Plotters versus Pantsers. If you don’t get the reference, there is an ongoing debate among writers whether it’s better to outline your novel first (i.e., “to plot”) or to just start writing by “the seat of your pants.” In Libbie Hawkers excellent short book, Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing, she makes a compelling case why we should all do some basic outlining for our fiction, which will both improve the quality of the storytelling and speed up our writing time. This is one of the better “how to write fiction” books I’ve read and I suggest you buy a copy for yourself. Below are some key concepts that I found helpful.
Character change is of course central to all storytelling, but Hawker really made me see the importance of building the other elements of your story based on this. She writes, “Make your protagonist flawed in a serious, big, scary, potentially life-wrecking way. When you start with a badly flawed character, the arc will be all about correcting that flaw…” And, “Your character’s flaw will dictate the inciting event, the antagonist, the ally, and the “false starts” he makes at bettering himself.”
Hawker suggests starting with the highest level of story outline. This example is from one of her own novels:
- Main character: Pocahontas, a Native girl of the Powhatan tribe living in 1607.
- External goal: To become a female chieftain and rule over her own tribe.
- Antagonist: Tribe leaders (first her father, Powhatan— later in the story, her uncle.)
- Plot Headings (SEE BELOW)
- End: Has given up on all ambitions. Sacrificing for her people. Ambiguous. Flaw: Too driven by ambition. She steps on others in her attempts to attain glory. Ally: Matachanna, Pocahontas’s beloved half-sister. Theme: Exploring three different ways people might respond to a cultural clash.
Flaw: Too driven by ambition. She steps on others in her attempts to attain glory.
Ally: Matachanna, Pocahontas’s beloved half-sister.
Theme: Exploring three different ways people might respond to a cultural clash.
Hawker then writes notes for 26 important plot points. The plot points are (without her story notes):
- Opening Scene
- Inciting Event
- Character Realizes External Goal
- Display of Flaw
- Drive for Goal
- Antagonist Revealed
- Goal Thwarted
- Revisiting Flaw
- Repeat the cycle: Drive for New Goal, Antagonist Action, Thwarted several times
- Ally aids or gives advice that finally changes character
- Girding the Loins
- Death (of character flaw)
- Outcome (new world)
The next step in the outline would be to go back and write “beats” for all the plot points. Beats are just “telling” what is going to happen. In the first draft, you would convert the “tells” to “shows”.
Hawker also explains that the single most important element of “page turners” is pacing. A well-paced book will be read even if the characters are a bit two-dimensional or the dialog lacking. And pacing is all about making sure every single scene is like a mini-story: someone wants something, they are opposed, and there is an outcome.
To get much more detail about how to craft an outline, plus insights into using “cymbal crashes”, outlining for multiple characters, and much much more, check out Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker