Tag Archive: outlines

Plotters vs Pantsers: Are We Really That Different?

Ever since I learned the terms “pantser and plotter”, I’ve identified as a plotter (someone who outlines a story before writing a manuscript). To me, sitting down to write a whole book without an outline (i.e. the pantser method) is impossible. And now it’s time for a confession: pantsers make me feel stupid. Why can’t I just sit down at my laptop and start writing a novel? Why do I have to plan first? How is it possible that people can construct complicated long-form narratives without a story map? Is it because they’re geniuses and I am not? Should I just give up now?

Then I discovered something that made me realize that pantsers and plotters are more alike than we think. This doesn’t mean we’re all “plansters” — the en vogue definition for writers who see themselves as a little bit of both methods. What I mean is we’re all doing the same thing, but we use different terminology to define it, and sometimes that leads to misunderstandings and a sh*tload of writers doubt. Let’s end that now…


So because pantsers begin by writing a manuscript, I used to think they didn’t do any story development, that the story just spilled from their magic brains fully formed. How I envied that! But that’s not exactly how it works. Every writer goes through a process of story development. We all head out into the unknown and follow that unmarked road to discover where it leads. It’s just that some record that journey in full sentences and paragraphs (first draft), others take point form notes (beat sheets), some map the route (outline) and backtrack to explore (revise), and at one point or another we all stare out the window daydreaming. Each writer is developing the story, but using different methods and calling the process different things. Pantsers call this the first draft, and the reason this made me feel stupid is because as a plotter, I picture a first draft as a readable manuscript that doesn’t need too much story editing. How do pantsers achieve that without an outline or ten?! Well, my pantser friends clarified that they don’t — their first drafts are often a mess of ideas spit onto the page that they then build, revise and edit into a novel via many subsequent drafts. See, it all comes down to terminology: a pantser’s first draft is different than a plotter’s first draft which is different than a plantser’s first draft.

Though this might be obvious to some people, for others, especially those just starting out, hearing writers use the same term to describe disparate stages of writing can be confusing and daunting. I know it was for me. And if you’re a plotter, you might beat yourself up for not “really writing.” Pantsers were always telling me to “just start writing” because they didn’t understand that I was already writing, that my outline serves the same purpose as their first draft, that we’re both getting the story out of our heads but just in different formats. And sometimes the formats aren’t even different! For example, I wrote a post last year (A Slow Writer’s Scheme to Win NaNoWriMo) where I confessed that I was not writing a fast first draft for NaNo, I was instead writing a detailed outline, and that started a conversation with some writer friends who said that my detailed outline sounded exactly like their first drafts. We were at the same stage of story development, but called it different things.

There’s a lot of chatter between novelists about whether it’s better to be a plotter or a pantser. A quick Google search reveals that the debate is endless! But I don’t think we’re all that different. Both camps develop, build, revise and edit the story, we just use different methods to execute and different terminology to define those stages.

This is all to say that the Plotter vs Pantser divide is silly and possibly harmful to a writer’s psyche. After all, I didn’t participate in NaNo for the longest time because I don’t “fast draft” first drafts. That’s pantser territory, right? To me, NaNoWriMo didn’t seem like a place for plotters and slow writers. But it can be if you change the terminology. Words are words, after all. If you’re a plotter who’s not at the first draft stage yet, count words for outlines or story development notes or whatever. Use the challenge to motivate yourself to write (that’s ultimately what it’s for) and do it. As for me, I am participating with another “detailed outline” this year. Here’s my NaNo profile. Hopefully I’ll see you there!

What do you think about the pantser vs plotter thing? Are we more alike than different?

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writers-life/plotters-vs-pantsers-are-we-really-that-different/

Outlining – Method 2: Active Beats (aka “Show Don’t Tell”)

Happy Archive Revive Day! It’s always helpful to refresh what we know about writing by digging up past posts and updating the information a bit, so here we go…


Originally posted on Oct. 7, 2013. Updated Sept. 21, 2015

I learned this method of outlining at Ryerson University. My screenwriting professor called it a Step Outline. He instructed us to write a scene-by-scene outline and ONLY describe actions, i.e. what the characters physically do. No dialogue. No narration. Like turning the sound off a movie. The test: could the audience get the gist of the story just from the characters’ actions?

The class reacted with a mix of confusion and frustration. Students insisted they needed dialogue to explain. The professor insisted they did not. Dialogue enhances a story, but it doesn’t make it. Action begets story. Characters must DO things, not just sit around and talk. He told us if a scene uses only dialogue to move the story forward, we needed to change it and use action as well. A simple example would be a character who wants to tell her roommate she’s mad at him for making their apartment an episode of Hoarders. Instead of using just words, she should throw his collection of deflated party balloons in the trash. That would get the point across nicely.

It’s the classic rule: SHOW don’t TELL. SHOW don't TELL

Not that you won’t use dialogue or narration in your story, but it’s important to realize that these only support the story. A story needs action.

Why is it stronger if the characters DO rather than just SAY? Because, generally, people don’t like to be told what to think. They like to discover, figure stuff out, and come to conclusions themselves. Therefore it’s more intriguing if your characters show their emotions/desires instead of simply telling the reader what they feel/want. At the most basic level, showing is simply more interesting. I mean, would you rather have someone tell you the ocean is beautiful, or take you scuba diving so you can see for yourself?

Still not convinced? I’ll give you 5 Reasons to Write an Active Beats Outline:

  1. To make sure you have an actual story. A story needs more than pages of clever character chatter; it needs characters who take action.

  2. To see if beats are missing. If you write down your active beats and find out the story doesn’t track, you need to add that missing action.

  3. To cut beats which don’t serve the story. Does you character do something that doesn’t move the story forward? Probably. Can it be cut? Most likely. When you distil everything down to actions, it’s easier to spot what can be edited out.

  4. To ensure the protagonist is active not passive. Is all the action done by supporting characters? Is your protagonist merely an observer? If so, maybe you need to reevaluate whose story this is or make your protagonist more active.

  5. To avoid being boring. Because no matter how clever or observant your character, he is boring if he doesn’t do something.

Just like the Basic Story Beats, the Active Beats can be used to outline your story before writing or to story edit after writing. The important thing is to use this tool to make your story as strong as possible!

More posts about Outlining/Story Editing:

Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

Basic Story Beats of The Hunger Games

How to Story Edit Using the “Save the Cat” Basic Beats

Outlining – Method 3: The Wall of Sticky Notes (aka “The Board”)

Outlining – Method 3 cont.: From Sticky Notes to Proper Scenes

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/outlining-method-2-active-beats-aka-show-dont-tell/

O is for Outlines

BLAST_OAs a screenwriter, outlines are mandatory. Not so for authors. If you’re penning a novel, it seems as if you must choose between two camps – plotter (those who outline) or pantser (those who start writing a manuscript sans outline). But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I think the vast space between these polar opposites is where most writers fit. So with that in mind, the following three tips for outlining are more like stages, moving from macro to micro in scope.

3 Stages for Writing Outlines

Tentpoles. These are crucial events in every story. I believe they’re called “tentpoles” because they give a story shape the way tentpoles structure a tent. Without tentpoles, your story (and your tent) will fall flat. Tentpoles are things like the Inciting Incident, Call to Action, Midpoint, Crisis and Resolution. Even writers who identify themselves as pantsers often have these tentpoles in mind before they begin writing. I follow this “Save the Cat Basic Beats” model to get all my tentpoles set up.

Beat Sheet. In the post noted above, I call tentpoles “basic beats” because they are the bare minimum needed. A full beat sheet, however, drafts all the little beats in between the big tentpoles. But what is a beat? It’s an action that moves the story forward. Each beat leads to the next. If you can erase a beat and not change the story, well, then, that’s not a beat. For me, the Beat Sheet is a fun game of fill-in-the-blanks, or if we want to stick with the tent metaphor, I’m filling my tent with supplies that will get me through the trip.

Scene Outline. This is the itinerary part of the camping trip. Not everyone likes this stage, and that’s okay because there’s no obligation to do it! However, some of us like to work out the fine points before hitting the road. For this step, I take the action in the beats and develop it into scenes that outline the hero’s want, conflict and change for each one. For more information, check out this handy scene checklist!

2 Examples of Outlines

There are lots of ways to outline. You can scribble notes on scrap pieces of paper. You can make flow charts. You can use Scrivener (I hear they have templates for outlining, though I haven’t checked out the program yet). You can even pin index cards to a bulletin board, like this:

The Board: I've begun plotting scenes on index cards.

The Board: I’ve begun plotting scenes on index cards.

Or if you’re J.K. Rowling, you can make a spreadsheet!


1 Link for more help

If you’re not sure why you’d ever want to outline, check out this post: 5 Reasons To Outline Your Novel.

And in case you’re just dropping in now, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

F is for False Stakes

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

J is for Juxtaposition

K is for Kittens!

L is for Laughs

M is for Midpoint

N is for Narrative

Coming up:

P is for Pinch Point

Q is for Questions

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/o-is-for-outlines/

Back to School Writing Craft Refresher


It’s September 1st! Last week I blogged about how I was getting ready for a new year. To continue that theme, this week I’m brushing up on writing craft skills I acquired last year. Because everyone knows the first week of school is all about re-remembering what you forgot over the summer…

(Click on titles to read the full posts.)

Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

It’s always good to brush up on story structure. This post delves into 15 basic beats every story needs.

Is That A Scene?

Here’s a quick and easy flowchart to see if what you wrote really is a scene! Just answer YES or NO and follow the arrows.

How To Story Edit Using the Basic Story Beats

Knowing story structure helps so much in editing! Here are 6 questions to ask about your story to identify the weak spots. Even though I wrote this list, I must constantly remind myself about #3: Have I set up a protagonist who needs to change? I have a serious problem starting off with heroines that are too capable.

How To Write A Logline

Summing up your story in one sentence is such a valuable skill. Can you remember this simple equation to create a logline?

Does Your Story Have Stakes?

As stories evolve and plots change, sometimes we writers lose sight of the stakes. Here are 6 questions to ask to make sure your story has “primal” stakes.

Alright, are you ready? I am! Bring it on, new year!

For more posts from Heather, click here.


Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/back-to-school-writing-craft-refresher/

Outlining – Method 3: The Wall of Sticky Notes (aka “The Board”)

If you’re a visual person, Outlining Method #3 is for you! I call it The Wall of Sticky Notes, because that’s how I build it. Others create a Corkboard of Cards. In the business of screenwriting, it’s simply called “The Board.”


The beginnings of my Board. I’m still filling in the holes.

As you can see, it has four lines: Act I, Act II part one, Act II part two, and Act III. This is based on Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat method, which some people say is really a four-act structure. Whatever you call it, the point is the lines should have an even amount of scenes in them.

Each sticky note or index card represents a scene. More on what a scene is in the next post; for now, we’re just going to get “stuff that happens” up on The Board.

If you did Outlining Method #1 or Outlining Method #2, you will already have stuff to put up on the board. These are likely not proper scenes yet, but that’s okay. For instance, if we use the Hunger Games Basic Beats as an example, the Catalyst is: “At the reaping, Katniss’s sister Prim’s name is picked.” Write that on a note/card and stick it on the Board. It’s not a full scene, but for now just get the main story points up there.

Also put any ideas you have about the story on The Board. If you know at some point that your protagonist needs to discover their best friend is a liar, write “Hero discovers BFF is a liar” on a note/card and put it roughly where you think that needs to happen.

Once you have all your story beats and ideas on The Board, start thinking in scenes. For example, where/when/how does your protagonist discover her BFF is a liar? Flush out the details a bit, but keep each scene on one note/card.

When you’re done, you should have around 40 cards (i.e 40 scenes), 10 in each row, give or take a card. In a screenplay, this structure is pretty strictly followed given that films need to be a certain length, but there’s more room to play in a novel. Still, you want to keep each line roughly the same length. I’ll explain why below.

The Board is a visual person’s dream and an excellent tool for any writer. It makes it easier to see the whole story (especially if you color code your plots), and in turn reveals problems you may need to fix.

5 Story Problems The Board Reveals:

1)   Holes – Are you missing stuff? Do you have two side-by-side scenes that don’t connect? For example, does your character abruptly go from being in love to breaking up with her boyfriend? You have a story hole! You’re missing the scene that shows your character falling out of love.

2)   Long Sections – Is your first line way longer than your other lines? This is quite common and is a sign that you have way too many scenes in the Set Up. Spend too much time setting up (Act I) and your readers will get impatient to start the journey (Act II).

3)   Short Sections – This is most commonly seen in the fourth line (Act III), where a writer wraps up the story too quickly without addressing all the things that were set up in Act I.

4)   Forgotten B Plots – Did you totally forget about your B Plot for ten scenes? This is easy to see if you color code your plots. Rearrange your notes/cards so your plots are more evenly spaced.

5)   Weak Turning Points – In The Board, the end of each line* is a Turning Point (i.e. a plot point that spins the story in a new direction). So make sure that these scenes are pivotal. In TV they’re often called the cliffhangers before the commercials.

  • End of line 1: Break Into 2 scene – this is the moment the hero decides to go on the journey. Make it a big deal! End of line 2: MidPoint – this is the scene where the hero thinks he’s achieved his goal but hasn’t, and stakes are raised. Make the stakes huge! End of line 3: Break Into 3 – this is the scene where the hero figures out what he needs to do to win and heads into the final battle.

So that’s the benefit of The Board – you can see these story problems more easily than scrolling through a linear document on your computer. For visual people, this way of outlining is super helpful.

Next Up from Heather… How To Turn Sticky Notes into Proper Scenes.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/outlining-method-3-the-wall-of-sticky-notes-aka-the-board/

Story Edit Using The “Save The Cat” Basic Beats

Whatever your writing process, whether you outline or dive straight into prose, there’s one step we all must do – story edit. There are innumerable things to edit in a manuscript, but let’s start with the bones of the story. After all, adding metaphors and sensory descriptions won’t matter if the story is weak.

So bring out that handy Basic Beats chart. Fill it in. Even if you used this to outline your novel, things probably changed when you were writing, so update it.

Just filling in The Basic Beats will reveal missing or flimsy story elements. Bam! You’re already editing!

Once you have all the elements, start asking questions. The first one I usually ask is: “Did this story change the protagonist’s life?” Start to answer by comparing the Opening and the Final Moment…

B6 Chart_Fotor1)   Is the protagonist we meet in the Opening different from the protagonist we see in the Final Moment? i.e. Alcoholic -> Sober. Needy -> Independent. If yes, great! If no…

2)   Is the Catalyst something that will change the protagonist’s life, and in turn change the protagonist? If not, you need a stronger Catalyst. What must happen to bust the protagonist out of her old way of being and into a new way? If the Catalyst is strong but you still don’t have a character change, the problem could be the Set Up…

3)   Have you set up a protagonist that needs to change? If the protagonist starts out perfect, she has nowhere to grow. Every first-rate protagonist has something personal to overcome. Figure out her flaw/issue and you’ll discover how she needs to change. Which leads to Theme…

4)   Do you have a Theme that the protagonist needs to learn in order to identify her flaw/issue and win in the end? If no, take a look at the Dark Night of the Soul… If yes, did they learn it? Why not? The problem might be the B-Story…

5)   Dark Night of the Soul… Why did the protagonist hit rock bottom? What personal flaws prevented her from succeeding in this story? What does she need to learn about herself to get out of this mess? Whatever it is, that’s the Theme.

6)   The B-Story character is the ally who metaphorically slaps the protagonist upside the head and points out how she’s screwing up. If your protagonist doesn’t change, maybe she just needs someone to help her realize she needs to change. Characters can’t change if they’re not forced to face their faults. And if they don’t change themselves, they can’t change their lives, resulting in an unrewarding story.

So using The Basic Beats chart to story edit allows you to easily see how everything connects. More examples… If your Finale falls a little flat, inspect your Set Up and ask yourself if you gave the hero enough problems, and if you addressed those problems in the Finale. If you don’t have a Mid Point, look to the All Is Lost moment and figure out what the opposite of that would be. If you’re missing the Debate element, check out the Set Up for conflicts that would make the protagonist pause before Breaking Into 2.

In conclusion: check the chart, cross-examine every element, and make your story stronger! That’s how to use the Basic Beats to story edit.

Next Up from Heather… Outlining – Method 2: Active Beats. Because the old adage is true: actions speak louder than words.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/story-edit-using-the-save-the-cat-basic-beats/

Basic Story Beats of The Hunger Games (based on the “Save The Cat” beat sheet)

BookCover-HungerGamesI picked HUNGER GAMES as the first novel to break down into the Basic Story Beats because I knew it had all the elements in chronological order. After all, I’d read the novel thrice and was familiar with the story. Though I was shocked to find that the Debate didn’t actually happen on the page, but rather in my mind. The Set Up was so well written that I was essentially in Katniss’s head, weighing the options for her in that split-second before she yells, “I volunteer as tribute!” Amazing.

Without further ado, The Hunger Games’ Basic Story Beats:


Element Pages Beats
Opening 1 Introduces Katniss as a caring sibling on high alert when she wakes up to find her sister Prim not in her bed. But on pg. 6 the part of Katniss that will change over the course of the series is revealed: she used to speak out against the Capitol but has since learned it’s best to say nothing. She stays silent to protect her sister.
Set-Up 1-20 Very quickly we learn about Katniss’s family (sister Prim, mom, dead dad), home (District 12), work (hunting), and friends (Gabe). Slowly, the awful tradition of the Hunger Games is revealed. All the other main characters are also introduced: The Baker, The Mayor, Madge, Effie Trinket, Haymitch.Things to be Fixed: 1) Katniss never smiles except in the woods with Gabe. 2) Katniss is not the forgiving type. 3) Even though she hunts illegally, Katniss struggles to support her family. 4) Katniss is trapped in a hopeless, dead-end life of poverty in District 12.
Theme 9 Rebellion. Gale suggests they could escape District 12 and make it on their own in the woods. Katniss won’t even entertain the idea.
Catalyst 20 At the reaping, Katniss’s sister Prim’s name is picked.
Debate none I thought there was a moment before Katniss volunteers as tribute where she wonders what’s worse – Prim dying in the Games, or Prim dying of starvation in District 12 because Katniss died in the Games and can no longer look after her. But this Debate happened in my head, probably because the Set Up is so well done that I felt Katniss’s options without her having to weigh them in the moment.
Break Into 2 21 Katniss volunteers as tribute and goes to the Hunger Games instead of Prim.
B Story 25 Peeta. Katniss wrestles with how she owes Peeta her life but she’ll have to kill him in the Hunger Games.
Fun + Games 41 Katniss and Peeta are taken to the Capitol to train for the Hunger Games.
Mid Point 148 False Victory: Surprisingly, Katniss gets the highest score in training and enters the Games with a real shot of winning. B Story: Peeta confesses he’s in love with Katniss. But is it real or just a strategy for the Games? Stakes Raised: Training is over and the Hunger Games begin. Worse, because of her high score, she’s the Careers’ #1 target.
Bad Guy Closes In 149- Tributes die, the Gamekeepers attack, the Career tributes kill. Katniss is dehydrated, burned and stung. She teams up with Rue to wipe out the Career’s supplies, but loses her hearing and Rue in the process. The Gamekeepers change the rules so that two tributes can win if they’re from the same district, so Katniss finds Peeta and risks her life to save him from dying.
All’s Lost 299 False Defeat: Katniss and Peeta are trapped and starving to death.
DKofSoul 300 Katniss knows she has to create some romance, be desirable, to get food from game sponsors.
B Story 302 Katniss follows Peeta’s lead, playing up their romance for the audience by sharing stories and feelings. It pays off and Haymitch sends them the gift of food.
Break Into 3 327 Katniss and Peeta head back to the lake for the final battle.
Finale 329 Katniss and Peeta battle all the dead tributes (who were turned into monstrous mutts). Cato is mauled almost to death, and Katniss mercifully finishes him off. But in every good finale, there is a surprise twist, and here it is: the Gamekeepers change the rules back at the last second, saying only ONE tribute can win. Peeta wants it to be Katniss, after all the Games need a victor. But Katniss realizes that means the Gamekeepers won’t let them both die, so they take out the poisonous berries to eat together… forcing the Gamekeepers to yell, “Stop!” They both win!
Final Moment  374 Katniss returns to District 12 a rebel in the Capitol government’s eyes. She fears she’s put her loved ones in danger after all.


So Katniss has changed by the end of the story: from a girl who accepts her lot in life and does not challenge Capitol rule, to a girl who strives to find solutions and challenges the Capitol’s rules.

The other thing to note at the end is that Katniss’s problems in the Set Up are resolved by the end, even though this is a series and the story will continue. For there to be closure (and not an annoyingly abrupt cliffhanger ending) those main problems have to be solved:

1)   Katniss never smiled except in the woods with Gabe… but she smiled with Rue and Peeta in the Games.

2)   Katniss is not the forgiving type… but at the end she shows mercy towards her arch enemy Cato.

3)   Even though she hunts illegally, Katniss struggles to support her family… but now that she’s won the Hunger Games they will never go hungry again.

4)   Katniss is trapped in a hopeless, dead-end life of poverty in District 12… but now she won’t live in poverty, and there’s the hint that she won’t live a dead-end life either, that she’ll be part of a rebellion that changes her whole world.

Can you see how your favourite novels have these story elements? Or how your own novel does? What if it doesn’t?

Next up from Heather… how to use The Basic Beats to story edit.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/story-elements-of-the-hunger-games-based-on-the-save-the-cat-beat-sheet/

5 Reasons to Outline Your Novel

There are writers who come up with an idea and just start writing and see where the story takes them. There are writers who mull over a story in their minds for months or years before they start writing. There are writers who write short stories and use those to create a novel.

Then there are writers who outline.

In film and TV, everybody outlines. It’s how we’re trained to write. Heck, it’s part of the paycheck! Before you are paid for that 1st draft, before you even write that script, you are paid to write an outline. Why? So everyone involved (producers, story editors, broadcasters) can read the story and make changes before the writer has labored over a script.

Now that I’m writing a novel, I don’t have to consult anyone about my story. So why do I still outline? I’ll give you 5 reasons…

#5 – Outlines encourage experimentation. In just a few paragraphs, instead of dozens of pages, I can try out different crisis moments, climaxes and endings. I admit I just wouldn’t do this if I immediately started writing prose (it would take too long), and I might miss out on some awesome ideas.

#4 – Outlines allow me to “kill my darlings.” For a conference this year I needed five pages of my novel to show fellow writers, but I had just scrapped an old idea and come up with a new one, so I hadn’t even written an outline, let alone any prose! But I whipped up a sample Chapter 1 for everyone to read. It was a hit, but I quickly realized it didn’t fit the story. However, I loved the chapter, it was my “darling” and I spent weeks trying to make it work within the story. Eventually I had to axe it. If that chapter had simply been a paragraph in an outline, I would have cut it in seconds, not weeks.

#3 – Outlines are easier to edit. Tracking character arcs, inserting backstory, identifying plot holes… it’s all easier to see, and therefore to edit, in outline format.

#2 – Outlines save me time. I can write an outline in mere weeks and tell if the story works. Much more efficient than spending months or years writing a novel only to find the story doesn’t work and I must start over.

#1 – Outlines let me focus on the writing. I write better when I don’t have to think about what needs to happen next. With an outline finished, I can concentrate on writing each scene or chapter in the most engaging, exciting, suspenseful way possible. That’s not to say I won’t deviate from the outline, things can change, but my prose flows best when I know where the story is going.

So that is why I outline. Of course, everybody has their own process – what works for me might not work for others. But who knows, if you’re not an “outliner” maybe you’ll decide to try it after reading my list.

Next Up from Heather… So you want to outline? Great! But what’s an outline? I’ll explain in my next post.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/5-reasons-to-outline-your-novel/