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I am chronically bad at outlining.

I've tried all sorts of techniques I've found online and nothing has worked so far. Either I end up hating whatever I outlined and end up scraping it, or I get as much writer's block outlining than I do pantsing. The problem is, pantsing is not very effective for me either. I'll have days where inspiration hits and I can pants a great story but the truth is, most days I just write things that I end up scraping later. I've finished entire novels pantsing so it's not like I'm completely useless but I really need to get my stuff together and learn how to outline properly. Any suggestions? Willing to read books, blogs, watch YT videos, literally anything.
 

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Keep it short and simple. I do a one page outline, with the theme, where i need to be at 25/50/75 percent word count, and a line or two about any scenes I already have envisioned.

Plenty of room for pantsing, but enough to keep me on track.
 

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Great question - and I will be following this post for replies. ATM, I am trying to put together an outline system that will work for me. In the past, I've been a pantser, but I am at the point where feel my writing will be improved through outlining. I am using info gleaned from here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/ and various other places to devise a generic outline on SmartEdit Writer.
 

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I started more as a pantser. But I've outlined my last 2 books and have outlined what I'm working on now - and it's been very helpful.

I use a very simple outlining method - really, really simple. It's literally X number of lines, each line representing a chapter. For e.g.,


John realizes that his company is about to go under

Alice succeeds as CEO at a competitor

John is desperate for a job but realizes someone is sabotaging his name

...

and so on

Sometimes the lines are a little longer and I might add some meta info (e.g., don't reveal this... or end chapter with X)

and that's it.

Works great for me.
 

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Nicole M said:
I've finished entire novels pantsing so it's not like I'm completely useless but I really need to get my stuff together and learn how to outline properly.
There is no "outline properly" only what works for you. I've read about authors who write a mini-novel that's their outline before writing the book and then there are those of us who usually write a phrase or sentence or two per chapter and may or may not expand that as we go. My guess is most of us revise our outlines when new ideas pop up as we write. Inspiration hits in an early chapter about a better way to do something still to come. So, change a few words in the outline and keep going. Why not try something minimalist and see if it helps you before doing anything more complicated?
 

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I know there are mega threads on plotting vs passing that come up every now and then, with my takeaway always being that a) do what works for you and b) it all requires thinking time, both before, during and after you write.

Pantsers may weigh their thinking time towards the 'during' and Plotters, to the 'before'.

It's this 'thinking time' that I believe drives my decision to be plotter. I plot on a day when I have the time and can really immerse myself in the story. Then on days like today, where I literally have half an hour to write a bit because I overslept and my kids are about to wake up... the fact that I plotted to some extent beforehand allows me to know exactly where I am and what needs to be written now, without having to think about it too much.

Instead of scratching around for 30 minutes, I move the draft forward.

As to the original question, my personality wants some structure before I even start (see a above) so I spend a good amount of time with the story, telling it out loud, using index cards so I can see the main plot points visually, seeing where the gaps are. I find when I brainstorm characters a bit more that inevitably leads to ideas for plot as well.

Make sure you 'feed the well'. Read lots, watch some television!

Other than that, I love books on plotting, and always get some inspiration from those.
 

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I agree.

I think that whether you "pants" or "plot", what really matters is whether you know where the story is going, and it matters much less whether you write that down in an outline or just keep it in your head.

Typically, before I start, I will know what sort of tone I want for the book and I'll know in what sort of place I want the story to finish, for example, a character achieving something, or a situation of social unrest being resolved.

I'll also know the inciting incident and I'll have an idea of a few steps along the way.

I don't always know who the characters are. I know who the main character is (although I've been known to given them a sex change), but I may decide, as I start writing, that I'll need a particular type of sidekick because I might find that the story doesn't have enough dialogue, who I'll then make up on the spot.

Most of this comes with the experience of writing more novels.
 

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.

Get "mind mapping" software, also called brainstorming, on your computer. Old school way is post-it notes or 3x5 cards. Create the ideas as they come in a rush. Scenes, major plot points, dialog scraps, abbreviated actions, whatever comes and whatever is needed. Post all that ragged content to the board or the program. Then move the random bits into a coherent grouping. Then create a numbered list and start dropping the content into "chapters" (they will unlikely be exact chapters in the end, but the sequencing is important).

I use Freeplane. I use it on Linux but it also runs on Windows and Mac. "Scrivener", I think is, or at least one of the popular writer software packages has a cork board looking section to fill out simulated 3x5 cards and move them around in a rough brainstorming fashion. Specific mind mapping software will generally be faster and easier. I used Xmind for a while but they made it more difficult with a version upgrade to get text out, I used Freemind for a while as well. (https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/8-free-mind-map-tools-best-use/, https://www.fossmint.com/free-mind-mapping-software-for-linux/) You can even just start with whatever text editor you use to write with and cut/paste paragraphs where you need to drop them but I found that more limiting.

Some genres need more, or should have tighter, plotting than others.

The pro-writers who pants it don't spend any time pondering because they keep the whole outline or at least a strong story structure in their head. They are not truly pantsing it, they don't let the characters lead them around like they will say, they just uphold the romantic notion for readers and fans that the characters are so much larger than life they have the power to control the mere scribe in telling their fantastic adventures. The writer is shackled to the chair and cannot leave until the character allows them freedom.

The difference I found that works for me: My character whispers the outline to me first and then we fill in all the lurid details together.

Here are a few basics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpIrTV-ZhdI

.
 

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Here's what I found helps to start with but I don't know your genre. Mine is anything in the thriller, or sub genres and at the moment l'm writing a suspense thriller series as a disaster story.

Obviously, before anything, there has to be a kernal of an idea for the story, the bigger the idea the better, but you should not even start if you don't know its intended genre. In my case, I looked up the suspense genre and the consensus was that opening chapters are more about introducing the characters than an inciting incident you would find in say a crime thriller, but with maybe a little foreshadowing of what might come and the suspense builds from there. Whatever, searching the Internet will come up with the expectations for your genre.

This is exactly true of blurbs and again you can search your genre on the Internet for examples. In my case in simple terms it's, who it is and what they want. What or who stands in their way, and finally what are the stakes if they fail. So now I can start with a blurb and I've just done this off the top of my head as if I was planning to outline a story.

All Jack wants is an uncomplicated life. When a body is found in his back garden, he becomes the main suspect. Someone out there wants to destroy his peaceful and quiet life. Jack will have to break free of his acceptance of the norm if he is to discover who is trying to destroy him and bring the killer to justice. But then things take a turn, when a relative is murdered, further implicating him and he receives a  warning of further deaths unless he confesses to the murders. He is running out of time and options. If he fails to discover the killer, at best he'll spend his life in prison and at worst more people he loves will die.

Knowing this and that the blurb has legs for the genre you can move on. All stories start at A, then work there way to Z at the end. The blurb doesn't give this away, but you really need to know it as everything in the story drives to that end. . The trick is to get from A to Z in logical steps that will satisfy reader expectations.

Here is where the three act method helps, and again, if you are not familiar with it, look it up on the net. Besides having logical steps, you can determine the pacing of the story.

Yes, you can do this in your head, and decide as you go along where to introduce say a detective or his attorney, maybe give him a wife and family or a love interest and any number of red herrings. But then you have to ask yourself when do you introduce them and for what purpose. How are they motivated as it relates to the stoty. If you are aware of the three act structure, then you can decide how many chapters to allot to each act. So far you haven't needed to outline, as you are more at the brainstorming stage, but you know your basic story from the blurb.

You can make outlining as simple or as complicated as you want.

You might want to start with the setting and write out the world where it is set. Again this can be as simple or as complicated as you have in mind. You might want to make up your own political system, economy, and map of the area, or if it exists to search for an area map and copy and paste that into your outline for say references of distances between towns or whatever.

It may require research on say scientific stuff or crime procedures, radio call signs, or whatever. Copy the links and paste them into your outline for easy reference.

Move onto character outlines, give them a background and character traits and how one will relate to the other. Also character arcs. Will they stay the same throughout, how do you expect them to change. If you don't have all the characters to start with, you can add to them later. You might even benefit for giving the town and townsfolk where it is set a character of its own.

Now you can really start on the story by brainstorming, or as I call it daydreaming the story with a notepad to hand. In essence this is the pansting stage. Then transfer this to your chapter outline in note form. I doubt anyone can simply imagine the whole story chapter by chapter in one go. Write out your list of chapters, 1,2,3 etc, and give yourself and average word count per chapter to reach a target word count for the story.

Decide where you want each act to fall in relation to your chapters and mark it to give you a sense of purpose as to what is required upto or from that point. Now imagine each act in relation to how the story and characters will develop to a conclusion with rising and falling action. Once the story is in your head, take it an act at a time and start putting notes at each chapter for what you want to achieve. Then repeat with the second and third acts and you have it outlined. There should be no writer's block from there, that comes at brainstorming, daydreaming, pantsting stage and will determine if you will ever complete the story. If you can't pants the outline in note form, you won't have much joy pantstng the full story.

The chapter outline is what James Patterson uses to give to his Co writers and their imagination a prowess as a wordsmith do the rest.

 

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I was ready to say I agree with Patty, but I'm going to take a more extreme position.

You don't need to know where the story is going.

If you're writing genre fiction, you probably have some idea of what the ending requires. But you don't need to have anything but the kernal of an idea when you begin. If that works for you, do it.

I can outline, but I can't use my outline, and I can't write anything good that way. I do try to map by opening, mid point, and low point before I write, but I start plenty of books without that. I just can't figure out the interesting stuff unless I'm in the scene.

Do what works for you.
 

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I'm still a garbage outliner, but it helps me write at least twice as fast and prevents me having to rewrite entire story lines (because I've painted myself into a corner, etc.)

So I just write a few lines per chapter until I have a story arc that I'm happy with. When it comes time to write, I take that and expand it into proper chapters for the rough draft, then flesh it out on the next pass.
I've written 40,000 words in the last week this way. It really does speed up my process significantly, though of course YMMV.
 

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Patty Jansen said:
I've finished 60 novels pantsing. I'm not convinced that you need to learn to outline.
In total agreement. I've written about 30 novels (lost count) pantsing. I used to wish I could outline. Now I don't care.
 

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I’d say I’m a bit hybrid.
I always wrote into a corner and always bought into the outline but couldn’t get it to click.
Then I watched some YouTube’s on story beats, kinda twisting screen play ideas into novel writing and read a few books (Larry Brooks-story physics and Daniel P Calvisi Story Maps) they helped.
So once I’ve an idea and have thought of the big moves 25-50-75% marks I can break down how to get there  say on a 60 line excell or word doc. A few lines for these then a sentence on each scene to reach these points. Eventually you’ll have an outline. At that point as I write I’ve an idea of the scene but what happens happens as I write. Don’t know if that makes sense?
Anyway my advice, research story beats and try building and outline once you get to grips with them.
Read loads and look for the beats
Watch loads of film/tv and look for the beats
Don’t give up on it

Phillip
 

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When you pants, you have to be able to think a few steps ahead. People say they wrote themselves in a corner.

When I am about to write an important event and the characters' reactions to it, I look a few potential steps ahead, and I can see the corners where some of the options will lead me, and I will not go in a certain direction, because I look down the road and see the consequences of letting characters do thing X. I may see that if I take that step, the next few chapters will need to address certain issues that may not fit with the tone of the book or that, at worst, will get the characters in an impossible corner.

So then I decide the plot can't go in that direction.

If you pants, you need to develop this forward-thinking capability, or be prepared to delete a lot of stuff. I very rarely delete major scenes or chapters anymore.
 

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Patty Jansen said:
When you pants, you have to be able to think a few steps ahead. People say they wrote themselves in a corner.

When I am about to write an important event and the characters' reactions to it, I look a few potential steps ahead, and I can see the corners where some of the options will lead me, and I will not go in a certain direction, because I look down the road and see the consequences of letting characters do thing X. I may see that if I take that step, the next few chapters will need to address certain issues that may not fit with the tone of the book or that, at worst, will get the characters in an impossible corner.

So then I decide the plot can't go in that direction.

If you pants, you need to develop this forward-thinking capability, or be prepared to delete a lot of stuff. I very rarely delete major scenes or chapters anymore.
I agree with this. I've pantsed and outlined and I'm still up for either. To be honest there isn't much difference between either as long as you know exactly what you are doing in terms of craft, which those who have pantsed 30 or more are competent at doing. It's all to do with where you are on the learning curve. One you imagine and store it in your head, developing it as you go, and the other you make notes. Both are done as you go in your imagination.
 

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My most successful outline looked like this:

10,000 words per part.
1 combat/conflict every 5,000 words.
Final combat/conflict at the end of Part 8.

Being a trilogy, the super-big finale happened in Part 24.

I also created one page write-up on characters, personality, world, and so forth. Get the major stuff out there.

As for writing yourself into a corner, that's where the fun usually begins. As I enjoy comedy, I need corners. You can't have jaw-droppingly wacky resolutions in comedy without copious corners. Some corners I delay. Some corners, when I get to them, actually prove easy to get out of. Anyhow, you can go back and rewrite anything, so there's really no such thing as a corner. Writing isn't an honest game.
 
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