Authors: Do you write without an outline? Need to explain what that’s like?

When you write as a pantser, which means without an outline, your writing process can be a bit touch-and-go. An author without an outline isn’t groundless–“Not all those who wander are lost,” says Tolkien–but sometimes, we do need to readjust or find our footing mid-scene.

While I like other movies about writers–“Stranger than Fiction,” “Finding Forrester,” “Shakespeare in Love”–more than “Alex and Emma,” there is one scene in “Alex and Emma” that always gets me.

It exemplifies, so perfectly, the way I write. It displays the pantser spirit in all its glory. Today, I’d thought I’d celebrate that spirit.

Just a note: “Alex and Emma” is not a good movie, but it speaks to me. I bought it ages ago and since lost my DVD, which kind of makes me sad, if only because I can’t watch the pantser scene anymore. (It’s not on YouTube! Sadness.)

But anyway, panster spirit.

Outlines? We don't need no stinkin' outlines!

Outlines? We don’t need no stinkin’ outlines!

A few quick pointers to understand my favorite scene from the movie:

  • Alex (Luke Wilson) is trying to write his second novel. He’s got a contract for it.
  • He owes money to some thugs who break his laptop to intimidate him. I’m not sure why the thugs thought this was a good idea, since Alex needs to write a novel to get money, and he needs his computer to write a novel, but anyway…
  • Alex hires Emma (Kate Hudson), a stenographer, to type up his novel as he dictates it.

The scene I love so much is when Alex dictates the first scene of his novel to Emma. It’s SOOOO spot on. Whoever wrote this script has written or tried to write a novel before. And that person did not use an outline.

Alex sets the scene:

  • It’s the 1920’s and a young man named Adam is on a train, heading to a new job.
  • He is going to tutor the children of a wealthy French widow (or maybe divorcรฉe) named Polena.
  • The man sitting next to him reveals that Polena may not be as wealthy as people say. And he explains why this is.
  • The man talking to Adam then introduces himself as Polena’s fiance as the train pulls into the station.

This is where everything gets great, because back in the real world, Emma pitches a royal fit. She is so mad that this random guy on the train, who she didn’t expect would be a somewhat major player in the novel, turns out to be Polena’s fiance. She feels that Alex made a fool of her.

More than that, she finds it horribly unrealistic that Adam would find himself sitting next to this guy. What are the chances?

Then Alex defends himself as only a pantser can. He says something along the lines of:

I didn’t realize at the beginning this guy was Polena’s fiance. But I needed someone to give Adam information about Polena’s money troubles. And then I realized, it’s a problem if Adam thinks she’s broke because she just hired him and he needs to get paid. He would take another job.

Then I thought, if I make this guy the fiance, he can promise Adam that he’ll get his salary.


I love this scene because it defines the panster way so truthfully.

Is Alex’s novel awful? Yeah. Is the movie good? Not really.

Have I had realizations about characters in the middle of drafting a scene that changed the course of where my novel was heading? Oh, most definitely.

Those moments are simultaneously the most fun, frightening, exciting, and disconcerting moments you can experience as a writer.

  • You start writing your scene, and then you recognize an issue because of maybe, oh, an offhand comment someone made. Someone else is going to react to that.
  • Then, instantaneously, you see the fix.
  • The fix further develops, changes, and adds depth to your plot and your characters.

Those moments are definitely why I write as a pantser.

In fact, I enjoy those moments so much that I continue to write as a panster, which allows me to laugh uncontrollably at a movie that, again, isn’t that great when all is said and done. I can laugh because I relate.

All I can say is, I hope Alex edited that first scene a bit. If the stranger is Polena’s fiance, then it’s feasible he and Polena’s new employee would be on the same train traveling to her estate.

But really, in the editing phase, the author knows that the stranger is going to marry Polena. So the first time Adam mentions he’s going to teach Polena’s kids, the guy should say something.

Unless he’s a manipulative, cunning kind of person. Which he doesn’t turn out to be.

Have you seen “Alex and Emma”? What did you think? What other movies about writers have you seen, and which are you favorites?

If you’re interested in reading more about outlines (or about writing with them), you can check out my posts on outlines here.

Don’t forget, either, that you can sign up to follow my blog by email if you don’t want to miss out on future posts. The box to opt in is at the top right of the page.


52 responses to “Authors: Do you write without an outline? Need to explain what that’s like?

  1. I have never seen the movie- but I am a “pantser” for life. I’m comfortable not fully knowing where I’ll end up within a story, and it always seems to work out great for me. It puts me in the position of a reader in the sense that I have no real idea what’s going to happen next, I’m just along for the ride so-to-speak.
    Great post! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I’ve experienced everything you just said. I love the joy of discovering the story as I go along, feeling my way as I uncover a new fact, some new dialogue. It can be a little scary and intimidating because I’m essentially writing blind, with little more than a vague idea of where I’m going, but I wouldn’t change it. It’s exciting and exhilarating! It’s why I love to write. I doubt I would bother if I have it all outlined. There’s no surprise for me. Wanting to see where it leads me pushes me to finish.

    And now, thanks to you, I’ll have to see this movie. Happy writing!

    • I love the description of writing blind. It’s so accurate!!! That’s a great way to sum up the adventure and the scary aspect of it all at once.

      Just be warned: Alex and Emma isn’t that great as a whole. That said, it’s kind of enjoyable, especially when you’re a writer. It’s rated PG-13 but there is a sex scene.

  3. I haven’t seen the movie and the term “pantser” makes me cringe. I just don’t like the word; which is unfortunate because your definition describes pretty much how I write, how I have always written, for better or for worse, even when I was at school and my teacher insisted that essays should be planned ahead and I wrote the “plan” after I’d finished writing the essay. I just couldn’t do it any other way. For me, planning ahead destroys the spontaneity and vitality of a story discovered as it unfolds, as it will unfold to anyone who subsequently reads it. And yes, there are detours and cul-de-sacs and anomalies that need to be cleaned up and polishing that needs to be undertaken in subsequent drafts; but writing as a “pantser”, or “organically” as others call it, is the closest an author will ever get to the way readers will discover what they have written.

    • Wow!!!! I write my fiction on the fly but I never could write a lengthy academic research paper without a plan going in. For sure. I always outlined my graduate school papers. And even my undergrad papers to a solid degree.

      I’m sorry you don’t the term panster! I always say writing organically is like being the first reader of my story. I use “pantser” because it’s fairly common, but you definitely don’t have to connect with it or use it yourself, obviously. I’ve heard of someone who calls himself a “winger.”

  4. I am most certainly classified as a “pantser.” Totally agree with several of the pros you listed, and the commentary in the comments section: Half the fun is seeing how it’s going to unfold, and if I had it all nice and sketched out beforehand, it’s just not as fun. Sure, I’ve inadvertently walled myself in on occasion, and there’s always little nagging things to mop up later on, but it’s entirely too fun to just give up on that.

    More often than being walled in though, I end up finding new – and usually better – characters and stories than what I thought was in my mind when I started writing. The ending I was picturing for my first novel was vastly different than where it actually ended up, but the people who’ve seen both prefer the “surprise” version universally. The ties between the boyfriend character and the psycho killer in one of my later works were born basically on the spot, but have a feeling of “rightness” and drive certain actions far better than his original sole motivation of wanting to bed and wed my protagonist.

    I’ve not been exposed to Alex and Emma (and, to be sadly but brutally honest, I’d probably avoid it, though the scene you described is decidedly familiar to me… XD) but two movies about writers that I adore are The Dark Half and Secret Window; both because they take a peek into the dark side of living by your imagination, and the nasty creatures – metaphorical and literal – that live in there. George Stark and John Shooter are excellent examples of a pantser giving their characters entirely too much free reign, from a certain perspective, and I love it.

    • Ooh, Secret Window is good! Really, really creepy (of course, I do believe it’s based on a King novella.)

      Secret Window is amazing!!! And I love what you say about the “rightness” and things just working themselves out…. it’s so true! Planning everything out would feel way too much like work for me.

  5. I hadn’t defined myself as a pantser, as I did write an outline before I started my WIP, but several times during the writing of the first draft, ideas came to me as to how to get from one scene to another.
    Even now as I am approaching the novel’s climax, new ideas are coming to me to make the plot more exciting, as well as a way to tie in other characters to the ending. So yes, I do believe in the inspiration that can come when you least expect it.
    Misery was one of my favourite books/movies about a writer. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Stranger Than Fiction is definitely my favorite writer-based movie. I think Misery is a close second.

  7. My work is more organic, springing up from the garden of my mind as I write. I don’t always have an outline, and when I have one, I don’t always stick to it, but I do set up timelines….after about the third chapter I’ll start getting lost without a road map. I attribute that to my old memory. I can’t stay on a timeline by the seat of my pants!

    • that’s a fantastic idea, making a “map” and a timeline as you go! you can do that and still writing organically, but have a reference of what you’ve already laid out/discovered.

      Thanks for sharing that tip…. I think it will really help me (and others) get organized. I should organize my fiction writing more. It will make things less painful later on!

  8. I did like that movie, but forgot that scene. This mentality totally resonates with me though! I’m such a pantser. I have a general outline in my head but don’t always know how I’m going to get there. It makes for a lot of editing, and a lot of fun!

  9. I tried to be a panster for my second attempt at NaNo in 2006 but it only netted me 10K words. I prefer a bit of an outline though I don’t write a complete one, just general ideas.

    Have you ever seen Nim’s Island with Jodie Foster? That’s another good story featuring a writer.

    • My outline in NaNoWriMo REALLY helped me, so I definitely get what you’re saying here. I wasn’t brave enough to try NaNo without one. That’s the only time I outlined.

      I haven’t seen Nim’s Island, but I’ve heard the title. had no clue it was about a writer! I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. I am a pantser, no doubt. I’ve tried using an outline, but I always deviate from it anyway,so why bother. I have a kind of mental outline that really tells me the beginning and ending. The in-between is the fun part. That’s where I get to go all out on my characters.

    • the inbetween part can be fun, but I tend to love the beginnings and endings more. I often have no idea how my novel is going to end: even when I think I do ahead of time. I guess even pantsers can work different. How cool!

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  12. I can definitely related to Alex in that movie. I often have things happen like that, a chance action half way through a scene often ends up being more important than I foresaw.

  13. Pingback: Authors: Do you write without an outline? Need to explain what that’s like? | A Quarter Bubble Short of Plumb

  14. This is one of the key components of the joy I feel when I write. When “the juices are flowing” and I’m working at weaving that story, and an idea comes and I run with it, seeing where it will take the story and how I can make use of it…there’s nothing like those moments. That’s a big part of the creative process for me. I actually look forward to it. I have friends who outline and that works well for them, but personally it is a joy sucker, so I just don’t do it.

    • I am the exact same way, D.V.. Those moments of juice-flowing are pretty much the reason I write and I have so much fun when I’m on a roll and the characters are figuring things out with me!

  15. Writing is a journey. You can walk, run, bike, drive or fly to your destination, depending on how far you’re going, and some people will prefer one mode of transportation over another. Some drivers like to aim their car in a random direction, step on the gas and see where the road takes them. Others like to plan out every stop they will make and when they will make it. Neither way is “wrong.”

    How much you plot ahead of time depends on what you want to accomplish with your writing. If you have nothing in particular to accomplish, then you need no plan. If you head somewhere and keep putting down one word after the other, you’ll end up somewhere, and the journey might be interesting to others. But if you want to accomplish something in particular, you need to at least know what that is so you can head in that general direction when you start out. If you go in random directions, you can find yourself ending up miles away from where you had intended to go.

    An outline is simply a tool. Some authors will use it and others won’t. Those who use it won’t use it the same way as everyone else who uses it.

    Think of an outline as a hammer. You mention a hammer and most people will think of it as a tool to drive nails. But you can also pull out nails with a (claw) hammer. You can straighten bent nails with a hammer. You can redirect an unruly nail with a hammer. You can hammer grooved boards together, not even involving nails. You can even use a hammer as a lever. In the hands of a skilled carpenter, a hammer can be used for many things that the unskilled person would not think of. It’s the same with an outline for a writer. It’s just a tool, and if you are skilled with the tool, you can do many great things with it. If you aren’t skilled with it, you might think it is only for nailing down your fiction in one place, never to be moved again, and that’s just not so.

    Even a pantser can have an idea of where she wants to go with a story and make a page of notes about what scenes are necessary to get there without filling out lots of details ahead of time. You can also write down a few notes about events that *must not happen* in the story before you start writing. *Any* notes that will give you guidance while you’re writing your story can be viewed as an outline of sorts. Thinking of an outline as a list of every scene that will be included in your story is like thinking of all hammers as sledge hammers.

    • this is FANTASTIC Michael, thanks! Everything you say about a hammer…. about using to remove as well as insert nails… so dead on.

      You really “hammer” home a point I make in my chapter on outlines in Writing for You: that you can really individualize them to make them anything you want. No two outliners outline the same way or use their outlines the same way, for sure.

  16. Pingback: Creative Writing Tip: Two ways break writer’s block by focusing on character | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  17. Just got Alex & Emma on Netflix after reading this post. You were absolutely right about that scene. All of the dictation scenes were quite good, but that first one…it was eerie. Like someone was looking into my head.

  18. Pingback: Victoria Grefner (The Crimson League) with “Do you write without an outline?” Excellent article, and following discussions… | Thomas Rydder

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