What To Expect When You Write a Novel with No Outline

How organized and developed your thoughts are before you begin writing is a matter of personality and preference.

For all intents and purposes–leaving my upcoming, first attempt at NaNoWriMo behind–I write without an outline. As people might say, I’m a “pantser.” I’m a big believer that there’s no right or wrong way to write a novel. Outlines aren’t good or bad, as I’ve touched on before (see To Outline or Not to Outline: FLEXIBILITY’s the Key). It all depends on what works for you. What’s your style? Here are some things you can expect if you fly the seat of your pants:

  1. YOU’LL HIT SOME BLOCKS. Rather than confronting those panic-inducing, “I’m not sure where to take this” moments at the outline phase, if you write without an outline you’ll hit them during first-draft composition. Don’t worry, you can work through them with a little thought–see The Question that Breaks my Writer’s Block–but don’t think you can avoid them. In my case, just knowing I’ll confront some blocks and remembering how I’ve broken through before–this helps calm me down to tackle the problem efficiently. Give yourself some time, take it easy, and you’ll be fine. If the idea of hitting a block after you’ve written some 40,000 or 70,000 words is very distressing to you, an outline might be a better route. I have to admit it creates some added stress, hitting that block after having invested so much already in a manuscript.
  2. YOU WILL BE WONDERFULLY, BEAUTIFULLY SURPRISED. I love the thrill of discovering who my characters are so much that I’ve written four novels without outlines. It’s just…. It’s indescribable. That moment when you realize your protagonist has something inside her you never saw developing, and you see in a flash where that something will take your story, and you understand it’s SOOO much better and bigger and more exciting than what you been envisioning up to that point…. That moment is why I write.
  3. YOU’LL SHUFFLE A LOT OF SCENES AROUND. Once your first draft is completed, you’ll probably end up moving where certain scenes take place in the grand scheme of your novel. No biggie! That’s a good thing, and something you should always consider doing whether you use an outline or not.
  4. YOU’LL END UP ADDING, REWRITING, AND DELETING WHOLE SCENES AFTER YOUR FIRST DRAFT. I have to think these kinds of edits–not just polishing a draft but really reshaping it–are more common when you don’t have an outline to guide you through your initial composition, though I could be wrong. (Do you use outlines? Please let me know what your experience is with this.) I’ve never had a problem with these kind of edits in theory, and I’ve dealt with them in practice on multiple occasions, though I should admit there are times I feel really panicky looking at my notes after a read-through. When I realize how much of an overhaul I have to give my work…. It’s daunting. There are aspects of the final resolution of my plot, for instance, that I didn’t know would happen until I wrote them at the end. So I have to go back and edit in sufficient preparation for the unexpected developments. As annoying as this can be, remember you’ll be making edits whether or not you use an outline. That’s how I look at it.
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19 responses to “What To Expect When You Write a Novel with No Outline

  1. I don’t make an outline (I was literally just looking at my half page of storyline notes from my Aug Camp NaNo while trying to start my half page of storyline notes for Nov!), but I do know the basic plot. That way I don’t (so far!) get writers block or veer way way off, but the characters can still surprise and all the scenes meshing that together are fresh. I had a couple of surprises late in my last novel that I didn’t see coming, but were perfect for the story – with an outline I never would have gotten those. So I’m kind of in between, but on the pantser side of the spectrum. :o)

  2. Oh – this also keeps me from huge edits. In my 4 novels so far, I haven’t had any big edits or had to rework anything. Which is good, because I really, really dislike editing!

  3. I wrote the sequel to Imminent Danger (the book I’m self-publishing) with only the vaguest hints of an outline, and while I love what I created, I now have to go back and basically re-write the entire last third of the book. To be fair, when I wrote the first draft, I thought the ending was fine. It took several beta readers to convince me that the book would benefit from a bit more … well, plot, lol. In the original version, the characters mostly just flew around and did stuff. Now they have an actual purpose. I’m not sure what my point is. Only that I’m not looking forward to the re-writes, hahaha.

  4. I’m still trying to figure out what I like best. I’m writing my novel without an outline. Other than outlining a few chapters at a time in advance, I’m pantsing it. And I love when characters do things that I didn’t expect. But I wrote an outline for the prequel and hand-wrote it out in no time. SO much faster! But no surprises. 😦

    • That’ s so true: faster but no surprises. I find outlines freak me out too. confronting all the possibilities of where to go, all at once, it’s proven too much for me with my NaNo novel this year.

  5. I’m a pantser who wishes she was an outliner. I wrote my first book with no outline, but as I get started on its sequel, I wish I could outline it. I have taken notes on what I want from this book, but I am unable to outline each chapter. I wish I could because of my schedule, but no luck. But then again, pantsing is a lot of fun and the creativity is a wild ride!

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  8. A gr8 write-up for begininers….Its indeed a good effort for guiding the budding writers like me….Thanks fr the help…!!!!

  9. Pingback: Character-Driven: how characters determine your plot | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  10. I absolutely love this post. I too am a “pantser,” and the best part of it for me is that moment when order emerges from chaos and I say to myself, “Yes! That’s what I was trying to do all along!” A very good teacher of mine once distinguished “writing-as-delivery” from “writing-as-discovery,” and I’m definitely a fan of the “discovery” approach.

    • oh my gosh me too, Joshua! COMPLETELY. It’s why I write. I love the adventure. That’s such a wonderful comparison: discovery vs delivery.

      Thanks for dropping by! And best of luck with all your writing endeavors. I’m so happy you enjoyed the post 🙂

  11. I never wrote outlines until the latest novel I’m working on. I have kind of a love-hate relationship with outlines. I’m glad I outlined this book because I’m working on it so sporadically, I’m glad I have my thought down on paper so I can easily pick it up anytime. Other than that, I think there’s a lot of creativity that comes out when you just sit and write “pantser” style. Great post – I totally agree with your points.

  12. Pingback: AUTHORS: Trouble with a draft? When is it time to rethink your approach to a novel? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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