The Progressive Outline: How I balance my plotter and pantser tendencies.

When I first started writing at 13, I was a pantser. I’d develop an initial concept for a story, then just write – making everything up as I went.

Within a year or so, I became a plotter. I wrote extensive character sheets, deeply developed the worlds of my stories, and wrote detailed outlines that spanned not just the current novel, but series-long arcs.

In the years that followed (high school, college, MFA), I oscillated between the two approaches, navigating the benefits and challenges of both, as well as my own evolving preferences – before settling on my current method.

I call it “progressive outlining,” and it helps me do two somewhat conflicting things:

  • Create an outline for structure and direction
  • Allow my characters the freedom to organically grow, surprise me, and influence the story

The Progressive Outline

There are three parts to my outlining process:

  1. Initial preparation
  2. Creating a rough outline
  3. Incremental journeys

1. Initial Preparation

Here, I do my initial brainstorming. Starting with the original concept, I generate ideas for the setting, characters, motivations, plot points, magic systems, etc. You can spend as much time as you want in this stage, but for me, the most important things to firmly establish are:

  • Your main character (and what drives them emotionally)
  • A small, initial cast of characters
  • Any core magic or sci-fi elements
  • The opening setting of your story

Those four things are important, because they’re the foundation of the story – the launchpad, both for the writing and the outline.

2. Creating a Rough Outline

Next, I create a rough outline of the story, and I really do mean “rough.” Instead of detailing every beat of the story from beginning to end, I allow the outline to become increasingly broad and vague the further out it goes.

For example, let’s say my story is made up of three parts. The most detailed section in the outline would be Part 1; Part 2 would be pretty broad; and Part 3 would have just a few high-level bullet points.

In all those sections, however, I try to mark key turning points for the characters and the plot, even if I don’t know exactly what will happen. For example, I might say, “Our characters clash at the festival,” or, “A friend will somehow betray the main character’s trust, hurting their relationship.“

The point of this outline is to provide long-view guidance wherever I am in the story. However, I keep things relatively vague, because I like to delay making specific decisions until my characters are closer to each event.

3. Incremental Journeys

Now the fun part. Writing.

To start, I take my rough outline and make sure the first couple sections are nicely fleshed out. Then, considering everything I learned during my initial preparation and using my outline as a general (but not set-in-stone) guide, I write those first few chapters.

After finishing those chapters, I do three things:

  1. I think about what I’ve learned about the characters and story so far.
  2. Using what I’ve learned, I flesh out the next few chapters in the outline, which might include some further world building or character development.
  3. I write the newly outlined chapters.

Then I repeat those three steps, again and again – progressively outlining and writing my way through the story in short, incremental journeys.

Why do I write this way?

As I said at the beginning, this approach gives me the structure and direction of an outline, without denying my characters the freedom to grow and surprise me. 

That’s why I write this way – outlining, yes, but leaving much of the outline initially broad and vague so that I can let my characters play a more active role in shaping how each plot point comes to life. The process is pretty similar to Flashlight Outlining, if any of you are familiar; the main difference, as far as I can see, is that I also maintain an overarching outline.

Should you write this way?

You’d know better than me! A key part of every writer’s development is figuring out their process, and we do that by writing and experimenting. So give this outlining process a shot if you’re dissatisfied with your current process or want to try an approach that draws from both plotters and pantsers.

And if you already love your process?

Please share it below! I’d love to hear how you write (with or without an outline) and why it works for you.

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