Plotting for Pantsers and Pantsing for Plotters

by James Scott Bell

Remember the Dionne Warwick song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” I always chortled at that. It’s about someone who grew up in San Jose, came down to L.A. to make it in the movie biz, and now wants to go back home. So she asks, “Do you know the way to San Jose? I’ve been away so long…”

Wait, what? You don’t know the way back to your own home town? Sheesh! This is California. You get on the 101 and head north and keep driving till you see a sign that says SAN JOSE, NEXT EXIT.

How hard is that? You’ve got to know enough not to head south toward San Diego! Or you shouldn’t be driving.

Besides, it’s hard to rhyme with San Diego.

Do you know the way to San Diego?
Which way do I point my Winnebago?


My post today was inspired by Brother Gilstrap’s recent thought-provoker, which has the following:

As for plot, I have to know where I am going before I start–or at least before I get too deeply into the story. What I discover along the way is the most fun route to take me there. It’s like knowing you want to drive from DC to Los Angeles, but not knowing till somewhere in Indiana whether you want to take the southern route or the northern route. Or, maybe you want to park at a train station and finish the trip by rail.

This is similar to Isaac Asimov’s practice. He said he liked to know his ending, or at least a rough idea of it, and then have “the fun” of finding out how to get there.

Fun is good. It creates energy. It shows up on the page.

So let me suggest how to up the fun factor in a way that will please both plotter and pantser. (And they said it couldn’t be done!)

This post is a long one. Pack a lunch.

Plotting for Pantsers

Now, don’t get the hives, pantsing friend! You probably think of an outline as some gargantuan document that locks every scene into a cold, heartless shape that you cannot undo.

Nay, not so. I’m going to offer a method that will make outlining just as fun—and ultimately more productive—than pure pantsing.

It’s based on what I call signpost scenes. (For a full account of signpost scenes, I shamelessly refer you to my book Super Structure. But it is not essential for purposes of this post. We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog.) I’m going to suggest that you brainstorm three—just three—signpost scenes as the basis of your plotting. Here they are:

  1. The Disturbance

This is your opening. This is your hook. This is what will often make or break the sale of your book. We have talked many, many times here at TKZ about that first page. You might want to search for “First Page” and look at some of our critiques. But definitely read Kris’s post on what makes a great opening.

Now, sketch out your first scene. If you want to write it, go for it! I love writing openings that grab readers by the lapels. But you can also sketch it out in summary form. Or do a little of both. Then rework and reshape that summary until it you see the scene vividly in your head.

See that? You’re outlining! Whee!

  1. The Final Battle

That’s right. Come up with a rip-snorting ending!

PANTSER: But wait. I don’t have any idea what the plot is, let alone the villain!

ME: Who cares? You’re a doggone pantser, right? So pants! Just start playing with a big, climactic scene. Let it suggest to you what the story is about. Play around with this sketch. See it in your mind, like a movie. Then have the actors do it again, only bigger and more exciting.

Don’t get the cold sweats! Listen: You can tweak or change this scene all you want as you write your draft. But having this scene in mind gives you something to write toward.

Often—quite often, actually—I’ll have an ending and villain in mind, and a concluding final battle, but will change the actual villain near the end. You know what that’s called? A twist ending!

So now you have a gripping opening and a slam-bang ending, the essential bookends of an outline.

See how fun this is?

  1. Mirror Moment

How long does it typically take you, pantser, to know what your story is really about? It varies, right? You may catch it early, or you may not know it until the end of a draft. Or you may finish a draft and sit back and ask, “So what’s really going on here? How can I make it better?”

Why not figure it out from the get-go with a mirror moment?

This idea occurred to me as I studied the midpoint of great movies and popular novels. (I once again shamelessly declare that I wrote in depth about this in my book Write Your Novel From the Middle. But you can get the gist of the idea by reading this post and this other post, so I won’t go over that same ground.)

Brainstorm at least five possible mirror moments. What is your Lead forced to confront about himself in the dead center of the action? One of the ideas you come up with will resonate. It will feel right. And then when you start pantsing in earnest (assuming Ernest doesn’t mind) you will have a through-line that gives all your scenes an almost magical cohesion. And that is really fun.

Now that you’ve got the big three signposts done—that wasn’t so hard, was it?—I suggest you brainstorm a bunch of killer scenes.

What is a killer scene? One that is stuffed with conflict and suspense. One that a reader will be unable to tear his eyes from. Let your boys in the basement start sending them up (the boys love to do that!)

I used to take a stack of 3×5 cards to Starbucks, quaff my joe and come up with 20-25 killer scene ideas. I’d shuffle the cards and look at them and choose the ten best ones. Then I’d ask myself where those scenes might best fit—the beginning, middle, or end? (Gee, sounds like the 3-Act structure, doesn’t it?) I do the same thing now, only in Scrivener (more on that, below).

Pantsers, making up killer scenes on the fly is right in your wheelhouse! You should love it.

Then you can sit back and assess your burgeoning plot outline. Want to change something? Do more cards. You are testing different plot directions without locking yourself into a full draft. Listen to what one former pantser says:

Honestly, I had a hard time believing [outlining is fun] myself until I really got the hang of planning. But really? Planning can be really fun. It allows you to explore all the scenarios and opportunities without having to deal with pages and pages of rewrites.

Imagine a character at a crossroads. Turn left for good, turn right for evil. Up for adventure. Down for home. Which way do they go?

If the author was pantsing, they would have to pick one, follow it, and see where it ultimately leads. This could wind up being a brilliant book, or it could lead to fifty pages of useless material when they realize they would’ve preferred to take a different way.

But not so in planning. In planning, it’s easy to list out every possibility, follow every whim and feel out every thread. It’s possible to try out the wildest storylines and test out ridiculous theories just to see how they pan out. And since you don’t write them until after you’ve planned, you won’t waste time rewriting scenes if, in advance, you see that they won’t work out.

View planning a novel as a time to explore and indulge in all the silly whims you have about your book. Get your ideas out, and then decide which ones make the pages.

After all, what happens in the book plan stays in the book plan.

Pantsing for Plotters

The same method given above will work for you, plotting friend, as you begin to lay out your scenes. Let yourself have fun pantsing your outline, playing with it with the same wild abandon as your pantsing buddies, being free to change things up before you start the long drive of a first draft.

You are more structure-oriented than the pure pantser, so go ahead and lay out your cards with that in mind. I do my plotting on 3×5 index cards. As I mentioned, I do this on Scrivener. My beginning template is made up of my signpost scene cards, waiting to be filled in. I then add scene cards in between as I come up with ideas. I love looking at my growing outline on the Scrivener corkboard, being fee to move the cards around as I see fit. (I know many of you have looked at Scrivener and thought it too complicated to learn, etc. But if you just use it for the corkboard feature, I think it’s worth it. You can learn other bells and whistles later.)

My cards have a title, so I know what the scene is about at a glance. The card itself can hold a synopsis of the scene, or a big chunk of the potential scene. I often write some dialogue for the scene, because it’s fun. I transfer that to the scene card.

Here’s the corkboard for Act 1 of Romeo’s Town:

At this point in the process, I’m just concentrating on the most important scenes. I’m not thinking about transitions or subplots or style. I’m thinking about getting down the big picture of a plot that will deliver the goods.

In days, or maybe a week, I have all these scene synopses. Scrivener lets you print these out so you can sit down and, in just a few minutes, assess your about-to-be-hatched novel.

Need to change anything? Maybe a lot? Maybe the whole book? No problem! You’re not locked into anything. You can try out another route to San Jose! And another.

Whew! That’s quite enough for one Sunday.

Let me leave you with this advice: try something new in your methodology every now and again. Explore other approaches. Give a new idea a whirl. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Enjoy the drive.

Outlining in Reverse

By Debbie Burke


Photo credit: Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa – unsplash

Jim Bell’s excellent post from Sunday about plotters vs. pantsers serves as an introduction to today’s subject: Is outlining useful for a pantser? Can it be done? 

The answer is yes…if you do it in reverse order.

Create the first draft.

Then go back and outline what you’ve written. 

In construction, there’s a term called “As Builts.” An architect may start out with an initial blueprint (outline) but the blueprint changes due to circumstances that arise during construction. The finished building is never the same as the original blueprint. Here’s an explanation from Precision Property Management’s site:

“An As-Built drawing should show the building exactly as it currently is, as opposed to a design drawing which shows the intended or proposed layout of the building. This is a critical distinction, because a constructed building almost never corresponds exactly to the original design drawings.”

Like a building, a finished story almost never corresponds to the initial idea. That’s why I don’t outline before writing that initial draft of discovery.

However, once the first draft is finished, I create an outline in the form of as-builts. That’s where the pantser’s errors and oversights show up. And, believe me, there will be plenty.

Oops, I forgot to install reinforcing bars before I poured the slab. Without rebar, the foundation cracks and sags. Gotta jackhammer up the concrete and start over.

Darn, I forgot to include a door that connects the kitchen and the dining room. Better get out the reciprocating saw and cut an opening in that solid wall.

Wow, the shingles on the roof look beautiful…except some of the trusses underneath are missing. The first snowfall causes the whole thing to collapse. Drat.

You get the idea.

Dennis Foley, novelist/screenwriter/educator extraordinaire, introduced me to the concept of “as built” outlines in fiction. He recommends writing in three steps:

  1. Think it up;
  2. Write it up;
  3. Fix it up.

Pantsers feel strangled if we try to adhere to a formal outline during the initial draft. We’d much rather give free rein to our imaginations during Steps 1 and 2.

But, eventually, all that unfettered creativity needs to be organized. Step 3, the “fix it up” stage, is the time to create an “as built” outline.

Outlining in reverse points out structural problems with the plot: events that are out of order, a character who shows up simultaneously in two different places, missing time periods that must be accounted for, lapses in logic, etc. Once those glitches are repaired, the story becomes a coherent sequence of rising complications that ultimately delivers a satisfying climax.

My WIP, Lost in Irma, takes place in Florida during Hurricane Irma in September, 2017, a catastrophe that left 17 million people without electricity. The story covers a two-week period during and after the storm and had to adhere to actual events in the order that they occurred.

The main characters, Tawny Lindholm and Tillman Rosenbaum, are visiting Tillman’s high school coach, Smoky Lido, in New Port Richey when Irma hits. During the height of the storm, Smoky disappears. Tawny and Tillman spend the rest of the book trying to find him. Is he dead or alive? Did he flee because of gambling debts? Was he abducted by thugs he owed money to? Or did he vanish into the storm to commit suicide?

Hurricane-related emergencies overwhelmed law enforcement, leaving Tawny and Tillman on their own to look for Smoky. Power blackouts, gasoline shortages, and unreliable cell service were integral to the plot. They couldn’t make phone calls or search the internet. If they drove, they risked getting stuck in floodwaters or running out of gas.

To pin down significant events on the dates they actually happened, I printed out a blank calendar from September 2017.  I filled in the squares with factual information like: what time did Irma hit New Port Richey (late Saturday night, early Sunday morning); what time did the power go out there (around midnight); when did the Anclote River flood (Tuesday)?

Here’s a link to a handy site that includes sunrise and sunset times for each day, which I also found helpful.


Electricity came back on in fits and starts—one street regained power almost immediately while the next block over stayed dark for days longer. That gave me fictional latitude to turn the power off as long as necessary for plot development.

While researching public shelters, I wondered if there was a roster or record kept of people staying there. Astonishingly, no.

I also learned Red Cross maintains an online “Safe and Well” website where victims of disasters can voluntarily register their names, phone numbers, and leave messages for loved ones. But there is no requirement to register.

I inserted that bit of info into the story, adding that the system can’t be accessed if internet and/or cell service aren’t working or your phone is dead with no way to charge it. That added more complications for Tawny and Tillman, who had to physically go through each shelter, looking for Smoky.

What goes into the as-built outline?

Timelines: The chronology of events is important to nail down correctly which is why I use the calendar technique above.

Scene by scene outline – This traces major characters and plot developments. What day is it? What time is it? Where are they? What action happens?

As you can see from the above illustrations, my outlines are low tech. You may prefer to use Scrivener, Excel, or other spreadsheet programs.

Onstage Characters and Offstage Characters:

Typically, the protagonist appears in most scenes, onstage, and the story is often told from his/her point of view. But if characters are not in a scene—in other words, offstage—they also need to be accounted for, especially in crime fiction.

In mysteries, the murderer’s identity may be withheld from the reader until the very end. But the author still needs to know what that character is up to while s/he is lurking in the shadows. S/he may be trying to elude discovery, throw down false clues, or menace the protagonist. I discussed this topic in a 2017 post.

As a pantser, I often get tripped up because I lose track of a character who’s not onstage at that moment. That’s where the as-built outline catches goofs in the sequence of events.

For instance, the hero can’t find the murder weapon in chapter 4 if the killer doesn’t discard it until chapter 6. Even if you don’t show the killer onstage while he’s tossing the gun off a bridge, you still need to know when that action took place in relation to what the hero is doing. A time line helps point out inconsistencies in the sequential order of events.

Altered Timelines: What if you use flashbacks or jump around in time? Pulp Fiction utilized that technique to memorable dramatic effect. I don’t know how Quentin Tarantino wrote the screenplay but I’m guessing the final version of the film was far different from his initial blueprint.

If you decide to mess around with time conventions, it helps to first write the outline in chronological order. Once that’s done, you can rearrange blocks of time and scenes in any order to best serve your plot line.

Writing About History: If you write historical novels, real events must be accurate. Set up a calendar or time line to cover the duration of the story. This may extend over years or even centuries. Plug in the dates of pivotal events.

For a World War II saga, that might translate to a time line like:

1939 – Nazis invade Poland

1940 – Dunkirk evacuation

1941 – Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

1942 – Battle of Midway, etc.

Other genres: Even if you write sci-fi or fantasy where the story world is entirely made up, that world must still conform to its own time system that is consistent and logical within its parameters. Suppose in your sci-fi, time travels backwards rather than forward. Events happen in reverse order of what we’re used to. The story might start with the death of a character, then goes backwards year by year, to their birth. Within that logic system, you would see the effect before the cause, the consequence before the action that triggers it.

Time travel stories especially require a clear time line. When you zigzag back and forth through history, it’s easy to get confused. If the author is lost, the reader will also be lost and likely give up on your book.

Jordan Dane just published a gripping time-travel thriller, The Curse She Wore. Maybe she’ll chime in on her techniques to handle multiple time lines.

As-built outlining may seem bass-akward but, for this pantser, it works.


TKZers: What are your favorite techniques to organize a plot? 




Debbie Burke first used reverse-outlining in her award-winning thriller, Instrument of the Devil. On sale for only $.99 at this link

Kick starting your story

By Joe Moore

Have you noticed that everyone is writing a book? Whenever I disclose to someone that I’m an author, the response is pretty much the same: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” Or “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” Despite all the would-be authors out there, not every potential novelist actually gets to the writing stage. And even fewer produce a finished product. But for the ones who not only have an idea but are burning up with a desire to put pen to paper, I’ve put together a basic outlining technique that might help get things started—a simple list of questions to kick start a book. Answering them can give writers direction and focus, and help keep them going when the wheels sometimes come off the cart along the way. Here goes:

  • What distinguishes your protagonist from everyone else?
  • Does she have an essential strength or ability?
  • How could her strength cause her to get into trouble?
  • Most stories start with the protagonist about to do something? What is that “something” in your story, and what does it mean to her?
  • Is that “something” interrupted? By what?
  • Is there an external event or force that she must deal with throughout the length of the story?
  • How is it different from the original event?
  • How will the two events contrast and create tension?
  • Does she have a goal that she is trying to achieve during the course of the story?
  • Is it tied into the external event?
  • Why does she want or need to obtain the goal?
  • What obstacle does the external event place in her path?
  • What must she do to overcome the obstacle?
  • Does she have external AND internal obstacles and conflicts to overcome?
  • How will she grow by overcoming the obstacles?
  • What do you want to happen at the end of your story?
  • What actions or events must take place to make the ending occur the way you envision?

This outline technique has less to do with plot and more to do with character development. Building strong characters around a unique plot idea is the secret to a great book. Once you’ve answered the questions about your protagonist, use the same technique on your antagonist and other central characters. It works for everyone in the story.

These are general questions that could apply to any genre from an action-adventure thriller to a romance to a tale of horror. Answering them up front can help to get you started and keep you on track. Armed with just the basic knowledge supplied by the answers, you will never be at a loss for words because you will always know what your protagonist (and others) must do next.

Can you think of any other questions that should be asked before taking that great idea and turning it into a novel?

The “O” word

By Joe Moore

theletteroI love being a writer, I just don’t always like writing. I find first draft writing to be painful. So much so, that I don’t know how I’ve managed to finish a single book, much less four novels. Some writers love the process and have an easy time at it. But many of my fellow author friends are like me—we fight for every word. It seems to be the nature of the beast for many of us. But what I do love is the process of rewriting. There, the pain is replaced with pleasure and fun as more and more meat is added to the bones.

One of the methods I have to cope with first draft writing is to use the advice I received from one of my beloved mentors who said, “A bad plan is better than no plan.” To equate that to writing, I believe you must have some plan of action before you can start. There are many writers who claim they can sit down and start writing from the first word, and complete their book in a stream of consciousness. I can’t do it. It rarely comes out freely like water from a hose. So I always create a plan of action. I hate to use the dreaded "O" word: outline. But that’s what it is. Some writers complain that outlining inhibits their creative muse. For me, it’s no different than taking a trip and using a roadmap. You might take a side trip now and then but the destination is always predetermined. I just keep it simple, basic, easy to understand—enough to have a general idea where I’m going at any given time. That way I always know what I’m working towards.

Someone once said that first draft writing is a lot like looking out over a fog-shrouded sea with only the tips of mountainous islands pocking up. With a plan of action, I know enough about the islands to realize that I must navigate to each one. What I don’t know is what will happen in the fog. My plan helps me get through it.

Do you outline? If so, how basic or extensive is it? Or do you just wing it?