Writing Methods: Outlining Versus Pantsing
This is part one of a series about different writing methods. I will share different approaches you can try to unlock your creativity. This week I will talk about outlining versus pantsing.
Creativity is a fickle thing. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. Many times, each project uses a different method. Experimenting is the best way to figure out what will work best for you and each of your projects.
This is the best-known writing method. When most people think of outlines they remember the detailed, paragraph-by-paragraph plan we had to turn in for research papers in school. The truth is, outlining can be as comprehensive or as sparse as you want it to be.
Some writers describe every scene in detail from the beginning through the end in a scene list. Others put these scene descriptions into a table that tracks the point of view, characters, timeline, and word count for each scene. Still, others fill out all the major plot points in a beat sheet, while some know only the beginning and end before they start writing.
For an example of a beat sheet, read Save the Cat or Save the Cat Writes a Novel. You can also use any number of beat sheets available online. A beat is a plot point. There are various methods and numbers of beats you could choose to plan. Some beat sheets calculate the approximate page number where something should happen depending on the target word count of the project.
Shop around and see if you can find a beat sheet or outlining method that might work for you.
So far, I have mentioned outlining methods that focus on planning out the plot. Some writers sketch out their characters in addition to, or instead of outlining plots. There are many techniques for building characters.
For example, some writers use a character questionnaire. There are various forms these can take, each with different questions. The essentials of a character sheet are the character’s physical appearance, occupation and fatal flaw, or the hubris they overcome by the end of the work.
If filling out a questionnaire doesn’t give you the connection to your character you want, try writing them a letter that asks them questions. Respond as your character. You could also interview them through a third-party psychologist character who notices their body language and habits from an outsider’s perspective. Some questions to ask them include:
- What is your favorite memory from your childhood? What is your worst? Why?
- What is something that scares you? Why?
- What was your first sexual encounter? Who was it with? What was it like?
- Tell me your deepest secret? Your deepest fear? Who knows about it? How did they find out about it?
- Who was your best friend as a child? How did you meet? Are you still friends now?
- Who bullied you as a child? What did they do to hurt you? How do their actions still affect you today, if at all?
- What is your family like? Do you have any siblings? Were you adopted or fostered? Are they supportive or dysfunctional?
Use any questions that come to mind as you are interviewing your character. You don’t have to stick to this list. Adapt and iterate as needed.
This is not the act of pulling down someone’s pants in public. It is a term in the writing world that comes from the phrase, “flying by the seat of your pants.” It means writing without a plan, sitting down at a blank page and starting to write.
Just a warning: this method tends to require a lot more editing than outlining does, but it allows you more creative freedom.
Sometimes, a combination of outlining and pantsing is the best way to unlock creativity. Pantsing the first couple of pages and outlining when you get stuck is a valid approach to writing, as is any variation of these two techniques. Experiment and see what works for you.