Inspirational Tuesday – Writing A Novel Without An Outline

I have decided to start a weekly blog post here on my editing blog called Inspirational Mondays specifically to inspire writers because, after all, editors need writers to keep writing. Otherwise, what would we have to edit? This week’s post is on Tuesday…because Mondays are hectic and chaotic.

This week’s Inspirational tip: Write Without An Outline!

“Even as a teenager I thought outlining was counterintuitive to the writing process.” – Steven James

Are you a “pantser”? In other words, a “by the seat of the pants” writer.

By that I mean, are you a writer that writes a story without having carefully plotted it out or filled out an outline?

If you are, there is no need to worry. You are not alone, and it is possible to write a novel without outlines.

Outlining is still widely taught, but Steven James, a wise man who earned a master’s degree in storytelling and teaches writing seminars across North America, thinks that there is a better way.

In an article written for, James offers six tips to write a novel without an outline.

1. Re-evaluate what you’ve heard about story.

On this topic, James has this to say:

“Remember: What your story really needs is an orientation, a crisis or calling that disrupts normal life, relentless escalation of tension, and a satisfying climax. Along the way, you’ll need to make sure readers are compelled to empathize and connect with the main character(s), feel enough emotion to stay intrigued by the story, and gain enough insight to see the world with new eyes when they’re done.”

2. Let narrative forces rather than formulas drive your story forward.

As you write, think about how different narrative forces (escalation of tension, believability, continuity, voice, setting, and more) interact and form the story. James writes an example of the thought process:

OK, I need to escalate this chase scene—I had a foot chase before, so I can’t do that again. Maybe a helicopter chase? But will that be believable? Well, I’ll need to foreshadow that someone knows how to fly the helicopter and make it inevitable that they end up at the helicopter landing pad at this moment of the story. But does that fit in with the pace right here? Can I pull this off without relying on narrative gimmicks or coincidences?”

3. Follow rabbit trails.

It’s easy to get sidetracked, isn’t it? But those thoughts shouldn’t be ignored, James argues.

“[Rabbit trails are] inherent to the creative process. Who knows? What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that eclipses everything you previously had in mind.”

4. Write from the center of the paradox.

James calls storytelling a paradox:

“In storytelling, what will happen informs what is happening, and what is happening informs what did. You cannot know where a story needs to go until you know where it’s been, but you cannot know where it needs to have been until you know where it’s going.

It’s a paradox.

And that’s part of the fun.”

He also suggests writing a story as “an integrated whole” rather than writing a first draft for this reason.

5. Trust the fluidity of the process.

Plotting a story out entirely beforehand can lead to what James refers to as “weak” transitions between scenes. Just because a scene seems like a good idea while writing the outline does not mean that it works well within the context of the story. James encourages writers to keep digging and then warns of a real danger for plotters:

“As you learn to feel out the story by constantly exploring what would naturally happen next, you’ll find your characters acting in more believable and honest ways.

Here’s the biggest problem with writing an outline: You’ll be tempted to use it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more of that dinosaur left to uncover.”

6. Re-evaluate continuously.

James offers a lot of ideas for help with this tip:

“Reorient yourself to the context. Print out the previous 50 or 100 pages (once a week I find it helpful to do the whole novel) and read it through the eyes of a reader, not an editor. Remember, readers aren’t looking for what’s wrong with the story; they’re looking for what’s right with it. Continually ask yourself, What are readers wondering about, hoping for and expecting at this moment in the story? Then give it to them.

Draft the scene that would naturally come next. The length and breadth of the scene needs to be shaped by the narrative forces I mentioned earlier.

Go back and rework earlier scenes as needed. What you write organically will often have implications on the story you’ve already written.

Keep track of unanswered questions and unresolved problems. Review them before each read- through of your manuscript.

Come up with a system to organize your ideas as they develop. In addition to files of character descriptions, phrases, clues and so on, I have four word processing files I use to organize my thoughts: 1) Plot Questions, 2) Reminders, 3) Discarded Ideas and 4) Notes.

If you find yourself at a loss for what to write next, come up with a way to make things worse, let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening, write a scene that fulfills a promise you made earlier in the book, or work on a scene you know readers will expect based on your genre and the story you’ve told so far. When you understand the principles of good storytelling, you always have a place to start.

Move into and out of the story, big picture, small picture, focusing one day on the forest and the next day on the trees. Follow these ideas, and stories will unfold before you.”

Thank you, Mr. James, for validating all of us “pantsers” and offering logical, workable ways to write the next novel without an outline.



Filed under Inspirational Mondays

2 responses to “Inspirational Tuesday – Writing A Novel Without An Outline

  1. Very interesting post, especially the information to follow those rabbit holes!

    • I think that was my favorite tip, Flossie. Those rabbit trails can be annoying, and it’s so easy to end up way over in left field somewhere. But sometimes following that rabbit trail is the best decision you will make about a particular story.

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