Here Be Dragons: Outlining for Discovery Writers

If the prospect of outlining a new project make you want to run away to sea, you’re not alone. While some writers swear by extensive planning, others despise it. And some aspire to plan ahead, but find themselves uninspired by the process.

The age-old split between plotters and pantsers may leave many in the latter category wondering what they’re missing. It might even make some of us feel like failures for not doing things the right way.

Well, dear readers, I’m here once again to tell you there is No Right Way. There are only the way(s) that work for you and the ways that don’t. Every writer is different and their ideal process will also be different.

Wesley of the Princess Bride says "Anyone who says differently is selling something."
And it’s probably a craft book.

If you dread outlining or if you have tried traditional planning methods only to find they stultify your creative process, this post is for you. If you’re a plotter looking to break out of a rut and experiment, you might just find something in it to inspire you, too. The pantser-friendly methods described here may help chart your story’s course while still staying true to your essential chaotic nature.

Chaos muppets unite!

So, let’s say you’re a pantser. You’re a beautiful ball of creative chaos. The most exciting part of the drafting process for you is the process of discovery.

When a new character springs fully formed onto the page and yanks your story in a different direction, that’s the best kind of magic. You build your world on the page as the story demands it. You’re a devotee of the Jason Mendoza method of solving plot problems, more than ready to blow up the whole plan, kill characters, and bring in elements out of left field to keep the story moving forward.

Jason of The Good Place says "Anytime I had a problem and I threw a Molotov cocktail, boom! Right away I had a different problem."
Sixty percent of the time it works every time!

You write the story as your readers will read it: to find out what happens.

If you clicked on this blog post, though, perhaps pantsing doesn’t always work for you. Maybe it feels like harnessing lightning in a bottle, and when inspiration doesn’t strike, you’re left high and dry waiting for a change in the weather. When you don’t have a map and don’t know the territory, getting lost can be an adventure, but it can also be a big time sink. It’s all too easy to take a wrong turn and write your way miles off track.

Trust me, I’ve been there.

Discovery writing is a blast when there’s nothing on the line. But if you’re writing professionally (say, for instance, drafting a contracted or optioned sequel with a delivery date) or hoping to up your production speed for whatever reason, there may come a day when the chaos of pantsing doesn’t cut it anymore. Agents and editors, those pesky taskmasters, tend to want synopses and pitches before the book is done.

Moira Rose says "Who has time amidst all this chaos?"
It’s me, I am the chaos.

Grudgingly, then, you set out to learn how to plot the course ahead. The only problem is that outlining is boring. It can become a cage in which creativity languishes. You might even lose interest in a story once you outline it. The excitement evaporates if you know what’s coming and how to get there. Where’s the adventure in that?

If any of this sounds like you, I’ve got you. Because if you haven’t guessed already, I’m also talking about myself here. I’ve been trying to teach myself to outline for years. Through trial and error, I’ve found some ways that worked for me. (I use spreadsheets now. GASP!)

But this post isn’t about MY way. It’s about finding a way that works for YOU. That means striking a balance between space to explore and having a compass to point you in the right direction. Where that balance lies depends on you.

Keira Knightley dressed as a pirate holds a compass and looks up toward the horizon
Not all compasses point north. But you’re not trying to find north, are you?

There’s no one right way to outline.

This may sound obvious, but for me it took some time to learn. For a while, especially early in my writing journey, I became fixated on the Right Way of doing things. It’s all too easy for my brain to take suggestions and make them into bright line rules, like never using a single adverb or writing without the verb “to be.”

Merida of Brave says "WHY AM I LIKE THIS"
Just ND Feels, probably.

Outlining was no different. I kept searching for the One True Way, the perfect answer for correctly planning a novel. When the methods oversold by craft books and writing blogs didn’t work for me, I figured I just hadn’t found The Way yet.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work like that. Every method touted as foolproof outlining advice is just whatever worked for that individual writer. Your mileage may vary. In fact, your mileage WILL vary. There is an exception to every rule, and just because someone declares a rule in an authoritative tone doesn’t make it fact.

Standing in front of a blackboard with the word "FACT" written on it, Professor Indiana Jones says "You do not follow maps to buried treasure and "X" never ever marks the spot."
He is SO full of shit in this scene.

Therefore, my first piece of advice for pantsers hoping to learn how to plan is to change your mindset. Outlining isn’t a thing you get right or wrong. It’s a tool to help you find your way.

Think of it like a treasure map. It’s ok not to know exactly where to dig, or even what treasure you’ll find in the end. Sometimes you might have a detailed diagram of exactly where you’re headed.

Indy stands on a library balcony and says "X marks the spot."

But sometimes, the map you have may be incomplete. It might even be wrong. And that’s ok. It’s part of the adventure.

Let your outline become a living document.

So you took a detour in an unexpected direction? The scene you planned doesn’t fit the way you thought it would? The plot point you outlined is, in fact, boring AF?

It’s fine. Just change your outline to match your draft.

Gimli the dwarf falls and rolls as voiceover says, "that was deliberate. It was deliberate!"
I meant to do that!

This is another lesson that probably seems obvious to some, but took me time to figure out. An outline doesn’t have to exist as a static document, unchanging from the day you lay it out. You don’t have to follow the path you’ve charted for yourself. You don’t have to be an outline originalist.

It’s like recalibrating your gps to a new route if you take a left turn instead of a right. Or it may be like making notes on the edges of an old treasure map that shows the landscape of the past.

When you get where you’re going, it might not match your expectations. Your map might show a landmark that isn’t there anymore. A jungle may have grown over the top of the spot that X marks. Maybe your princess is in another castle.

Bugs Bunny says "Hmm, I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque" as a bull chases a matador behind him.
“Why did I think a bullfighting scene would work here? I hate bullfights.”

Normalize updating your map. An outline doesn’t have to restrict exploration. You can fill it in as you go.

You can even draw the map after the fact.

The reverse outline: flip the script.

When I learned about reverse outlines during my first week of my Pitch Wars mentorship, it literally turned my concept of planning upside down. Reverse outlining doesn’t mean outlining your book from the ending to the beginning, as it might sound at first. It means writing an outline AFTER you finish the first draft.

Steve Carrell says, "Are we allowed to do that?"
Mind-blowing, am I right?

Technically, a reverse outline is a revision tool, not a drafting tool. And yes, I know I promised to talk about how to plan ahead, and I will. But I wanted to start with the least restrictive, most discovery-oriented technique first because it’s where I started.

Also, this is an outline! It just occurs in a different spot in the process. This reinforces my main point: that there is no one right way to do this.

The reverse outline was my gateway drug to planning. It improved my understanding of my own plot structure and taught me how a roadmap can provide valuable insight, even if it shows a path already taken. If you’re looking for alternate routes or a more direct road from Point A to Point B during revisions, it helps to have a record of where you’ve been.

My go-to guide for reverse outlining is Chelsea Abdullah’s excellent blog post on “finding” your story during revisions.

Know your destination: the waypoint method.

If creating a scene by scene outline seems impossible or tedious prior to beginning a first draft, don’t torture yourself trying to make one. You may not know the best path when you start. You don’t have to. But it does help to know a general heading.

Maybe you know a few important scenes, or the way you want the story to end. You just don’t exactly know how you’ll get there. Beat sheets like Save the Cat provide a potential structure for this, but you don’t even need to get as detailed as fifteen points.

If you like, you can start with just three: the beginning, the middle, and the end. If you know the inciting incident, midpoint, and resolution, you can write your way from one to the next without plotting out the exact path ahead of time. You can even plan a story from the midpoint.

Indy crouches behind a dirt pile with two companions and says "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go."
Indy gifs are just so perfect for this post.

Rather than a detailed map, this method provides a direction in which to travel. It leaves room for unexpected detours and discoveries along the way. And as noted above, if you decide to go somewhere else entirely, you haven’t sunk too much time into a map you won’t use.

This is a form of planning! Perhaps it’s better known as a variety of “plantsing,” it’s a middle road between hardcore plotting and pure pantsing. It’s exploration with a goal in mind.

The zero draft: take the pressure off.

A dark-haired woman says "We're expecting perfection" while holding her hands high to demonstrate the level she expects.
Me every time I start a brand new project.

Writers talk a lot about shitty first drafts. Personally, I struggle with this. It may sound counterintuitive given my self-identified affinity for chaos, but I’m a perfectionist. Even when discovery writing, it’s tough for me to let go of getting it right.

This means I get stuck on the little things. Transitions especially bog me down. I have gotten blocked because I don’t know exactly how characters travel from point A to point B in the story, or what transpired in the time between scene A and scene B, or some obscure unresearched fact upon which my brain insists everything else depends.

Mr. Robot looks thoughtful as a voiceover says "So much depends upon a red wheel barrow"
Does it really, though?

The zero draft releases the need to create a fully written manuscript. How you do this can vary widely. I know one writer who rather than coming up with specifics for a scene or dialogue to show conflict between the characters, will write short summaries of the interaction.

I love this because it’s easy to understand the emotional weight of the scene even without any detail.

Usually dialogue is the one mode that comes easily and quickly when I draft, so I wouldn’t use this exact method in my own writing. But I should probably learn to do this when it comes to transitions.

Sarah calls this her first draft, but this is what I mean when I think of a zero draft and I would categorize as a hybrid outline/prewriting technique. It’s not about trying to get the prose right or beautiful. It means just writing down what happens, even if it’s “they realize they forgot to do the thing for the thing.”

It’s fine! You can figure out what the things are later, in revisions. The zero draft is setting up the scaffolding for the detail work later.


The goblin method: chase the shiny.

This is clearly the method with the superior name. Its inventor, A.Z. Louise, describes it as a way of “kind of outlining a book.” It derives in part from the Snowflake Method. The Snowflake was probably the first outline structure I became familiar with, but I never got farther than the first few steps because I got bored.

Vampire Willow says "Bored now."
It’s so many steps 🙃

So when a writer friend pointed me to Louise’s Goblin Method, I immediately recognized a process I already kind of do.

The important thing about the Goblin Method is recognizing that you don’t have to have a complete outline before you start writing. Louise outlines the first act or so, then starts drafting until they “run out of outline or get bored.” Then they return to their partial outline and block out the next part.

It’s called the Goblin Method because it builds in permission to jump forward to explore the shiny things.

If, like a goblin, this pitch is so shiny you can’t resist writing some of your story, go and bang out the first chapter and come back!

A.Z. Louise

The delightful thing about outlining like a goblin is the freedom it provides. If you, like me, sometimes feel overwhelmed by the prospect of outlining a whole book or working through the lengthy Snowflake steps, you’re not failing at outlining! You’re succeeding at the Goblin Method.

The pitch deck: hype yourself up.

I personally haven’t done this one, but it’s on my list to try! If you are a visually creative person and enjoy making mood boards, or if you are all about ✨the vibes✨, a pitch deck may be an excellent tool for your planning purposes.

A pitch deck is like a mood board, only MORE SO. It’s a visual presentation that can help with setting an aesthetic or tone, worldbuilding, and character development. You can make one in Microsoft PowerPoint, Google Slides, or even Canva, which will even get you started with helpful templates. (Caveat: I’ve been informed that much of Canva is no longer free to use, which is disappointing to hear.)

Rachel Moore has a great how-to post on pitch decks. Her deck outline includes mood boards and playlists, if you’re into that (I am!) You can also include a one sentence pitch, character sketches, face claims, or fancasts, and information about the setting/world.

Actually, you can include anything that helps you! There are no rules here, since you are not pitching anyone except yourself.

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann, dressed in a Naval uniform and looking frantic, says "Hang the code and hang the rules! They're more like guidelines anyway."
As long as it gets you psyched about your project, you’re doing it right.

I find that pitching a project to myself, whether it’s as short as a blog post or as long as a novel, can really help me set a direction. As I’ve discussed here before, the one-sentence pitch is an excellent way to zero in on the hook, conflict, and stakes prior to beginning a draft. The pitch deck expands on this concept by providing visual cues and a concrete touchstone for your imagination to work with.

It’s a bit like a “story bible,” but not as exhaustive, with some flash to keep you interested. Plus, visualizing is a powerful way to build motivation toward a major goal, like finishing a novel.

The mind map: not all brains (or stories) are linear.

Here’s the thing about an outline: it assumes that story, and creativity, progresses in a linear fashion. It’s even in the name. The hoary old chestnut of the three acts, rising and falling action, beat sheets, spreadsheets, all of these methods and tools are inherently linear.

Patrick Stewart says "Love is not linear."
Few things are when you really think about it.

But not all minds work that way, and not all story structures are linear. The mind map provides a completely different, freewheeling approach to story planning.

Full disclosure: I don’t use mind maps myself. I need more structure to shape my chaos and get overwhelmed by the idea of just putting down anything anywhere. However, I can see how a non-linear process could be extremely helpful for writers who aren’t fond of outlines, so to get more insight, I reached out to my friend Keir Alekseii, who uses mind maps in story development.

For her, she told me, the mind map is a way of getting the partially formed shape of a story in her head down in visual form. She doesn’t think linearly, so mind maps make more sense than outlines. They allow her to quickly visualize the connections between story events, emotions, and layered character arcs.

My ADHD brain thinks multiple things at the same time and they are all fighting to hit the page at once…Removing the limitation of writing in order helps me organize my thoughts, because I don’t struggle to order them, I just write them as they come and then draw my connections later.

Keir Alekseii

She also pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me: that some of the South Asian story structures she works with have a nested structure or multiple side stories. A linear outline doesn’t fit those types of structure. The outline, therefore, is closely linked to traditional Western storytelling and culture. Writers working with different cultural storytelling traditions may well need a different planning tool.

Keir recommends Notion or Miro boards as mind mapping tools. If you are interested in exploring more about how to use mind maps for story planning, this article has some examples of how they can look. But again, like a pitch deck, there is no predefined format for this method. The only rules are the ones you make up.

You can do it your own way.

Aubrey Plaza, with short hair and dramatic makeup, takes a hit from a pipe, looks at the camera, and says "There are no rules"
Just to reiterate with Aubrey Plaza to make it really stick.

These are just a few methods of non-traditional story planning that I personally have come across or tried. I have no doubt there are other techniques and tricks I don’t know about. The main takeaway here is that the right way to do it is ultimately the one that works best for you, and experimenting can definitely be worth it.

Do you use anything similar to the techniques I describe here? Have a non-standard outlining method I didn’t mention? Planning on trying any of the above? I love hearing from you, so let me know in the comments!

5 thoughts on “Here Be Dragons: Outlining for Discovery Writers

  1. One I didn’t see her is pants the synopsis. I’ve done this for series where I wasn’t exactly sure how a series would go, only where it probably ended. Ironically, I have never looked at those synopses again, and yet, the drafted books followed them almost to the letter of how they appeared in my mind. So now I simply will pants a synopsis if I know it’s going to be a while before I get to write the book. It simply lets me know the story is there, fully formed, and when I’m ready, it will be too.
    Plus, there’s something I can hand in should anyone ask, “Now, have you got a plan for this book?”

    Liked by 1 person

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