Plotting, for Pantsers

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By inclination I’m a Pantser

(Pantsers, Pantsers, Oi, Oi, Oi!)

(That’s our motto)

(I just made it up)

I’ve read online about plotters who get their entire book, down to each and every scene, outlined to within an inch of its life. No, really, the whole thing. I’m talking thirty page outlines. Detailed character backgrounds. Entire world building strata. Lists of possible names, place names, and religious systems charted out in those little tree charts. Color coded sections and index cards and things.

back away slowly

Mostly I see things like that and think, “if you’re going to spend time writing up thirty pages . . . why not just write thirty pages of the book?” Cause pantser, remember.

That’s one extreme end of the spectrum. On the other extreme, I’ve read stories online about pantsers who can hold all the threads of their idea inside their head as they write it out. I’d compare it to weaving an entire blanket straight from their head to the keyboard without a pattern or loom to tell them where they’re going. I stand in awe of the raw talent there, but I can’t do that myself.

I’ve discovered that even pantsers need to outline. Most writers (who are neither plotter nor pantser, but a mix of both) need some way to organize their thoughts.

Solid experience speaking here. I tried pure-pantsing at first. Full on winging it.

points dont matter

For me, this turned out to be a big mistake. I spent WAY more time running back and fixing all of the stuff I left out, making sure my plots lined up, foreshadowing, just generally running around cleaning up and NOT WRITING THE BOOK when I did that. So I learned.

Outlines are your friends. Yes, even if you’re a pantser.

I like to think I’ve found a nice, happy middle here. Loose enough outlines to let my pantser pants run amok. Tight enough to keep me going forward, instead of sideways or backwards. The template I use is a mash-up of the At-A-Glance outline from Writer’s Digest (free to download) and the Freytag model from (also free).

For any of you fellow pantsers out there I turned this mash-up into a .pdf file. Plotters are welcome to use it, too, and add all kinds of fun details. Hopefully it will help you stay on track to hit all the major story beats, while still leaving you some room to play.

Click on it and use it, with my compliments: Pantser Story Outline

Do you have your own outlining method? What kind do you use? I’m always happy to look up new ideas and tweak.



Image credit to and Snufkin


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Great post.

Brooke Lorren

I’m plotting my NaNoWriMo novel now. I have a paragraph written so far for the first seven chapters, and I’m doing character sheets for the main characters. I have almost three months of getting ready first.

I do the other way too. Like I’ll get an idea in my head and I can start writing it. I often get stuck that way, at least for a bit.

The last time I won NaNoWriMo I had an outline done ahead of time.

SE White

It sounds like an outline is the way to go, for you. Good job winning NaNo, by the way!

Chris Hall

I confess! I’m an out and out pantser. Oddly, I’m really organised in all other parts of my life (control freak, bordering on OCD). Okay, I have an idea of where the piece/story/novel is going …ish. But I create my characters right from the start, and get to know them really well as soon as they learn to speak. Then I leave it up to them, which can land them (me) in all sorts of plot holes along the way, but digging them out is the fun part!

SE White

I tend to think that level of pantsing takes a lot of creativity! Not everyone could dig their characters out after writing them into a hole. If it works for you, then it’s the way to go πŸ™‚

Victoria Marie Lees

I’m a plotter for sure. I need to know where I’m going in story to be sure I get there. I need the because this happens, the next thing happens. Yep! It takes longer. But sometimes I even get there! Thanks for sharing this with your followers. I’ll be sure I’m following your blog and connected online.

S.E. White

Thank you! I’ll be looking you up as well. Cheers!


I’m generally an organised person, but plotting seems like So. Much. Work. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered the hard way that pantsing leads to more work at the editing end (which is why I’ve been procrastinating on editing for months. And I’m an editor.)

Thanks for sharing your method!

(Are you on Twitter? What’s your handle?)

S.E. White

It does seem like so much work. I think I pretty much went through the same process you’re describing! Luckily there are some awesome editors at eXtasy Books who haven’t minded walking me through baby step by baby step. Thank you for being one of those wonderful people who take on the editing! To be honest, I’d rather have another unmedicated childbirth than get on Twitter. But I am on Instagram and Litsy πŸ™‚


Generous of you. Thanks so much. I call myself a framer for the same reason. We are some kind of hybrid that does both. hehehe

Anna from elements of emaginette

S.E. White

Very cool. It is a lot like framing!

Dorian Graves

I try to be a plotter, but I always start pantsing despite my best intentions. I jot down notes! I outline each story and chapter! There are occasional charts!…But then a new idea pops up, my characters choose to react in unexpected ways, and I end up making an entirely new outline for the rest of the story. Every. Time.
Keeps things exciting, at least?
(And to answer the question about how I outline, I just jot down the rough order of scenes and chapter/POV switches in one document. …then make new stream-of-thought documents to work out plot holes…Which turns into new outlines. Yeesh.)

S.E. White

Still, it sounds like you’ve worked out a way to make sure you’re telling the story and that’s all that matters, in the end! Good for you on the POV switches, I have a terrible time with that.

Kristina Stanley

I’m a panster all the way, so thanks for creating a check list for pansters. Very cool.

S.E. White

You’re welcome, I hope it turns out to be useful!

Caroliena Cabada

Great post, and welcome to the hop! I think I’ve found a happy medium as well between pantsing and plotting (or “plantsing” as I like to call it), but a loose outline has been a great way to help me remember the different threads of a story and give me enough wiggle room to explore something different. And thanks so much for sharing your outline mashup! I’ll have to try it for my next WIP πŸ™‚

S.E. White

I like Plantsing! LOL If I’d known that word exists I’d have used it to title the mashup. Good luck with your WIP!


I agree. My last novel had an 18K or a 25K (I can’t remember exactly) chapter by chapter outline. This book, I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t plot it in advance beyond the full time hours I spent thinking about it. I got to the point where I was like, all of the scenes are there (in my head), but I don’t know what order they’re going to be in yet, because I need to start writing it to figure it out. It’s working out for me, but I also enjoy a well-plotted project. Great post!

S.E. White

Wow that’s a heck of an outline. It’s funny to see how each book is different, it really is a lot like having multiple children πŸ™‚

Katherine Barclay

I’m definitely going to check this out! I’m far more of a plotter than a pantser, but I’ve discovered that whenever I let myself go I have more success than when I try to keep everything tightly controlled. The notion of adhering rigidly to a pantser document seems wonderfully appealing!

S.E. White

I hope it works well for you! There are lots of free outline tools online, I especially liked all the different options Writer’s Digest had.

E.M.A. Timar

I will be checking out those outline guidelines. I am a planner but leave a lot of wiggle room for my inner-creative to run amok. I am glad to hear you found a happy medium. I keep trying to tell my pantser friends to give some planning a try, just enough to keep moving forward. I will definitely refer them to this post. Thanks!

S.E. White

I definitely learned that I need some help to keep moving forward! I think you’re right that it’s possible to plan and still leave some room to run amok πŸ™‚


Oi! I’m not a pantser, but I’m not the 30 page take-the-fun-out-of outliner, either (though I once had a critique partner who was and got really bent out of shape if you used a character name a teeny bit too close to what she’d picked out).
I’m a hybrid. I have goals, motivations, conflict, background and the main points/scenes I want to write. Anything in between is a surprise. Sometimes good. More often than not on the sucky side. It all works out, right?

S.E. White

I feel like a lot of writers are a hybrid, when it really gets down to the writing process. Pretty neat that you can work out the goal/motivation/conflict in advance, I’ve really struggled with that!


I always like to have at least a vague concept of where my story is going, the finish line, so that I have some sense of what direction my characters are going, if not the steps they’ll take.
I think outlines are invaluable. Sometimes I wait until the revision process to create one, but eventually all stories need an overarching pattern to unite them. Otherwise audiences just keep looking for meaning, for relationships between scenes and events, growing more frustrated as time passes.

S.E. White

I definitely learned my lesson, I was frustrating myself! You’re right, there definitely has to be a pattern holding everything together.

Megan Morgan

I used to be a complete pantser: I didn’t write a single thing down beforehand, I just had a vague idea of where I wanted to get to and aimed toward it. Gradually, I changed. Now I DO write a sort of outline before I write the story. It’s not super detailed, more a loose, “x happens which results in y” sort of thing, but it gives me a little more direction. I like to be loose so that if something in the story happens that changes my path, I don’t feel like I can’t follow it and change things.

S.E. White

That sounds so familiar πŸ™‚ I’ve learned to use and appreciate my outlines, although sometimes they do get left behind.


It’s funny because I mention a little bit of what pantsers can do with plotting in my post. πŸ™‚ Even outline a few chapters at a time, or even just one before you have to write it, will help pantsers greatly.

S.E. White

I’m working my way through the hop, so I’ll head on over to your website. Thanks!

I use index cards, but generally after I’ve written a few scenes. Then, you figure out what you need to get from card one to card two.

I’ve never really thought about using index cards, somehow my first instinct is always to open a new word document on the computer. Interesting!

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