OUTLINE YOUR STORY: From a “Panster” Point of View


Are you a “plotter” or a pantster?”

From the time I first decided to write a novel, I knew I was a pantster. This, of course, is the word used to describe writers who write “by the seat of their pants,” rather than meticulously  planning out every detail before typing Chapter 1. It’s not like you have a choice. At least, I know I didn’t. I couldn’t possibly be a plotter, planning out the whole story because I had no idea what I was going to write. Okay. I knew it would be about the LeBlanc family and I had done a lot of research about the Acadians and what happened during the deportation, but that was about it. If I had to plan out the entire story first, I would never have gotten to Chapter One.


By the time I had two historical novels published, I decided my process needed a little tweaking. For one thing, the novels took too long to write AND I did an inordinate amount of rewriting. There had to be, I decided, a more streamline approach. I’ve tried outlines. In fact, there is a really cool Snowflake Method of outlining a novel by Randy Ingermanson. Check out the link. There’s a lot of valuable information here on outlining a novel and is one of the best sources I’ve found.

But, if like me, you are a confirmed “pantster” perhaps there is a more flexible plan.

That flexible plan is called the story structure. You can’t simply write a lot of scenes and hope that they will turn into a novel. The scenes need to fit into the story structure. The common structure is the Three Act Structure. So, basically, your beginning, middle and end, otherwise known as the Set-up, the Confrontation and the Resolution.

Using structure, unlike an outline, gives a rough map to follow. It allows for as much creativity and inspiration as you like but it gives you some boundaries to guide us and keep us focused. Without this, it’s easy to wander around in a trial-and-error kind of mode that leads to a ton of rewriting. In my previous post about outlining, I mentioned Stephen King and how he prefers NOT outlining. BUT, here’s the thing. Maybe we haven’t read as many books as Mr. King or written as many novels. Obviously his process works for him. I don’t think many writers are in a position to question his success! I only know that I need some structure in which to organize my creativity or I am wandering around in the desert for far too long!

The Three Act Structure in a Nutshell


Introduce your character, set her up in her ordinary world and then comes the inciting incident. The inciting incident is what causes the rest of the story to happen. In Anything But Here, my current project, Lily is blown out of her comfortable, predictable life by a tragic accident. The inciting incident that sets up the rest of the story, is when she decides to run away to Ottawa to find a grandmother she barely knows. Without this escape to Ottawa, none of the rest of the story will happen. Having not faced any life decisions prior to the accident, she now finds herself in situations where she needs to make decisions on her own. These choices set up the conflict(s) that arise.


In the middle, the second act, there is a lot of conflict. The main character does not yet possess the necessary skills to be successful in ACT III. In Act II, Lily meets many challenges which cause her to grow and change as she struggles and fails along the way. Each of these mini- crises are temporarily resolved, leading up to the big crisis of the climax. The main character’s fatal flaw will get her into trouble here as she works toward the all important midpoint scene. The midpoint is a reversal of how the character sees the world. The midpoint will set up a series of events that lead up to the climax. In fact, this midpoint is so important that James Scott Bell has written an entire novel writing approach around beginning to write your novel at that point. It makes sense. If you understand what takes place at that reversal, you’ll know what you need to lead up to it and how you will resolve it in the end. In Anywhere But Here, this reversal thing happens later in ACT II. Definitely not at the actual half way point of the story. That’s okay. I’m a pantster. I’m not checking out the exact word count to determine what should happen next. The main thing is you don’t want your story to sag in the middle. When you find there is a saggy spot you have to kick it up a notch. Make sure there is some action/conflict to keep your reader’s interested. So, the mirror moment as it is sometimes called, happens when Lily realizes that her passion is actually composing. It’s the moment when she sees herself as a musician separate from who she was with her mother. Her way of honouring all of her mother’s training will be not as a performer like her mother. This decision plays a significant role in the resolution at the end of the novel.


In the final act, the main character has to dig deep and put into practice all that she has learned and outwit the antagonist. In my novel Anywhere But Here, Lily has gained confidence in her ability to survive without her mother. She realizes what is important to her and what that means with respect to her music. Wanting to exert her new-found independence, Lily makes some important decisions, only to find them vetoed by her father.

The resolution happens when Lily is able to delve into this newly developed maturity, to compromise with her father which begins the healing that they both are in desperate need of and is the start of their new normal. Lily will never get her mother back to help her live her life and to make decisions for her, but she does have the love and support of a caring father and that, Lily decides, is pretty special.

I know. Probably not the “outline” advice you were expecting, but for me, this is the best of both worlds. You can get the key parts in, develop a bit of a road map and then let your well-developed multi-dimensional characters do the rest!


  1. Write a premise statement (or two) which states succinctly tells the underlying idea that your plot is built on. For example: This story is about Lily, who has recently lost her mother in a tragic accident and is trying to figure out who she is and how to move forward without her mother’s constant guidance and direction. In the subplot, Lily discovers a closely guarded secret which angers and confuses her in this quest to find herself, but in the end provides unforeseen rewards, and contributes to the healing process.
  2. Write a few sentences for each of the three acts of your story arc. With a skeleton structure in place, you can be as creative as you want, following your characters wherever they take you, but you’ll at least know the general direction you’re heading and be aware of some important plot points so that you don’t spend several years wandering in the wilderness!


Published by Lois Donovan

Author of historical time travels, THE JOURNAL and WINDS OF L'ACADIE, Lois is in demand as a speaker/presenter at literary conferences and young writers' conferences and teachers conventions. Lois grew up primarily in Riverview, New Brunswick, but has called Calgary home for many years. Currently, Lois enjoys life in Calgary with her husband, daughter, son and daughter-in-law.

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