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  • Writer's pictureErin A. Tidwell

Basic Outlines for Pantsers

Is an outline essential? I didn’t used to think so. I used to consider myself a straight-up “pantser”, which is to say, a writer who plots by the seat of her pants. Or, more politely, writer who discovered the story while writing it and who feared being "boxed in" by an outline.

But experience is a great teacher, and one thing I’ve learned the hard way is that I’m a much better writer when I nail down a plan early on. It doesn’t have to be a very detailed plan, but it needs to be more than an opening premise and a few characters. I really need to have an idea what the ending is, and better yet, know my main character’s arc and a handful of plot points.

How I’ve gone about generating this basic outline has been different with each novel I’ve worked on. With my most recent manuscript, Water from Sand, I set out to take a premise I’d been playing with and turn it into a full-length novel using the Save the Cat! beats for structure. As I work on revisions to the full draft, I feel that this process has worked pretty well for me. The plot is full of twists and turns, frustrating setbacks, hidden secrets, and political intrigue--but unlike some other projects, it’s neither too straightforward nor too hugely complex.

If you aren’t familiar with Blake Snyder’s excellent book on outlining, Save the Cat!, you can get yourself a copy from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your favorite beloved bookstore. Google about it, and you’ll find dozens of websites and blog posts that dissect the various beats or provide sample beatsheets for popular books or movies to help you wrap your head around the beats. You’ll find dozens of sample beatsheets, too, some of which may work better for you than my beatsheet template.

I love graphic organizers and working online, so I created a colorful, editable, printable template Save the Cat! beatsheet for myself in Google slides. (It will work just fine in Powerpoint, too.) If the template appeals to you, you can download a copy for yourself below.

The only difference between my two versions is the size of the document: one prints on standards 8.5”x11” paper, and one on 11”x17” paper. You can fit more words into the latter.

The beat sheet isn’t the only tool I use for outlining, but it’s a great way to generate an overall structure for a novel before you dig into the details. The digital format makes it easy to update if your story heads off in a new and even more exciting direction as you write. I created my initial beatsheet before beginning the first draft of the novel. I updated the beat sheet after finishing the first draft to better reflect discoveries I made while drafting and my goals for the second draft. I then used the updated v2 beatsheet to begin the detailed outline that I used for refining my second draft.

I’ll blog about my favorite methods for detailed outlining on another day.


Giving credit where credit is due: My template best sheet is heavily inspired by the beautiful single-sheet template created by Tom Gowan, which you can read more about here.

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