For today’s post, I did something a little different. I interviewed a group of writers who consist of plotters (writers who outline) and plantsers (writers who both outline and write on the seat of their pants). Meet the first three writers, Ari, Rebekah, and Christy. (Feel free to click on their names here and in the answers below to check out their Twitter profiles.)
Tell the readers a little about yourself.
Ari Meghlen: I’m a fantasy writer and blogger, where I share tips and advice for other writers. I’m the creator and host of #TheMerryWriter designed to support the Writing Community and a Social Media Editor over at 85K Writing Challenge.
Rebekah Gwaltney: I’m a novelist working on my debut. I have 20 years of writing and world building experience, focused mainly on personal projects and D&D groups.
Christy Box: I’m a novelist and freelance writer. I’ve written for several websites, including Screen Rant and Ranker.
What genre(s) do you write?
Ari: I write mostly fantasy, both traditional and urban. However, I have written WIPs for sci-fi and crime.
Rebekah: I write primarily Sci-Fi and Fantasy, often mixing the two genres. I also write some horror and romance.
Christy: I’m currently writing a contemporary thriller, but I also write fantasy, romance, and horror.
Does this affect your outlining process?
Ari: I think because my fantasy WIPs often have multiple MCs and/or numerous subplots it can mean I need a more detailed outline to track everything. I also write mostly trilogies/series so I need to always be conscious of where the story is going in regards to the sequels.
Rebekah: Yes. My writing often involves making use of constructed worlds and consistent internal logic, which requires me to put an emphasis on technological/mechanical consistency in my stories. My outlines often have detailed notes on whatever device is used in each scene and how its presence must affect the plot.
Christy: Because thrillers require consistent tension and twists, I feel I need to outline the entire book in more detail than some plotters do to ensure there are no digression that would take away from that tense build toward the end.
Is there a specific method that you use to outline?
Ari: My outlining method mainly involves me brain dumping everything I know about the story and then marking up the biggest, most important scenes I have on “tabs” (pieces of card). I don’t outline by chapter, as I sort chapters at the very end. Instead I focus on big plot points, and then use these to fill in the transition points. Using cards allows me to move scenes around to allow for the best pacing.
Rebekah: I learned to use standard outlines to great effect in my academic writing, so I have adapted the format for my novel outlines. Chapters > Scenes > Scene notes. Beyond a few beats I need to hit, I rarely plot out the specifics of a scene in the outline.
Christy: I write the progression of the plot scene by scene for every chapter, describing each scene with a single sentence about what plot-important points need to happen in it.
How do you outline your characters?
Ari: I work any character arcs etc in as I create the main plot outlining. I make sure to mark in when and where each character is introduced to the reader and to each other (if necessary). Once I have the outline plotted, I type it up and check that the character arcs are all tied off, that nothing is missing.
Rebekah: Badly. No, not badly, but I do not tend to write down much more than a name, a descriptor, and their role within the story. Deeper character notes often happen in the main story outline as a development, conflict, or motive description. That said, my core, main cast gets a very short profile that includes a fuller physical description and background notes. Usually, however, my characters stick in my head without much outlining.
Christy: Later in the outline process, I may make a separate outline for the characters’ emotional arc so I can ensure their character development follows the same consistent path as the plot does
How do you know if an idea is the right one to write?
Ari: I can usually tell within a very short time. If the characters come to me well defined, if there is a plot idea I can work with (even if it’s just a spark) I will spend time working on it. If it’s not strong, if I have to spend a lot of time creating the characters, locations and plot then I may scribble a note and put it in my pending folder. Most of my stories come to me pretty well formed.
Rebekah: If an idea sticks with me for a week or more, I will usually give it a few pages of free-form writing to get a feel for the characters and the situation. I am searching for two things: a goal and a theme. My main character needs to connect with a motive or goal, and the story at large needs to have a purpose. What is the idea about? Pain? Isolation? Belonging? Sacrifice? Or is it just about a kid who goes on an adventure to see some dragons? Being able to put my finger on that deeper theme is the best way to know that I have something good on my hands.
Christy: If I can identify who the main character is, what they want, and what significant obstacle is standing in their way or working against them, I know I have enough bones to flesh out the story.
Any outlining advice that you’d like to give?
Ari: Give it a try. Even if you’re a pantser, try it at least once. I used to be a pantser, wrote loads, rewrote a whole lot more, didn’t finish as much as I’d like. Since I started being more organised with my ideas and scenes by outlining, I find my stories are stronger, more focused and the pacing is easier to control, as is keeping track of subplots. It’s especially good for people who write sequels and can help you keep consistent and tie off all plots/subplots. Take your time with your outline, put everything you want into it. I include descriptions, ideas for scenes even pieces of dialogue if they come to me as I’m outlining. Start with your biggest more dynamic scenes, conflicts, deaths, reveals, then build up around them. The transition pieces can come later.
Rebekah: Something that has helped me is to make separate bullet points before the outline to express broader setting, theme, or character notes. It’s the first step in orienting yourself to the project you’re setting out to start. Then as you move forward scene by scene, you have a framework with which to examine the action, and a through line to get you to the end that will do it justice.
Christy: Your outline should identify the points that move the story forward. If each point in the outline represents a new development in the plot, your story should keep moving forward at a swift pace, and you can identify any area of the story that doesn’t have enough conflict to support the plot yet.