From Chaos to Cohesion

Lulu Oberkotter  
I once was blind, but now I see! Let me tell you why I converted to an Outliner/Plotter after years of being a Discovery writer/Pantser.

Brothers and sisters, I have seen the light. And it is good. Hallelujah!

I’ve been writing little things here and there since childhood—poems, parodies, short pieces—but it wasn’t until a sunny July morning in 2011 that I was struck by an idea. A real idea. One I knew was the seed of something big and beautiful.

I had no clue what I was in for.

Day by day, that seed began to blossom. I jotted down every stray thought that drifted into my head until I had enough material to scrape into a semi-cohesive story. But it was like putting a puzzle together without the picture on the box to guide me. And there were missing pieces. And a few pieces from other puzzles had found their way into the mix. Also a few Legos.

Finally, after eight years of pain and frustration, writing and rewriting, it came time to reach out to an editor. Yes, you read that correctly. Eight excruciating years. But it was done. I could lay my weary head to rest.

Then I made a terrible mistake. I was struck by another idea.

It was agony. Another eight years of wandering in the dark, grasping for a plot I couldn’t quite find until I accidentally stumbled into it? That first time had been hell. I couldn’t bring myself to go through it again. But neither could I leave this idea out in the cavernous recesses of my hollow brain to die. I had to get it out somehow.

That’s when I found a simple solution: outlining.

I downloaded a three-act story structure template and began filling it in with my ideas. Within two days, I had a complete story. No, it wasn’t a full novel or even a first draft. It was a mere 5,000 words on a bullet-point document. But it was a direction. A map. A text to reference any time I needed guidance in uncertain times. It seemed almost too easy, like I was cheating. Seriously, the first draft basically wrote itself in a few short months. Only one question remained unanswered: Why doesn’t everyone do it this way?

Soon after this epiphany, I was struck by another idea. And another. As an aspiring novelist, it was everything I’d prayed for. And everything I’d once dreaded. Boy, does the Lord work in mysterious ways.

Some people might have been at a loss for what to do with all these fledgling novels hatching at once, demanding sustenance from their overburdened mother. I once would have counted myself among them. But now I have a light to guide me in the darkness. Whenever a new idea hits me, I spend a few days—maybe a week or two—filling in blanks on a template. As long as I follow that guide, I will not stumble. Prodigal son daughter that I once was, I have learned my lesson and will not take the indulgent, wayward path of a Discovery writer again. Yes, I still use my Discovery skills to do the initial "brain dump" when an idea first strikes, develop characters, and fill in little story holes whenever they appear. But I’m no longer completely reliant on my old ways. I never would have thought this before trying it, but outlining has made writing faster, easier, and a hell of a lot more fun.

Can I get an amen?

Now I make my alter call. Who will heed my words and try the life of an Outliner? True, my way is not the right way for everyone. But I know there is a Discovery writer out there now, tangled up in a meandering story they cannot finish, or with a messy manuscript they’re on the verge of tossing out. I know because I was once that person. If that's you right now, I challenge you to set aside your wandering ways and try the life of an Outliner. My testimony alone might not be enough to convince you. But give it a chance. You just might choose that straight and narrow path for yourself.



Great post @Luluo. I used to think I was a pantser. Not on purpose - I just didn’t really know about the other options. Oh, I knew folks “outlined” but that didn’t feel right to me (an opinion I held without benefit of ever trying it). In my naivete I thought when you wrote a book, you start at the beginning and it just magically and organically grows into the story inside of you.

And that theory I held onto so long caused me to wander in the wasteland of not finishing my first book for close to two decades. I would get stuck, frustrated, and just give up for a while. Always coming back eventually, years later even, but this is not an effective method.

And while certainly some writers are true pantsers and they can not operate with an outline - I found out that I am not. My own chaos has finally evolved into cohesion. And its outlining, and see the story as a whole that allowed me to do that. I still have to finish it, but I believe I will within a matter of weeks now.

Thanks for posting this!

Sep-26 2023


Glad to hear you found something to pull you out of the messy darkness. :slight_smile:

Sep-26 2023


As Lawrence Welke might have said, “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Turn on the bubble machine.” Nice to know you’ve mastered how to create a plot. Now you know where you’re going and how to get there. Lotsa luck.

Sep-26 2023


Nice post. I too wandered in darkness until an editor pointed me to story structure. It was an epiphany! I learned that an outline gives you a good start, but a structured outline provides the framework for a novel, validating your idea before you begin writing. The first draft will still be hard, but you’ll write it once. Far more efficient and far less pain of wasted effort.

Sep-26 2023


Thanks Luluo. Reading this made me feel that I am not the only confused and also there a light at the end of tunnel. I now think I will also overcome the confusion and move from chaos to confusion

Sep-28 2023


Is there any reason not to do both?

  1. first write a pantser short story between 1,000-5,000 words with a main character, a world, a backstory, a little action & dialogue and a hook what’s next
  2. if it appeals to you and others, and feels like there’s more to it, write the plot to a novel

Anyone done that?

Sep-29 2023


I’d say that, after I get an initial inspiration, I’m a Discovery writer for the next day or two. I write down anything that comes into my head no matter how rambling and nonsensical. THEN I sort through the information and make a proper outline of it.

This is why some folks argue that the Discovery/Outlining labels don’t mean anything. I think they do, but just being a “pantser” doesn’t mean you aren’t doing an outline, in the end. It’s just a very detailed, almost full first draft of an outline. And Plotters are still discovering as they go. They just work those details out before they begin the first draft. Me, personally, I made some small adaptions to my outline as the first draft took form.

Sep-29 2023


Thanks. What’s the phase called when you write down 10-20 ideas/changes a day in a little notepad when you’re away from the computer, and then scramble to incorporate them into your story before you go to bed? :laughing:

Sep-29 2023


lol, I think that applies to all writers, whether they consider themselves Discovery writers or Plotters! I don’t have anything quite so fancy as a notebook though. I just write on my arm, lol.

Sep-29 2023


Thank you for posting this. The 3 act story outline might be the exact thing I need. The term “Discovery Writer” seems to describe me right now. It has been about a year since I started a short story that quickly became a 35 chapter book. There are so many subplots that I do not know where to begin. Each could potentially be a book of its own.

Sep-30 2023


I have, in fact, cut side plots from my first novel that ended up being the main plot in another book. Especially with a first novel, we can get so excited and wrapped up with a million ideas. But I’ve learned that not every idea I have needs to end up in the same novel!

Sep-30 2023


Cool. Thanks! That takes the pressure off.

Sep-30 2023


Whether you’re a Panster/Discovery writer or an Outliner, you still may face the challenge of deciding what will go into your novel–themes, characters, story structure, etc. My approach involves a fair amount of “imagining” for either a short story or a novel, then notes, and, for a novel, using various mindmapping techniques to connect the main story, characters, subplots, themes, etc. If you’re not familiar with mindmapping, just Google it. Might help.

Oct-16 2023


I see those being very useful for analytical types. I’m basically the opposite of that though! I’d find them frustratingly convoluted. Others find they help connect the dots, so even though I don’t like that technique myself, it’s still totally worth it to give it a try.

Thanks for bringing that up! I hadn’t thought of it at the time.

Oct-17 2023
Click here to reply
Member submitted content is © individual members.
Other material ©2003-2024