An OUTLINE is a skeleton of your book. It can be a simple list of things: this happens, then that happens, or it can be a 50,000 word long document. Some people hate them, some love them, but at some time you will probably have to produce one.

It’s the age-old debate: PLOTTERS VERSUS PANTERS.

Which are you and how does it affect your writing?

PLOTTERS are writers who believe in writing a meticulous outline. PANTERS are people who prefer to do it by the seat of their pants and make it up as they go along.

PANTERS believe that plotting stifles creativity. They prefer to allow their story to grow organically.

PLOTTERS say it doesn’t stifle creativity at all but gives you a strong framework in which to play around.

Both ways start the same with one sentence, one idea. But for PANTERS, it grows organically from there - you can start with one sentence, one idea and let it grow and flesh itself out. You can pause after every scene and ask yourself: “what would a reader expect to happen next?” Create a list of at least three directions the story might take, then discard those three and do something different. See – it can be a lot of fun to allow you mind and your characters free will – or it can be chaos.

PLOTTERS start with that same sentence but spend time forming the plot detail from it.  It means you are never lost, you never stray too far from the path and we all know it’s not the beginning or the end that’s the problem - it's the middle where all the surprises and the twists and turns happen and we get lost and chaos comes. That’s where an outline is helpful and reassuring to know where you are headed. It also has the added bonus of allowing you to jump to any part of your book and write it out of order.


Lee Child is a PANTER and proud of it. Child says he thinks of a sentence, a basic idea, and then he starts writing it. His process involves a lot of lying on the sofa, smoking and thinking. He starts each session by reading what he wrote the day before and then he decides what Reacher will be doing next. It’s not even as if Child has all the time in the world: he suffers the same deadline fear as the rest of us, but this method has never let Child down and he manages fine.

Life long PLOTTER, James Patterson, who has based his whole writing career on strong outlines, says you can still listen to your characters as you write and allow them to point to a more exciting passage of play. No one is saying you have to stick to the outline absolutely and Patterson, for all of his massive outlines, says he never knows the ending. So, he still allows for a certain amount of creativity.

I am a PLOTTER but I can see the attraction of being a PANTER, if I had an infinite amount of time.  Because my brain does not work like Lee Child’s and I will go off on a road that will multiply to ten then to a hundred different paths and I will take ten years to write what should have been accomplished in one and been better for it. The difference between Child and Patterson is that Child’s books about Reacher are character led, and for character led plots I can see it is tempting to go the organic route because the character’s journey shapes the plot to a big degree and that applies to Child’s Reacher, it’s all about him. If you are a person who writes multiple characters with multiple sub plots I can see a problem holding all that in your head at one time.

I am a PLOTTER, as I said, but I did try becoming a PANTER for Kiss &Die, my fourth and last Johnny Mann book ( for now!) and in many ways I saw the benefit of allowing characters to develop and dictate the plot but I also missed my deadline by six months and missed my publication date and the book struggled to sell without the backing of the marketing people and that was the last JM book I was asked to write! Editors like a strong outline.

Another word of warning - whether you like outlines or not you will have to get used to doing them if you want to be successful in submitting your work for publication because you are going to be asked for a two-page synopsis, a summary of the next book you have in mind to write. Believe me, every author really hates this part. We all think what? You can’t seriously expect me to write about all the twists and turns, the investigation? The characters development? In advance? But the answer is always yes because, it’s a bit like we’re always told about doing up houses to sell: other people like it to look perfect before they buy it; it has to look like they can move straight in and feel at home; editors like to know exactly how your book is going to turn out and exactly how you are planning to achieve that. But, of course, once you agree on it and the contract is yours, you don’t have to stick to the outline; you can revise it at any time and, when you get famous enough, editors will stop asking you what you intend to give them next, they will just accept it will be marvellous.

lee weeks