How A Pantser Outlines: My Method

by Molly Greene, @mollygreene

READY​I’m a panster at heart. But there’s no denying that outlining does help an author write faster, so I do a bit of it before each book. Outlining helps. I have to backtrack less, revise less, and it gives me an opportunity to think up cool scenes I might have otherwise missed. Bottom line, it increases productivity. As a matter of fact, I am working on my next book, working title Memory of Hours, while my current mss is with beta readers. So it’s a perfect time to describe my method – not just outlining, but the method I use to I establish a plot and develop it.

And the plot thickens …

I maintain a generic folder in in DropBox that I add to as much as possible, filled with articles I’ve found about strange and interesting real-life happenings and incidents, ways to make bombs, poison people, expensive treasures that are missing, odd murders, bizarre events. Sue Coletta’s 60 ways to murder your characters is an excellent example of the neat stuff my folder contains. I refer to these gems when I start a new book outline because they stimulate ideas. They’re a springboard. They make the creative juices flow. Here’s how and where I find these plot ideas.

Begin with a concept

I always start with a single plot element​, something that has grabbed my attention. Before Lock the Cellar Door, I read an article online about a teenage boy’s skeleton found in an unmarked grave in the basement of a seventeenth century house on the East Coast. Cool beans. My plot developed from there.

Once I have an idea for a book – however brief – I create a new folder and name it the project’s working title. Inside, I create three more folders – 1) MSS, 2) Cover, and 3) Resources (this is where I keep my research).

I LOVE to begin work with a series of images that will someday – hopefully – become the cover. A name and cover image helps me focus. I find my images on Depositphotos, Dreamstime, and Big Stock.

Flesh out the main character

Whenever the mood strikes me, I open a Word doc and do a stream-of-consciousness sort of description of the main character (Gen’s new client) by answering questions such as, How does s/he meet Gen? What does s/he look like? What is their demeanor? What’s their secret and their goal – does it have to do with the actual problem? How will s/he change over the course of the story? How will Gen change as a result of meeting him or her?

I also decide What does s/he know/ have expertise in? This leads to tons of Googling. For instance, Amanda in Swindle Town knew about wine, so I got to learn about wine and corks, too. I’m considering giving my current character OCD to account for her obsession with the minutia of her life, so, of course, I’ll learn all about OCD.

I also ask myself what I want Gen to learn in this book. In Cellar, she learned to shoot a gun. In Swindle Town, self defense.

List potential scenes

Answering all this will determine a certain amount of the book’s content. So, then I begin a list of out-of-order scenes – in a single line description – that must happen to reveal the answers to these questions. Then I add the scenes I want to write to move Mack and Gen’s (my main series characters) relationship forward, plus which friends will make an appearance. More questions for me – will Mack reveal more about his past? How will Gen react, and how will it impact their relationship?

I don’t try to establish every detail, as I trust my imagination enough at this point to resolve sticky plot problems along the way, often things I never coulda/woulda thought up at the outlining stage. So I dive in and let ‘er rip, adding to my scene descriptions as I go.

Believe it or not, driving in the car often helps me put it all together. It’s half an hour on a rural two-lane road from my home to the nearest shopping in any direction, and these drives are conducive to developing ideas. I have a small digital tape recorder in my glove box, and I use it – you can also use your phone – to record my flashes of brilliance (lol!).

Goal: A brief 35 chapter outline

And, as I work through it all, the order in which all this happens begins to make sense. Some of it is obvious, some not so much. I shoot for 68k-70k words in a first draft, so I try to settle on 35 scene/chapter ideas that will, hopefully, then become 35 chapters of 2k each. Trust me, they never do. Some get pitched, some don’t work, some ideas are too short for 2k, some are too complicated to fit in a mere 2k words. And that’s okay. What this DOES help me do is to be sure each idea will move the plot – or Gen and Mack’s relationship – forward. If it doesn’t, the idea doesn’t get included. That really, really works for me.

… with plot points/beats

This method also helps me define the chapters where I’ll be writing climax, debrief, wrap-up and conclusion. In other words, plot points and structure, which I have been lax about in the past and have warned myself to stick to. I have basics “rules” for my books. One is that all characters, motives, goals, locations are in place by 20k words, or (around) Chapter Ten. This will not apply, of course, if you’re introducing a surprise character.

I’ve written about my mss method before: I use Word. Each chapter is written in a separate doc. Once I begin to write, I keep track of chapter content, timeline, and word count in an Excel file. I also use this file to make notes about places to go back and add clues – say, in a conversation between Gen and somebody in a position to drop a clue. Clues that I don’t know yet. This makes it easier to track as the plot develops. Then, when I’m ready, Word neatly tucks them all together into a single doc.

What I know going in

  • I will NOT stick to my outline. Characters will think, do, and say marvelous things that trump the outline, and I will go with these detours 99.9% of the time.
  • I try to have an idea how it will end, but I often do not stick to it.
  • My basic writing goal is only – really! – 1,000 words per day. That means I have cobbled together the first rough draft in 70 days. Sometimes this actually happens.
  • I write faster in the colder months, slower when it’s hot. I’ve written long enough now that I see this is true, and it helps me manage my expectations.
  • I write in the morning, and every afternoon and/or evening I conjure up the scene I will write the next day.

The truth is, some books flow and some struggle to be born, with or without an outline. I’ve done it both ways. The books that challenge me benefit from an outline, and the ones that race to get out of me never really needed one.

What about you – do you outline, and if so, to what degree? Leave a comment and share!

Additional Resources: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula, How to Craft a Page-Turning Plot, and Russell Blake’s system, Outlining made simple.

All original content by Molly Greene is copyright protected – did you enjoy the article? You can show your support by checking out Molly’s Amazon Author Page – and hey, buy a book while you’re there! Or, subscribe to this blog and you’ll never miss the weekly posts. Your email will NOT be sold, shared, abused, or rented – that’s a promise. If you’re not already, follow @mollygreene on Twitter. Mwah! Thank you so much.

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48 Responses to How A Pantser Outlines: My Method

  1. Charles Ray November 16, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    Sounds like a good way to plot without being anal retentive about it. You’re a bit more detailed than I am, but this is close to the way I do my ‘pantsing’ as well. Great information, thanks for sharing.

    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

      Thanks Charles – it is a pretty vague way, but it works for me. FYI, I’ve been studying novel structure lately and it makes my head hurt. Argggh!

  2. Marla Madison November 16, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    Good article. I’m a pantser too, who has finally had to admit I need to some outlining. I’ve never written chapters as separate documents.
    Question: How does WORD combine all of your separate documents onto one?? Please let me know, thanks.

    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

      Hi Marla – here’s how, in Word 2010:
      1) NUMBER all your ind word doc chapters in order in the file titles.
      2) Open a new Word doc.
      3) Go to “Insert” > click on menu tab to the right of “Object” > click on “Text from file”
      4) Browse & highlight all your chapters, then click “Insert”
      5) Save the file.

      • Marla Madison November 16, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

        I use word 2008 for MAC, but there should be a way using your steps. Will give it a try.

        • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 2:54 pm #

          My standard suggestion: Google it!!

  3. Kim Wenzler November 16, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    Hi Molly,

    I think I do it backwards. I write the first draft, then write a short summary of each chapter on index cards and post them to a board. This allows me to see the story at a glance and find the holes.
    I love hearing different authors’ methods of writing. Thanks for sharing!

    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

      My pleasure, Kim! You might try the Excel file method, and keep a running summary of each chap as you go. But you don’t need my advice – you’re doing great!!

  4. Jackie Haugh November 16, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

    Hi Molly,

    I’ve been plotting out my next book by scenes (who drives it, beginning, middle, end, the conflict, then turning point). By thinking this through before I write, I know exactly how it should flow, thus taking me less time. I like to keep it all organized with

    Thanks for all your great idea.

    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 3:02 pm #

      Hi Jackie …. you’re no pantser 🙂 I applaud your discipline, organization, and diligence!

  5. Rachel Berros November 16, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    This is basically how I do it. Although I have used OneNote with a new page for each chapter, it helps me multitask, ie dictating into my phone while driving, working on my tablet, or home computer. But it is a hassle to get it into Word later. And I cannot stand to edit on OneNote. I’ve tried Word online to cross machines, but it can never keep up with my typing speed! Lol.
    But I have learned that having this basic outline does really speed up the process, and yes, my ending is never what I completely expected.
    The biggest difference between our processes, is that now I use Word, type everything in one document, and use the comment section to make notes. I put character’s names, physical descriptions, big reveals, plot twist points, chapters, etc. as separate comments. Then I can review them as needed. And quickly find them. I also add a link in the header to jump to my outline from anywhere in the piece in case I need to reference it.
    Thanks for the post, it was fun to read that someone else works like me. 🙂

    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

      You see? We’re all more alike than we are different. You could try keeping your book files in Dropbox, that way you can access the same file on different machines – that’s what I do. Cheers!

  6. Jennifer Jennings November 16, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

    Hi Molly,

    I do the same thing as you. Even when i have a detailed outline, though, I always end up changing it. Since my novellas are only around 40,000 words, I do best with a very loose outline.

    Great article!

    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

      Thanks, Jennifer, and I change mine, too! And since I’m easily confused, I keep the details to a minimum, hahaha.

  7. Shana Gray November 16, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    Thanks Molly! This is so good. Oh, how I struggle with my wips to wrangle them into shape. This really speaks to me. Oh, and I shared on my FB page 🙂

    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

      Hahaha Shana we all struggle regardless of the method we use to wrangle them! Best to you, and thanks for the share.

  8. Susan November 16, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

    Thanks for this, Molly. I am a plotter, so I was delighted to see that your process is very similar to mine up to where you “dive in and let her rip.” That’s the point where I go on to write a one-page synopsis with everything in order, in a loose three act structure. This evolves through a few more steps into a chapter breakdown, which becomes the outline – my working blueprint for the writing. I have to say though, that my climactic third act endings remain hazy in the outline and are changed and resolved only when I actually get there.

    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 3:55 pm #

      Oh, Susan, you plotters. I wish I could join your ranks, but I doubt I’ll ever have the discipline. Patience is my weakness, perseverance is my superpower. Lol!

  9. Joy Butler November 16, 2015 at 4:39 pm #


    Very interesting blog posting. I write non-fiction books on copyright and other legal issues (the Guide Through the Legal Jungle® series). For those books, I outline, outline, outline – and then outline the outlines.

    Thanks for the insight into the fiction writing process – which from my non-fiction perspective – is a mystical process.

    I enjoy your blog!

    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

      Thanks, Joy – and yes, nonfiction is completely different, you would have to outline every detail. So you can see clearly why I am not keen on writing nonfiction. Thanks so much for your lovely comment!

  10. Jim Miller November 16, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    Hi Molly, thanks for this. I’m a bit of a Pantser with a lot of Plotter in my writing. Like you, I get an idea for a story, then pants it out in a kind of brainstorming session. From there, I’ll map out the rest of the story.

    What I really like to use to do this is Scrivener. And, I am just a Scrivener user, no affiliation with it or Literature and Latte, the developer.


    • Molly Greene November 16, 2015 at 5:05 pm #

      Hey Jim! Yes, Scrivener is a well-known and well-respected writing tool, and I actually own it. And I will admit that the learning curve put me off, and I returned to my simple Word-based process. Someday, when I have oodles of time on my hands (lol!), maybe I’ll try again. SO happy that it works for you – obviously, being a plotter and all, you’re more patient than I am.

      • Belinda Pollard November 17, 2015 at 2:48 am #

        Scrivener Instructions for Impatient People:

        1. Open Scrivener.

        2. Do the built-in tutorial until you get tired of it (somewhere between 10 minutes and 2 hours, depending on the day and how many shiny things).

        3. Start working on your project using the limited knowledge you’ve just gained, and go back to the tutorial and/or Mr Google when you get stuck.

        This is how I did it. But I know you won’t do it!!!! hahaha

        • Molly Greene November 17, 2015 at 7:25 am #

          That’s exactly what I did!! …. never went back.

          • Carol Taylor December 8, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

            Ditto…and I thought it was just me and that my grey matter was just too dense. Great post , loved reading all the comments..must get more organised..this file my head is fit to burst…. I think Rachels comment about using Word Comments sounds good for me, I am on my first novel and my mind just boggles sometimes …. 🙂

          • Molly Greene December 8, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

            Hi Carol! The first book is actually the hardest. You’ll fall into a routine with subsequent titles and your processes will improve. Best of luck to you!!

  11. Jeanette November 16, 2015 at 10:13 pm #

    Hi Molly, I recently found your blog and subscribed and I’m so glad I did. I’ve read some of your recent posts and they have been so helpful. I’m currently self editing the draft of my first novel and I initially created a partial outline to use as a guide to drive me through the story. As I got so far in, I veered away from the outline because the characters led me in a different direction, which was fine. Afterwards, I updated my outline. Your process is very insightful. Thanks for sharing.

    • Molly Greene November 17, 2015 at 7:18 am #

      Hi Jeanette, welcome! So happy if anything I share helps. Best to you!

  12. Virginia King November 16, 2015 at 10:14 pm #

    Hi Molly, I always find it fascinating to get a sneak peek into the process of other authors. As always you’re incredibly generous with your detail. I love your pandora’s dropbox of inspiring bits and pieces.

    I’m a pantser big time. Just the thought of an outline makes me fall face forward on the keyboard with boredom! I start with one sentence that’s full of promise, like “I wake on the beach and discover I’m naked.” (first line of The Second Path). Then as I try as I write my way into knowing why, ideas pop into my head and I pop them into the manuscript without knowing where they’re headed. They niggle away until I wake up in the middle of the night because my subconscious has joined some dots (notebook by bed always). It’s serious fun (except when it isn’t).

    And I’m just starting my third mystery so have dived into Scrivener for the first time knowing if I don’t do it now I won’t do it and I must say it’s features aren’t grabbing me yet. I think my process might be a little haphazard for it.

    I wrote a guest post on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s blog called “Write What You DON’T Know” about my personal philosophy and Kate Forsyth has written about what she calls “liminal dreaming” to stimulate her imagination.

    Thanks again for an informative and stimulating post 🙂

    • Molly Greene November 17, 2015 at 7:20 am #

      Virginia, I think you explained pantsing perfectly when you said, “It’s always fun – until it isn’t.” My motto is “pants with a certain amount of direction.” Saves time and headache, keeps the good times rolling. Thank you!

  13. Kendra November 17, 2015 at 2:06 am #

    Really enjoyed learning about your process, Molly. It’s fascinating to learn how other writers create their stories. I love your idea about using a spreadsheet to keep track of places where you can later drop clues. I used a spreadsheet for my first novel (which was heavily outlined), but abandoned it for my current wip (which I’m semi-pantsing). I have to admit, the spreadsheet would save time when searching for small details! Thanks for a great article!

    • Molly Greene November 17, 2015 at 11:49 am #

      My pleasure, Kendra – that spreadsheet can be used to track lots of things. Russell Blake (link at bottom of post) uses his to track which characters are in the scene so he doesn’t go too long without having one of them make an appearance. Good stuff!

  14. Belinda Pollard November 17, 2015 at 2:41 am #

    Molly, you are my hero. I love this. I’m going to actually print it out. (I hope you don’t mind.)

    I’m a pathological pantser, and this looks like a way to possibly get myself to do a little plotting on Book 2 and save myself anguish later. I tended to paint myself into a corner writing the first novel completely off the top of my head. Sure, it came together eventually, but I think it might have been harder than it needed to be, and I don’t want to take 15 years to write Book 2. 😀

    • Molly Greene November 17, 2015 at 7:24 am #

      By all means, print it out and use the parts that can make it work for you. I thought I’d shared this w/you long ago? It’s the practice I developed after I outlined SWINDLE to the hilt, then lost the whole thing after my hard drive died. I didn’t have the heart to do it again. 🙂

      • Belinda Pollard November 18, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

        You probably did. The difference is, I’m ready to hear it now. 😀

  15. Judy Hudson November 17, 2015 at 7:32 am #

    Hi Molly, Good post, just the kind of thing I need to hear – and do – right now. I use word to and find it very easy to manipulate, but wondered what you meant by “Then, when I’m ready, Word neatly tucks them all together into a single doc.” I write in one long document using the document map sidebar to navigate the ms and have always wondered why people write each chapter separately. Isn’t it a lot of work then to string them all together, or is there away to do it without all that cutting and pasting?

    • Molly Greene November 17, 2015 at 7:42 am #

      Hi Judy, I write in separate docs because it’s so much easier to work on scenes out of order and go back & add/delete/flesh out individual chapters without manipulating a huge document. Once I have the first draft in place, Word strings them together effortlessly. Scroll up through these comments and you’ll see where I posted the instructions (for Word 2010).

  16. Dannie November 17, 2015 at 7:33 am #

    We’re of like minds. I always start with one or 2 characters and a direction. Sometime I even know the ending and work towards that. I’ve tried detail plotting and usually within a few chapters I’ve gone off track completely. I like writing without knowing all the details until they appear. It’s like reading a new book and wanting to see how it ends.

    • Molly Greene November 17, 2015 at 7:44 am #

      So true, Dannie! I’ve come up with some of my favorite secondary characters after they intruded themselves in an undetailed outline. Sometimes, though, I worry that I won’t come up with an appropriate ending … and then I do. Trust the process!

  17. Maureen Grenier November 17, 2015 at 6:01 pm #

    I love this article and all the responses it generated. I work from an outline always hoping I’ll refine the process so that all I have to do to finish is to add words like: and, but, so, then, if, when, etc. This hope has never been fulfilled, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone. However, once I begin the story, I go in the direction it leads me—my pesky characters never do what I want. I check back with my outline after every chapter to make sure I’ll remember to drop the necessary clues at some point and to remind myself of all the character’s names. I once changed the name of the villain half way through the story. So embarrassing.

    • Molly Greene November 18, 2015 at 7:57 am #

      Hahaha Maureen, I often change character’s names midway – and then fail to find and replace them all, which leaves my beta readers scratching their heads. Ah, life is good.

  18. Sue Coletta November 18, 2015 at 4:47 am #

    Aw, I’m flattered that my 60 Ways sparks ideas for your novels. Thank you for the mention! I’m a plotter. I use Excel to plan my milestones (first PP, first Pinch, etc) and then plan the mission of each scene on index cards and scribble notes all over my notebook (no one could ever make sense of it but me). Many times I don’t stick with the scene outline, though. As you say, sometimes characters have their own ideas of where the story should go. I really enjoyed reading about your process, Molly!

    • Molly Greene November 18, 2015 at 7:55 am #

      Thanks, Sue! Good to know even dedicated plotters stray from their outlines once in a while …

  19. Emily November 25, 2015 at 10:12 am #

    I’m like you: right in the middle. I do like to spend quite a bit of time brainstorming a novel before I start. I write about my characters and setting (which often leads to me writing scenes of a story I don’t even know yet). Then I try to think of the overall arc of my story. What’s the point? And from there, I plot out “stepping stone” that are far apart enough to let me pants but also close enough my story knows the general idea of where it’s going.

    • Molly Greene November 26, 2015 at 8:10 am #

      Good for you Emily – and from the sounds of it, you’re more organized than me. Thanks for sharing!

  20. Barbara Meyers December 17, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    I keep a “NOTES” file that begins when I get the idea for the book and I just keep adding to it in reverse chronological order. I am way less organized than you are! But sometimes my notes file gets pretty long. I constantly refer back to it. There’s a lot of “what ifs” and “maybes” in there. If I start writing and I’m not sure where the story is going exactly I attempt to write a synopsis. Rarely do I finish it, (then) but it usually gives me an idea of where I’m headed.

    • Molly Greene December 19, 2015 at 11:46 am #

      Thanks, Barbara, and I say do whatever works!


  1. Five Links Friday 11/20/15 | Write Good Books - November 20, 2015

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