Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

The Outlining Debate (Or: Stephen King outlines and Ken Follett is a pantser, really)

Extremists rarely add much to any conversation. The functioning (or lack thereof) in the federal government right now is proof of that. Coming from a long line of bomb throwing (literally) revolutionaries, you’d think I would have more sympathy for radical elements. As it is, they drive me nuts. In the world of writerly discourse, there are few places those elements like to chuck their Molotov cocktails as much as the great TO OUTLINE or NOT TO OUTLINE DEBATE.

This is not unlike other arguments in this field. Like most, it has one correct answer, and, like most, that correct answer is: who gives a fuck?

Also, like many of the questions of this type, the desire to be right in the argument trumps the desire to take a sensible position with regard to the issue. That is the only reason there is a debate at all.

The simple fact is, everyone is an outliner (to an extent) and everyone is a pantser (to an extent). [Note: Pantser is the nickname for the non-outliners, since they like to ‘fly by the seat of their pants.’] Since no two authors ever do anything the same way, and there is a huge spectrum (about a 2% difference, from what I can tell) that everyone falls into. There are certainly differences. They may even affect the end product. But that still doesn’t mean there are two camps and people are in one or the other.

1)  Every writer, including Stephen King, is an outliner. Stephen King (wisely, from a marketing perspective) threw a can of gasoline on the simmering debate in his how-to book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.In that book, he famously stated that he never uses an outline. More to the point, he advised that other writers should keep from using outlines, too. After all, he’s sold a bagillion books. Today alone. Since it works so well for him, it must work.

There is, of course, a serious flaw in King’s logic. I have absolutely no trouble hopping into my car and backing out of the garage without paying attention to where the door is. I do it every day. My oldest daughter, on the other hand, managed to plow into the door within about a month of getting her license. The lesson to be learned is not that “Drivers do not need to worry about where the garage door ends,” as King would have us believe. The lesson to be learned is that, after 30 years of backing out of garages, I’ve advanced to the point that I do not have to consciously remind myself to look at the location of the door to have a full understanding of where it is in relation to the car.

I don’t back my car out of the garage without stopping to look at where the door is because it’s more fun or interesting to do it without knowing whether I’m going to hit it. Nor would my daughter be better served by paying less, instead of more, attention to the door. Following King’s logic, though, she would be.

Another famous quote often attributed incorrectly to King is that the first million words are practice. [Note: I’m not disputing that King has said that, and I don’t think he ever claimed it was his original thought – it’s just that the thought is attributed to him and it’s almost certainly not].

So let’s take a second to combine the two concepts. According to King

A)  You should be able to sit down and just write a book, starting with an idea and seeing where it will take you. (Pantsing works)


B)   You need to write about a dozen full-length novels before you have one that isn’t worth throwing away. (After writing, editing, revising, and throwing away a dozen novels that didn’t work).

Hey Steve — you know what else works when you bust your ass learning how to do it for several years of focused and determined work? Fucking everything, that’s what.

It wouldn’t have done as much to sell copies of his book about writing to put things more simply. And, let’s face it, the man is a master at knowing how to sell books — particularly through instilling a sense of mystery in things. But, if you combine the two thoughts, all you’re really left with is:

If you keep writing novels long enough, there will be a time – probably around the time you’ve written twelve or thirteen of them – that you begin to get a feel for how the story should unfold in your mind.

That’s it. No elves making books while you are sleeping, no magical muses arriving to guide you through the fog. It’s like cooking or fly-casting or sex or backing the car out of the garage. If you spend enough time focusing on a particular skill, you will be able to make utilization of that skill second nature. To pretend differently is almost delusional.

If writing “without an outline” means just sitting down and seeing what happens next, how the hell did King know to spend a whole bunch of the first part of Carrie building up to the prom? The answer is obvious. With or without a written outline, King knew he was going to have a catastrophic event at the prom. The pig blood, all of it, is in there pretty early on. So he may never have written down his outline of events, but he sure as hell had a pretty good idea where his book was going.

2)    Every writer, including Ken Follett, is a pantser. I’m picking on Follett because he was generous enough to let Al Zuckerman (his agent) use several drafts of his outlines from The Man From St. Petersburg in Zuckerman’s book Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Suffice it to say, Follett is a heavy-duty outliner. Scene by scene, his outlines tell the entire story in remarkable and structured detail. His outlines are truly impressive in and of themselves, and give a clear picture of what the book will ultimately look like. He does something interesting with them, too. He circulates them to what we would almost call beta readers – getting feedback on his characters and story arc, changing the story as indicated, and, if necessary, circulating a revised outline.

Geez, the pantser says, handcuffed to a 30-page outline. Where’s the wonder? The Joy? The discovery we all love so much when we’re writing?

I’m as guilty as the next person on that one. My happiest moments writing come when it seems as though I’m drumming my fingers while I read a story that’s appearing on my monitor. That’s when writing feels the most magical.

Let’s put it into perspective. Follett writes 1,000 page doorstops. Even conservatively saying one of his books is 600 pages long, he is “pantsing” 20 pages of conversations and fights and sex and fights about sex and conversations about fights for every page of plot he has outlined. In other words, even the most detailed outliner I can come up with is pantsing 95% of what ends up on the page.

Is there a difference? Absolutely. Some leap to the surface just by comparing the two authors’ books. King typically focuses on a “thing” or an event or a specific evil that affects a defined group of people. That is one of the great strengths of his books – taking a specific thing we are afraid of and exposing a small group of people with whom we can relate to its wrath. Follett writes sprawling epics, covering years or centuries, often playing out on a global scale from multiple points of view – books that would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to write without taking written notes on how he expects the disparate parts to come together.That said, the difference is minimal.

Even if King outlined as much as Follett does, most of his stories would require about a quarter of the outlining due to their more finite nature. His books are also about half (or less) as long. So a hyper-detailed Ken Follett-type outline of a Stephen King book would probably be about five pages long. And, while he might not want to admit it (possibly even to himself), I’m willing to bet that at least 3 or 4 of those pages are bouncing around inside King’s head by the time he’s finished writing Chapter 1.

So, what’s a writer to do? You’re on your own for that one. For the same reason I don’t want to read Ken Follett horror or a Stephen King epic about building a cathedral in the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t try to suggest how you approach that two or three percent difference that is the entire scope of “manic outliner” vs. “absolute pantser.” But it helps to understand that the difference we’re talking about is minimal. I’ll also let you know how I do it – not as a suggested guide, but more as an indication of why it seems ridiculous to me that people try to cling to either side of the spectrum.

I’ve only written two novels (one is shelved indefinitely) and I’ve now outlined my third (which went on hold almost immediately after outlining because of what are now THREE revise and resubmits telling me to change exactly the same thing). For the last two, I’ve had five or six page outlines, basically covering the narrative arc. Not all of the characters even have names, but I know how I’m introducing the characters, ratcheting up the conflict, ratcheting it up again (and again), and how it gets resolved.

Now, to be honest, I didn’t need to write the story down to have a clear idea where things are going to go. But it was nice to work through it and have a partial skeleton. One of the main benefits of said skeleton is I now have a place to hang various phrases, ideas, thoughts, insults, or anything else that pops to mind that I may want to use in the book. The outline serves almost more as a filing system for random ideas that pop to mind than a pair of handcuffs.

The outline is also fluid. In the book I have out to agents right now, my protag was supposed to have a pretty, slight, sweet, deceptively smart sister. What I got was a slight, pretty, devastatingly smart sister who cusses like a drunken longshoreman who just finished a bar fight. His fourth of the night. I love her. She’s my favorite character in the book. She was also an unplanned child, and I had to change the rest of her aspect of the novel accordingly. That doesn’t mean I’m not an outliner, it just means I know a good thing when I see it.

The bottom line: Pants all you want, but you still probably want to have an idea what’s going to happen at the prom so your characters can stock up on pig blood. Outline all you want, but if the 95% you didn’t outline starts taking you in what seems like a better direction, you might want to adjust your outline accordingly. More than anything, embrace the similarities and bounce around until you find the right balance (within that 2% difference) for you.

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13 thoughts on “The Outlining Debate (Or: Stephen King outlines and Ken Follett is a pantser, really)

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  4. Unchained on said:

    You’re missing a key point. When King wrote Carrie, or any of his other gazillion books, he wrote a first draft. Then a second. Then a third. And so on. It’s likely the pig blood wasn’t on his radar until the prom scene during his first go-round – but it showed up the second (or third) time.

    I’ve found myself at the very end of my 150K word first draft completely confounded by who and what my villain is. This late in the game. An outline MIGHT have served me in answering that question, but then, maybe not. I had an idea of how it would all end up when I started the draft 5 months ago, but as I fleshed out my story and characters and the plot, that idea was tossed in the can and something better grew organically as I wrote and now, having gone directions I never before imagined, the story is so much better than the ideas I had before I sat down to write it.

    Others swear by outlines and can’t fathom crafting a novel without one. Who cares either way? As long as a good book results, it makes no difference what’s going on in the sweatshop where the writer toils.

    • Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure I agree that’s a point I missed, though. My issue with King is his disagreement with your last point, that how a writer gets there is irrelevant, and denigration of the outlining process — a process the majority of acclaimed writers use. His advice, framed in “this process stifles creativity” terms is problematic. If he were to limit himself to saying “I’ve found, for me, this process…” I would feel quite differently about his proclamations. As it stands, he’s effectively saying “Each of last year’s Pulitzer finalists does it wrong,” which is bullshit. By the same token, Hemingway never outlined, so I’m not saying that particular group is doing it “right,” either.

      When you get to the multiple drafts question, I think you get to the point the difference between outliners and pantsers basically vanishes. The difference between an “OUTLINE” and a bare-bones first draft is, IMHO, zero (if you ignore formatting). An outliner sits down and sketches the story arc in broad strokes on an outline, and a pantser does that in a scant first draft. Then both run through again, fleshing out some points, probably discarding others. That’s really the point I’m trying to make — we all have quirks to our processes, and sometimes those even vary by project. The 2% differences are hardly worth focusing on, even if they are what draw a disproportionate amount of attention. And, as you said, “As long as a good book results, it makes no difference…”

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  6. tjbrearton on said:

    This is awesome.

  7. Pingback: Writing under pressure-when your story goes awry - Peter Rey

  8. Pingback: Outlining vs Discovering: ‘Competing’ theories on writing – Newbie Narrator

  9. #I’m sorry and I know this article is years old, but that whole comparison with your daughter was asinine. Of course she hit the garage door she had her license not even for a month, whereas you have probably had it for ten’s of years. It really makes no sense whatsoever, your situations are completely different.

    • Thanks for commenting, although the comparison you’re calling asinine–our levels of experience being different–was the point behind comparison. Her being new to driving and me having decades of experience doing it was precisely the point:

      The lesson to be learned is not that “Drivers do not need to worry about where the garage door ends,” as King would have us believe. The lesson to be learned is that, after 30 years of backing out of garages, I’ve advanced to the point that I do not have to consciously remind myself to look at the location of the door to have a full understanding of where it is in relation to the car.

  10. I found your comparisons on the experience of yourself and your daughter helpful. Even if you read some of the things Dean Wesley Smith says about pantsing – he is a self proclaimed pantser – he still says practice will teach you what to write, and when to write it, so you build a story that follows the established flow of a story.

    Beginning, Middle, Climax, End. Nobody should expect to pants a novel and get it right the first time.

    He talks about educating yourself on the craft, and pantsing your novel using your knowledge of story to guide you while you write the novel.

    His website is very helpful to pansters and outliners.

    deanweslysmith.com if anybody wants to read more.

    • Thanks for your comment. My current project is a memoir, which is a whole other beast on this score. It’s 18 months of my own life, I was involved in a long-distance romance with my then writing partner in Africa and we were chatting for hours a day–meaning I basically have comprehensive notes about every day of my life. I obviously know the beginning, middle, and end of the story heading in, and find myself outlining chapter-by-chapter, so each one tells a story. I’ve never (and will never again) written a book this way, it just happens to be the best way for this particular book.

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