Want to Write Without an Outline? Here’s How

So you’re going to take the plunge, the risk, the (some would say) insanity of writing without an outline. But what about the plot points? What about character consistency? What about pacing? AHHH!

Never fear. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the process of writing my latest book (finished on Tuesday!).

First and foremost, I would like to point out that writing without planning/outlining isn’t for everyone. I also don’t believe it would be for every genre. If you’re writing some kind of Dan Brown-esque mystery/adventure, you might want to reconsider jotting down a few things beforehand. Ask yourself before you decide to ditch the outline: Is the story going to have lots of layers/twists and turns/mysterious revelations? If the answer is yes, suck it up and outline. If not, try it without. The worst thing that can happen is you decide to outline after you get a couple of chapters in. Well, I guess the worst thing that could happen is you finish the book and find out during your first edit that it’s complete crap. But that’s what editing is for.

Let’s start with the plot points. How do you keep it straight? My answer is notes. This is the trick that seems the most like outlining, but I wouldn’t consider it to be so. I just started writing, and when I came across something I needed to remember later, I jotted it down in an app on my tablet. One character has a beef with another. You might not know why yet, but write down that they do and you’ll figure that out later. Foreshadowing? Write it down. Need to remember the next bit of mystery you’re going to reveal? Get out the pad and pen. This will keep you (slightly) more sane, and ensure that your beta readers don’t want to gouge out their eyes when they notice you’ve brought something up that you forgot to elaborate on later.

Character consistency. This can be done one of two ways: either make up character cards before you write, or skip it. Simple.

If you’re like me, you hate making up extremely detailed character cards before you write. I like to let my characters take on a mind of their own. Bring on the surprises! The problem is that you risk your characters’ personalities in the process. A first edit can reveal some startling mistakes in your characters if you don’t keep track of what you’re doing. So, again, write it down. Personally, I like my characters to settle into themselves before I make any personality trait official. I give them some leg room and see where they run, then develop ‘character cards’ for them. I put character cards in quotes, because they’re not traditional. For this last book, I made PowerPoint slides for each character, then pulled out any descriptive passages that I’d written about them and pasted in on the card. I also trolled the internet for pictures of random people who would closely match my character and put them on there. Ends up looking something like this:


Taking exactly what I wrote and pasting it on the character card not only helped keep track of what the character looks like, but let me see what vocabulary I’d already used in describing them. Ticks, personality traits, weird anomalies can go on there too. Anything about your character that you need to remember later.

Note that I made these cards after I wrote the characters into the book. About a quarter of the way through, in fact. By that point, they’d really settled in my mind and had displayed unique traits. Now, I did have to go back through and change the original description of one of my characters. Naveen started out a laid-back, friendly guy who was always smiling and took everything in stride. By a quarter of the way through, he was a workaholic who had a tendency to be too serious and bossy with the main character. The change was mainly due to the unexpected appearance of another male character who had to be the comedic relief and laid-back guy. So Naveen got an overhaul. Pulling out the description of him for the character cards brought this inconsistency to my attention and I was able to fix it before any poor betas had to see the gaffe.

Now the hardest part: the pacing. There really isn’t much you can do for this if you’re not writing with an outline. For me, I write most days, so the story unfolds as if I were reading it and the pacing turns out relatively on track. I’ve yet to do a first edit on my book, however, so I’m sure there are some issues. The thing with pacing (and I believe this is true even with an outline) is you’ll most likely have to fix it in the editing process. There’s no getting around it. It will probably need help. Period.

Speaking of editing: as I said in a previous post, writing without an outline has the tendency to cause you more work in the editing process. You’ll probably have to add in some foreshadowing. You’ll probably have to correct some early character descriptions. You’ll probably have to fix the pacing. And you’ll probably have to flesh out some parts and cut back on others. So be prepared for this. And don’t be scared of it. Ten to one you would’ve had to do this stuff anyway, even with an outline. And hopefully the tips I’ve just given can help you keep it to a minimum.


2 thoughts on “Want to Write Without an Outline? Here’s How

    1. It seems counterintuitive doesn’t it? I originally didn’t think they did either, but if you pick up any book on how to write fiction, three-quarters of it is probably how to outline your work.



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