A blog about the amazing things teenagers do, about writing for teens, books for teens, and occasional forays into my world and the world of publishing.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Panster vs Outliner--What I learned at LDStorymakers from Larry Brooks

Are you a panster or an outliner?

I admit it, I’ve always been a pantser, but after attending Larry Brooks' class on The Six Core Competencies of Storytelling at LDStorymakers I may be reforming into an outliner.

First, let me explain the difference, (at least as I see it), between a panster and an outliner.

A Pantster is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. They sit down with a concept and just write to see where it goes. Stephen King talks about this kind of writing in his book ON WRITING. His advice is to start with a situation and then write, write, write and see what comes out. (A side note, I thoroughly enjoyed ON WRITING and I feel like I learned a lot from it.)

An Outliner is someone who outlines their book from beginning to end before they write it then they follow that outline as they write.

On the surface, being a pantser seems like a very cool, very pure method of writing; sit down, open up your brain to your muse, and let the ideas flow. I remember reading a quote by Ellen Raskin, author of the WESTING GAME, she said something like this, "What fun is writing a book when you know the ending?"

Even as a panster, I can’t imagine writing a novel as complicated as the WESTING GAME or any of Stephen Kings’ novels without some kind of outline to keep the story straight. (Yes, I’ve already accepted that both of these authors are smarter than I am.)

When I started my first novel, I basically had an idea for a beginning, an idea for an end, and a few scenes in between. I sat down and let the ideas flow, and flow and flow and flow. What I ended up with was an 87,000 word “fun story,” (according to my husband), that had some elements of plot in it, but often waxed episodic. I wrote scenes and situations that I loved, but some, (maybe even many), of those scenes took the story nowhere. Several drafts later I still love my story, but I’m not sure I’ve refined it down to a basic plot yet.

Even with all my struggles, I'm glad I pantsed my first novel. I was able to get it out on paper without over thinking the process too much, I enjoyed it, and I learned a lot.

I did almost to the same thing with my third novel, the one I actually sold, BREAKING BEAUTIFUL. I started with a situation, had an ending in mind and wrote as fast and furiously as I could to get the first draft out. I revised a few times (okay a lot), queried, found an agent, and she sold the book. YAY! (Okay, not quite as easy and straightforward as all of that, but you get the idea.)

I pansted both stories, but between the time I wrote my first manuscript and the sale of BREAKING BEAUTIFUL, I had taken writing classes, read books and blogs about writing, and I had written another full manuscript. Through all of that, I learned tons about the basics of plot.

BREAKING BEAUTIFUL went through several phases of revision; with my critique group before I queried, before submission with the help of my agent, and then after it sold, with my editor. And yes, I had to kill a lot of my darlings.

When Larry Brooks said he had the formula for writing a story that would be good without rounds after round of revision, I was skeptical, but curious and hopeful enough to take his class. I’m glad I did. In a very clear way, Larry outlined six core competencies of writing, and the tools you need to create a viable story.

Here are his Six Core Competencies of Story Telling:

1. Concept

2. Character

3. Theme

4. Story Structure

5. Scene execution

6. Voice

In addition to the six core competencies, Larry talked about the tools that drive a story forward:

1. Dramatic Tension

2. Pacing

3. Vicarious Empathy

4. Inherent Interest

When I compared what he was teaching us in his class to what I had learned while revising BREAKING BEAUTIFUL, I realized something important. My critique group, and my agent, and my editor, weren’t telling me to cut things because they hated me or they didn’t understand my vision; they were telling me to cut things because they didn’t work or move the story forward. No matter how touching, no matter how incredible the writing was, (oh and some of it was incredible), no matter how much of a "darling" a particular scene was to me, if it didn’t contribute to the story, if it didn't move the plot forward, it had to go.

I took extensive notes in Larry’s class, but since he explains all of this way better than I can, I’ll refer you to his book STORY ENGINEERING and his website Storyfix.com for more information about this process.

I’m offering myself up as a guinea pig to test Larry Brook's core competencies. I will (cringe) outline my current work in progress based on what I learned from his class, his book, and his website. I’m hoping it will mean less revision, less cutting, and yes, less killing off of my “darlings.” (Maybe even before they're written.)

I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, I'm curious about how you feel about this. Are you a pantser or an outliner? A little of both? What works for you in the creative process?


  1. I attended this class too, and it was amazing! I've always been kind of a mix between a plotter and a pantser-- I have to have some things outlined ahead of time, but I pants within the outline to find the true story. But his class gave me a whole new way of thinking about things! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  2. I wish I could have gone to Larry Brooks class - but since I couldn't, I've been studying it since. GOOD STUFF!

    I'm something of a mental outliner. I can't write my outline, but I lay it out in detail in my head. I know all the major scenes before I start. Sometimes I'll write the personalities of my characters (because I'm supposed to, though I don't look at it again until revision time), but for the most part, it's all in my head.

    Which, by the way, makes for an interesting conversation when someone discovers me staring off into space, and they ask, "What are you doing?"


  3. Thank you so much for sharing this with those of us not fortunate enough to attend!
    It was very hard for me to think of my stories as a commodity that might be bought and sold instead of thinking it was one of my precious children.
    Sometimes, when editing, I find that the very scene I used as a stepping off point to design the entire plot around is the one scene that must be cut! It hurts. But I need to keep reading posts like this to reassure myself that, yet, sometimes surgery is the best option.

  4. I know exactly what you are talking about Amy. The whole idea for BREAKING BEAUTIFUL started with a scene I eventually cut. How's that for surgery?

  5. So interesting! After 2011 LDS Storymakers (I was there too) I have vowed to outline this time as well. With the same hope in mind. Less sacrifices of darlings that didn't belong in the first place. Here's to hoping it does just that! Happy writing to you; I'll be interested to hear how it goes.

  6. Thanks for the great re-cap! I loved the conference too and Larry Brooks class was eye-opening!

  7. I'm 50% Pantster and 50% Outliner, each and every time! How this happens, I don't know. If I had to guess, I'd say it goes like this: I'll wake up early one morning and jump out of bed, and just know, "This is it -- it's time to start the new project."

    Propelled by a scene idea, the opening scene if I'm lucky, I'll open a fresh document and get to work. This high lasts for about a week or two as I frantically write, and then one afternoon while re-reading what I've got so far, I'll realize the story has gotten out of control, or isn't headed in the direction I'd like. At which point I start over, take a moment to brainstorm and jot down a general plot summary.

    Sounds like the Storymakers conference was a huge success. Thanks for sharing what you learned.

  8. I like your style Sarah! That's a good way to look at it.

  9. Brilliant post, Jennifer!

    I completely pantsed my first novel and it was a train wreck. I jotted down a few notes about my second and it was better. I planned out my third, scene by scene (Hollywood storyboard style), and that? Is the one I love. So I'm a total convert to outlining, and a passionate one too.

    That said, I love the feeling of sitting down in front of a blank screen or page and having NO idea what will spring forth. And my characters still managed to catch me by surprise and hijack the story from time to time.

  10. All of my books were written in varying combinations of outlining and seat-of-my-pantsifying. I have one that was entirely organic, one that I outlined extensively. The other ten were somewhere in between.

    Like Kimberly, I find I do my best writing when I have a good overall idea of where I'm going with a story, but I love the writing process most when I'm deep in "discovery" mode.

    Such dilemmas!

    I love this recap of Larry Brooks' presentation. It was such an honor to introduce his key note address at Storymakers, and meeting him was great as well--such a friendly, down-to-earth, but inarguably professional person.

    Thanks for a great post, Jennifer.

  11. Excellent thoughts Kimberly and Sarah. I love the discovery process. I love it when one of my characters does something I didn't expect, but ultimately, writing is a craft, and there are tools that work to make it better. Being an outliner doesn't mean you're less creative. Being a pantster doesn't always mean you're all over the place. I think both work and used in combination...

    Oh, and Sarah, my kids and I sat down and watched the youtube videos from the conference. Loved them! You're so funny!

  12. I've heard many good things about Stephen King On Writing.
    I attended Larry Brooks keynote, but not his class. He seems like a very go-get-em, dynamic individual. I'm glad you got a lot from his class.

  13. I've been outlining the same series for three years. Though the basic plot is still (mostly) the same, I know that it's been a dramatic influence on my development of character and theme. The most important thing to have in mind while writing a book with any method is its theme. Otherwise it's not going to have unity if you planned it or not.

  14. Great post, Jen. I will definitely check out Larry's site. I'm a pantster, but I long to be an outliner....if only I can make my brain work that way!!