Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Are You a Fiction Outliner, Plotter, or Plunger

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

While there is absolutely no right or wrong way to do the craft, those who spend a lot of time writing fiction tend to naturally find themselves in one of three categories with the occasional hybrid.


JK Rowling penned an outline for the fifth Harry Potter novel, Order of the Phoenix, on a common piece of notebook paper. Laying the page horizontal, she created a grid with the months of the school year on the left, and the plot points and significant characters listed along the top. When she had filled in the intersecting squares, Rowling knew what needed to happen in each chapter. 

While some outliners like the familiar feel of pen and paper when sketching the blueprint for their novel, entering the information on a spreadsheet makes the information easier to edit and add to. Less scratching out and scribbling in the margins. The spreadsheet is perpetually nearby on the computer where you are probably writing, and the contents are quickly available to cut and paste for multiple uses. Add pages to the spreadsheets for pull-out quotes and marketing ideas as they come to mind.


Bill Myers, whose books and films sold more than eight million copies and won more than 60 national and international awards, knows where his story will go from beginning to end before he puts words on his manuscript. The author of numerous series for kids, teens, and adults, likes to use the bubble diagram technique. He described writing a seed idea onto a yellow legal pad and circling the idea. From there, Bill created a bubble diagram, listing a variety of what nextpossibilities, followed by another level of potential plot points, and then another and another until he filled the legal pad. 

With a highlighter, he went back to the original idea, and marked the best idea in each sequence. With this method, he mapped a story from beginning to end. The writing process involved following the highlighted trail on the legal pad from chapter one until ‘The End.’


My tendency is to be a plunger. Chasing Sunrise began as a scene that hung around my thoughts. I wrote the picture, expecting this would be a chapter in the center of the story. In the end, that first scene turned out to be the final chapter. Who knew?! 

As a verbal processor, I usually don’t know what I’m thinking until it comes out my mouth. Similarly, sitting at my laptop, Mac(Beth), parts of the story flow as fresh to me as they will be to the reader. Because the scenes do not appear in sequence, I write the parts in my brain. Ideas that show up later frequently reveal information that fills in earlier gaps. “No wonder the bad guy behaves in that way.” When the manuscript is nearly complete, I rearrange chapters as needed for the story to make sense, add transitions, and fill in details.

Estee Zandee is a plunger, but writes her novels sequentially from beginning to end. Taking a break once, she returned to her manuscript to discover “what the bad guy was doing while I was away.” Her natural creative process is more linear.


Some projects organically require an author employ different methods. 

Because my novels come together out of sequence, when the story is mostly complete, I reverse engineer an outline. From my work in progress, I list the chapters and events, then rearrange and fill in as needed.

Writing an historical novel gave this natural pantser opportunity to be an outliner. Fitting a story within the historical timeline demands research and precision. A timeline became essential for accuracy, flow, and to avoid perpetual rewrites. 

A sampling of the outline looks like this:
  • March 26, 1836 Eli escorts Gabe and the small herd on the first day of Gabe’s 1300 mile  journey. Eli returns home in hopes he will hear news of Sam’s fate.
  • March 28, 1836 Gabe quickly realizes driving cattle alone is a tough job.
  • April 1, 1836 Eli and Sam join Gabe on the trail, 15 miles per day for 15 weeks.
  • April 21, 1836 Sam Houston and 800 Texans defeat Santa Anna's Mexican force of  1,500 men at the Battle of San Jacinto, shouting “Remember the Alamo!” 
Knowing how others create provides helpful tips and how-tos. And like most artistic pursuits, you generally can’t do it wrong. The important part is to grow in your abilities, develop effective systems, and produce excellence. 

Writers, like people, have natural styles. Lean into your style without judgement during the writing process. When a project requires a different method for success, you have the ability to learn and add to your craft toolbox. 


Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of twenty-eight books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, and Chasing Sunrise. Optimistic dream-driver, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing, and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and Twitter @PeggySueWells.


  1. I've learned to go with my flow. Sometimes, I need to push myself to get a story finished, but I still try to follow my natural tendencies.

    1. Writing is a blend of going with the flow and doing the work to complete the project. The best is when the work is also fun.

  2. Thank you for this. I think I’m mostly a plunger... though I’ve never actually called myself this before! 😊

    1. There are several terms. I've heard a plunger also called A Pantser: someone who writes by the seat of their pants.