Plotting Techniques for the Pantser

Plotting Techniques for the Pantser

Pansting Vs. Plotting

When I started getting serious about writing (i.e. finishing projects) I felt this obsessive itch to know and understand which camp I fell into: Pantser or Plotter. I’d read so many places where people claimed to be staunchly one or the other, as if they’d found the One True Way. Less frequently and less exuberantly, other writers talked about how they were a little of both.

I’m a natural pantser. I have to get my ideas down and let them flow how they may. But I often pants too long and end up with a gigantic monster of a manuscript that makes no sense.

So then I start plotting/outlining the beast. Outlining helps me organize my thoughts, but first I need written thoughts to organize.

So basically, I pants my way to a point of plotting.

I won’t try to offer any advice on how to Pants, because really, you just start writing and keep writing until you stop.

I will however talk a little about some of the outlining techniques I have used with varying degrees of success:

The Snowflake Method

This nifty little process was created by Randy Ingermanson *aka* The Snowflake Guy *aka* America’s Mad Professor of Fiction Writing. These are both terms from his own website and I had to include them here because if I was The Mad Professor of Fiction Writing I would certainly want people to know.

Anyway, The Snowflake Method is very interesting for people looking to flesh out an idea. It’s meant to take you step by step and is based on the three-act structure. I think it’s especially great if you’ve never written long-form fiction and are looking for guidance. I printed out all the steps from his website (as well as the rest of the outline techniques in this post) and stuck them in the How To Write A Novel binder I created. Yes, I created a personal reference book on how to write a book. All of the pages are in plastic page protectors. It’s enormous and awesome.

Using the Snowflake to begin a novel has never really panned out for me. I think that’s because I prefer to create chaos before order. Randy Ingermanson even says that he assumes you pretty much know what your story is about before you start the Snowflake. Where I find this method most useful is in helping me sort out a huge, meandering (product of pantsing) manuscript. It asks you questions that help you define the main idea in your novel, the big picture.

For me, the character section in the Snowflake is crucial for helping me further understand my characters and their roles and discovering whether or not they are necessary. I’ve cut numerous characters completely after running them through the questions provided in Snowflake.

Take a look and try it out, if you’re so inclined.


Author Jami Gold has a very informative website and blog for writers, and she includes downloads for some terrific Beat Sheets to help you plan and organize your novel. One is based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, another on Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering, and a third that combines the two, called The Master Beat Sheet, which is my personal fave. These three are all plot driven, but Jami also includes one based on Michael Hague’s ideas that focuses on the character’s internal journey: The Six Stage Plot Structure Beat Sheet. I love this one and use it often alongside the Master Beat Sheet.

I use these sheets as a way of filling in the gaps of a manuscript. It helps me make sure I’ve hit all the points I meant to, and to see if my story flows the way I planned or if some changes should be made. I found these sheets early on in my writing life and was so thankful to have an essential map into a foreign land. Check out her site and see if you find the sheets as helpful as I have.


Have you ever been writing and gotten yourself in a funk, and went searching the interwebs praying for someone to just tell you how to do this thing already? For someone to just plonk down a very specific and very detailed roadmap to writing a novel, to essentially take your hand and babystep you through it?

Enter the Six-Act-Two-Goal Novel.

Here’s a quote from the website that spawned it, Author Salon:

We combine Siegal’s “nine act structure – two goal” screenplay (very much like the Syd Field three act except that the “reversal” from Field’s structure becomes the “Act 5” in Siegal’s version) with the Field classic three act. The Two-Goal Structure, Siegal maintains, creates more dynamic plot tension due to the insertion of PLOT REVERSAL later in the story, and we concur with this.

In the opening of a story, the protagonist(s) are focused on a major goal begun by the first major plot point that starts the second act (in the Field model), but by the middle of the second act or later, they realize they have pursued the wrong goal. The protagonist(s) are forced to alter their course and struggle for a new, more accurate goal.

The fusion of the Siegal and Field models we outline below thus becomes a tighter six act model for the novel or narrative nonfiction.

I love this plot outline tool because it seriously goes above and beyond, and when I was first attempting to write a novel, it provided endless help with what to do. I used it, and still use it, as a learning document, a way to gain a better feel for how stories tend to move and grow and evolve. Within the guide are many examples from popular fiction/movies to show how certain tools within the outline are used. If you check out only one from this list, make it The Six-Act-Two-Goal Novel outline.


And to round things out, here’s a little gem from Chuck Wendig’s blog called The Question Mark Is Shaped Like A Hook.

Not an outline template, but I thought it’d be helpful. It’s a way of sort of forming your own outline by asking yourself questions about your story, leading yourself through the story with mystery.

A quote from the post:

Mystery is a genre, but it’s also a subtextual element that drives every great story. Every unanswered question is the rung of a ladder; every question mark is a bread crumb in a very long trail winding through the dark forest of the narrative. This is why we withhold information in stories: readers (and writers, who should also be readers) seek answers big and small. They want to know about all the big cosmic shit and all the little fiddly bits, too.


I hope you’ve found this helpful.

How do you outline? Do you pants only? Are you like me and pants first, plot later?



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