To Outline or Not To Outline?

by Abigail K. Perry
published in Writing

“No sane person would think of setting out to construct a skyscraper or even a one-family home without a detailed set of plans.” – Albert Zuckerman

When Eero Saarinen built the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, he built from the ground up. In other words, he calculated extensive mathematical equations so that the arch curved just right, instead of built straight up. This was a challenge. It took time. And eventually, it created an architectural masterpiece. You can guess where I’m going with this. An outline is important before writing stories. However, there’s a catch. Outlines aren’t meant for everyone, or at least, not the same type of outlines. That’s where I come in.

Should I complete an outline before writing?

The answer is simple: Up to you. But if you want a more personal answer, I’d advise you to experiment with both. Here’s why.

  • Benefits of being a plotter: a secure plan before writing prevents plot from running wild, and content for writing every day
  • Consequences of being a plotter: you can trap yourself, feeling obligated to write your outline exactly, which could lead to a lack of freshness
  • Benefits of being a pantser: you get to run wild with your imagination, free of any pre-designed chains
  • Consequences of being a pantser: ideas can get scattered and lack cohesion, leading to an unfulfilling ending or muddled middle

As you can see, there are highs and lows for both. Let’s pull the top three exercises from James Scott Bell’s book on plot and structure, which I think do a tremendous job plantsing –a term used for people who outline, but not every single detail. Test them. Mix it up. It won’t bite; it can’t hurt!


Decide if you are a plotter, a pantser, or a mixture of both, using the outlining strategies I provide.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the benefits and consequences of outlining? Of not outlining?
  2. Why should I try both ways?
  3. Do I feel confident with my choice?


Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure – James Scott Bell

Today we’re going to discuss something a little different. I’m going to pull passages from a work on the craft of writing. Mainly, because I believe writers need to read fiction and nonfiction novels in addition to books dedicated to the writing craft, and not in place of them.

The Best of Both Outlines: Three Strategies for Balancing Outlining and Non Outlining

1) The LOCK System

What is it?

“These are the elements that give you a solid foundation for your novel. If there is one weakness in your story, it will probably be revealed here.”

What are they?

L is for LEAD – “The point here is that a strong plot starts with an interesting lead character.” This does not mean your lead needs to be 100% sympathetic, but rather compelling enough to make us care about what happens to her, someone who gives us a reason to root for them.

is for OPPOSITION – “Objective is the driving force of fiction. It generates forward motion and keeps the Lead from sitting around.” Without a want or desire, there is no reason to read the story. It is the objective that gives us a reason to root for the lead, and it is your job as the author to never, ever give it to them (until the climax, of course)!

C is for CONFRONTATION – “Opposition from characters and outside forces brings your story fully to life.” Remember that thing called tension? Opposition, or putting obstacles, including other characters, in your lead’s way builds tension in the story. It’s what makes your story exciting, something they can’t put down.

K is for KNOCKOUT – “the ending must have a knockout power.” Even if some of the story is weak, a knockout ending will leave the readers satisfied, craving for more. Figure out your knockout ending, and you have something to write towards. Something emotionally exciting, to bring your lead home.

Why they work.

Deciding on the LOCK system for your novel gives you a handle on your story’s most important elements. When all else fails, when writer’s block creeps in, lean on your LOCK system. It won’t fail you. I promise.

2) Write Your Back Cover

What is it?

“This is the marketing copy that compels a reader to buy your book. This is what you see on the back of a paperback novels in a bookstore.” But more than that, back cover is a great way to test not only your grasp of the main elements (or LOCK) working in your novel, but also potential outside perspectives on your story.

Why is this important?

By testing your back cover on readers before writing you can get a feel for what makes them excited about your idea…or not. Thus, you’re getting a chance to rework any weak links in the story before spending months (or years) on something that might not work out.

How I can write a back cover?

Check out my last blog on writing back cover for tips and tricks!

3) The Three Acts (*my personal favorite*)

What are they?

In every story there are three acts, separated by two doorways of no return.

Ask yourself, what is the inciting incident that will throw your lead into the heart of the story? Harry Potter is told he is a wizard; does he go? Prim’s name is drawn at the reaping; does Katniss sit quietly or do something about it? That decision is the first doorway. That decision gives us a reason to follow your lead into the abyss.

The second decision comes after the character’s lowest moment: when they must decide after their greatest fear comes to life, if they should go on, quit, or take a new direction.

Why is this important?

By thinking in terms of three acts, you’ll establish a clear beginning, middle, and an end. In other words, you’ll have something to work towards, and someone to follow as they work towards it. James Scott Bell sees this as a way to “track your scenes”:

Act I: Sam gets the case

Act II: Sam struggles to solve the case

Act III: Sam solves the case

Once you have this set, ask yourself: do my scenes work towards this ending in a way that creates tension? Or do I stray from the lead’s ultimate goal, do I work against what I need to establish? And if I do, how can I revise it?

Final Thoughts

Plotter or pantser, it’s important to reflect on your approach to plotting and structuring novels, and once you’ve got an idea of who you are as a writer, write confidently into the morning, day, and night.The best way to figure this out is testing strategies for both approaches. Some other ideas from James Scott Bell for outliners and not outliners include:


  • Index Card System – make scenes on index cards
  • The Headlight System
  • The Borg Outline (see JSB’s book for details)


  • Set a writing quota for yourself (hours or words/day)
  • Begin your writing by re-reading
  • One day a week, record your plot journey

Plotter or Pantser, I wish you the best of luck! And I can’t wait to hear what system works best for your, how you approach your writing day, and why!

What kind of writer are you? A plotter or a pantser or a plantser? Do you have a different approach to plotting? I’d love to hear about them! Join the discussion by using the hashtag #letstalkbooks

Abigail K. Perry is a commercial fiction writer living in Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing and film production. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College, and has worked as a creative production intern in for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales intern for Charlesbridge Publishing.

In addition to writing, Abigail plans to teach screenwriting at An Unlikely Story (the priceless local bookstore owned by Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Jeff Kinney) in Plainville, MA. This class is in development and will launch soon!

Abigail is a member of the DIY MFA street team and a loyal follower of Writer’s Digest. You can read more about her work on this website or follow her on Twitter @A_K_Perry 





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