http://www.ourlittlebooks.com/blog/2010/6/22/how-to-use-mind-mapping-to-outline-a-book.html

8. Mirror Moment

Start writing your story from the middle of your book. Start where the hero looks at himself in the mirror and decides to change.

James Scott Bell  Write Your Story from the Middle  and Super Structure

9. Plot Point Theory (Character Driven, based on 3-Act Plot)

Inciting Incident – First plot point – First pinch point (reminder of power of antagonist to thwart the protagonist)  Midpoint – Second Pinch point (reminder of power of antagonist to thwart the protagonist) – second plot point – darkest moment third plot point Final Battle (climax )- resolution
Based on 3 acts.
  • 25% Act I – Setup: Exposition, Inciting Incident, Plot Point One. End of Act 1 25%
  • 50% Act II – Confrontation: Rising Action, Midpoint, Plot Point Two. End of Act II. 50%
  • 75%Act III – Resolution:  Pre Climax, Climax (final life versus death battle, Denouement the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved. Leaves the protagonist and other characters with a new sense of who they really are. 
  • 100% End

Wikipedia: “Three-Act Structure:”   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-act_structure

K.W. Weiland. “The Secrets of Story Structure: Helping Writers Become Authors:” https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/
K.W. Weiland. “What are pinch points and how can they make your book easier to write?”
    • Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenplay
    • Larry Brooks Story Engineering
    • K.M. Weiland Structuring Your Novel

10. Synopsis – Summary

Kristen Kieffer explains  on Well-Storied.com that a one to two page synopsis includes all of a story’s major beats — the hook, inciting incident, major plot points, midpoint, climactic sequence, and resolution without going into so much depth.

How to Write a Book Now.com. “How to Write a Synopsis:” https://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/how-to-write-a-synopsis.html#

Other Resources

Michael La Ronn. “How to Outline a Novel in 10 Different Ways:” https://youtu.be/BhjRZ18JwpY

Sacha Black.co.uk. “Master the Outline. 12 Methods for Plotters and Pantsers, Part I:” https://sachablack.co.uk/2016/09/05/master-the-outline-12-methods-for-plotter-and-pantsers-part-1/

Sacha Black.co.uk. “Master the Outline. 12 Methods for Plotters and Pantsers, Part II.” https://sachablack.co.uk/2016/09/12/master-the-outline-12-methods-for-plotters-and-pantsers-part-ii

Brian Tracy has a great outline for a non-fiction novel.

Christopher Mart. Writing 101. “How to Write an Outline and First Lines:” https://writingcooperative.com/writing-101-how-to-write-an-outline-and-first-lines-4d8be57f96ee

“How to Outline a Book:” https://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-outline-a-book/

Jane Friedman. “Writing Scenes: Crafting the Setup and the Payoff:” https://www.janefriedman.com/writing-scenes-setup-payoff/

Jerry Jenkins. “How to Outline a Novel:” https://jerryjenkins.com/how-to-outline-a-novel/

KindlePreneur.com. “Best Outline Software:” https://kindlepreneur.com/review/best-outline-software/

Short Story Prompts

Servicescape.com. “301 Short Story Ideas Guaranteed to Kick Your Writing into High Gear:” https://www.servicescape.com/blog/301-short-story-ideas-guaranteed-to-kick-your-writing-into-high-gear 


Thank you for reading my blog. Please leave a comment and tell me what outlining strategy you use for writing and if you outline before your write or after you’ve written each chapter.  Feel free to share with others you believe would enjoy reading this article. 

Believe in you and your writing!
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards, Author
Copyright © 2009-2021 Joan Y. Edwards

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