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A Look at Advanced Outlining Methods for Plotters and Pantsers

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Let’s look at two representative methods for plotters and pantsers: the Snowflake Method and the Skeleton Draft.

To lead us into the discussion, we’ll briefly touch on the topic of beat iterations. This is an important concept that will help you to be a better drafter, whether you plan your outline meticulously, or whether you prefer to sit down and let the muse inspire you.

Iterative Beats

Beats are the small components of scenes. For example, if you write a scene about a car accident, the beats might be: driver is driving along, chatting to the passenger. They argue, and the driver is distracted. They crash into the car ahead, and the passenger bangs their head because they weren’t buckled in. The driver calls an ambulance, feeling guilty and scared. The other car driver berates them. And on and on. Each sentence is a beat.

Beats can be part of a plotter’s chapter and scene structure and are extremely flexible. You can plan out the beat for each scene of each chapter before ever writing a single word of your first draft.

Or you can sketch out beats roughly before writing each scene which might suit pantsers. It’s entirely up to you. There’s no wrong or right way. 

The Snowflake Method

Developed by writer Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method focuses on adding ever more intricate layers in the same way a snowflake grows from the inside out.

In Step One, you capture your plot idea in a one-sentence summary which might include your genre, the protagonist, and the stakes.

Summarizing your own story may be one of the most difficult tasks for writers. Knocking off one hundred thousand words of a first draft seems easy compared to condensing an entire book into one sentence.

That’s why starting an outline with the absolute essence of your plot is such a great idea. You’re not too close to the story yet, and the one-sentence summary can guide you throughout the entire planning process.

Step Two expands the one-sentence summary into one paragraph. Ingermanson suggests following the Three Disaster structure to determine setup, one sentence each for the three disasters to befall your protagonist, and one sentence for the ending. The second disaster prevents the “saggy middle” problem.

Step Three looks at characters. Repeat Steps One and Two for each main character’s personal story. You might also look at their motivations, goals, conflict, and epiphanies.

Now expand each sentence of the one paragraph summary into its own paragraph to create a full page summary. This forces you to flesh out your initial ideas with more detail.

Next, you’ll create a full page description for each character. Tell the story from their point of view. This is going to be invaluable when you weave their progress into your plot outline.

You’re now at Step Six where you make the big, bold decisions. Expand each paragraph from your one-page summary to a full page. You should be left with a four to five page synopsis. It’s perfectly fine to go over your previous work and change details. This is a flexible work in progress, not set in stone.

In Step Seven, Ingermanson suggests you deepen your characters by working out their history, motivation, their foibles, their likes and dislikes. This can take up several pages per character.

In Steps Eight and Nine, you dig even deeper. Make a list of key scenes and add a paragraph synopsis, including settings, goal, and conflict.

And finally, you’re ready to type your first draft. You have enough information to move from scene to scene easily while there’s plenty of space to add subplots and find lovely surprises your characters kept from you.

Skeleton Draft

While the Snowflake Method works best for plotters, Steff Green’s Skeleton Draft is a great tool for pantsers, or gardeners, as she calls herself. Steff is an award-winning author in the Reverse Harem genre and, under her pen name Steffanie Holmes, writes a book in six weeks, using this method.

Before she begins drafting, she works out a main character, a hook to pull the reader in right from the start, a conflict, what genre she wants to write in, and how she wants her novel to end.

Then she writes her scenes, laying down lines of dialogue, bits of plot, and whatever else she feels might happen in a particular scene.

When she’s done, she has a pre-draft so rough, she says it’s laughable. Yet this is how she begins every novel. Despite the sketchy treatment, she is able to use large chunks in her finished novel, so very little of her time is wasted.

We had the pleasure of putting some questions to Steff.

How long does your process take?

Most of my books come in at 90k plus. I have a six weeks writing process: three days for the skeleton draft, two to three weeks for the first and second draft. Three weeks for the final draft. 

I’ve been using this method for over fifty books. I do struggle with continuity errors and tend to forget people’s names or eye colors. As my process develops, I’m getting better at it. Plus I have a team of beta readers and editors. 

Were you surprised by the reception of skeleton draft?

Yes, I really was. The skeleton draft was supposed to be a bonus for a bigger course. It’s the most popular non-fiction thing I’ve ever done.

How does your method differ from creating a scene summary outline?

The idea of writing a synopsis or making a spreadsheet makes me go “bleah.” I get halfway through the outline and say to myself, “I don’t want to write the book now. I already know what’s going to happen.” It just isn’t exciting any more.

When I started skeleton-drafting, I thought everyone wrote their books that way. Even if they started with an outline, I assumed they’d then move on to skeleton drafting. It was only in the last few years, I realized that no, that’s a weird thing to do. 

Here is why skeleton-drafting is different: when you sit down over three days and pour out the story, you’re giving yourself an outline that’s part of the story. Every word goes towards the final word count. If I did a traditional summary outline, I might have 2-5k words. With my method, I have 10-20k words that go towards the final book. Nothing is wasted.

Indie authors write fast, so that appealed to me. Often, we gardners are told we need to learn to outline to write faster. Actually, if you really can’t stand outlining, try skeleton-drafting. It’s an outline that works to our strengths. We discover the story while we write it. 

I found a second strength in this approach. Generally, I have an idea about a character when I start, but I don’t know them well until halfway through the book. If I were a plotter, I’d write character bios and description. Using my method, I’m not wasting time at the beginning, planning these characters. Skeleton-drafting allows me to get through the plot stuff that has to happen while I get to know my characters organically. 

Outliners often have the problem that their books are plot heavy. Their characters might feel wooden and two-dimensional because they aren’t in their characters’ heads. Whereas gardeners focus on their characters but may get lost in the plot. I combine the best of both methods.

Thanks for your time, Steff!

If you’d like to learn more, Steff Green explains her method in detail on her podcast “Rage Against the Manuscript” as well as in her course “Writing Your Skeleton Draft.”

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