Are you a pantser? How to plot your novel using skeleton drafting

Plotting or pantsing? Gardener or architect? Writers love to argue over which method is best to create engaging fiction.


Personally, I believe this isn’t a war with battle lines drawn so much as it is a spectrum, where writers fall on a curve between the two extremes. I fall on the pantsing end, or, in George R. R. Martin’s vernacular, I’m a Gardener.


Georgie boy elaborates on his concept of Gardeners and Architects in this quote:


“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they’ve planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have, they find out as it grows. And I'm much more a gardener than an architect.”  


If you’re more of a plotter/architect, my methods will be a dystopian hellscape to you. But if you’re a gardener like me, you may be looking at ways to improve your plotting and writing speed.


We Gardeners are awesome at creating character-led stories. We love to throw our characters into a situation and see how they fare. We’re great at using the traits of a character to build a unique story without being bogged down in what we should have in the plot. Architects are envious of our organically-awesome characters.


What we kind of suck at sometimes is getting a story down quickly. We often write ourselves into a corner, spend our writing time deleting or editing what we’re already written to make it work, or sending our characters down completely the wrong track. We have more plot holes and continuity errors that have to be located and fixed before our books hit the market. We’re jealous of plotters who can push out a book in a few weeks without once veering off-script or deleting huge chunks of good words.


In the fast-paced world of indie publishing, where fast release schedules help authors like me build successful careers, being able to get your stories into the world faster is a skill that puts you ahead. We poor wee gardeners may be left in the dust. And I won’t stand for it.


The average advice for self-publishers wanting to write faster is to know what you’re going to write before you sit down. This enables you to spend your (often limited) writing time efficiently. That’s why most writing advice for indie authors is about creating a solid outline. But how do you do this when you detest outlining? When the very thought of outlining a book before you write it sends you reaching for the rum.


I’m going to tell you about how I do it with skeleton drafting.



Skeleton drafting is the technique I use as a gardener/pantser to plot intricate, action-packed, emotionally-charged books quickly, and enjoy myself during the process. 


Skeleton-drafting works on the premise that plotters and pantsers are two sides of the same process. We’re all building stories out of the same materials – we’re just going about it in different ways. Architects tend to do their plotting in hard copy before they start the book, while gardeners do our plotting on our heads, often while we’re knee-deep in manuscript muck. Skeleton drafting enables you as a gardener to lay your hands on the tools and building materials more quickly, so you can stride boldly forward with your story without changing what you love about writing.


It also gets you doing what you love most – diving into characters and seeing what they do – and pushes you to a point where you have the same elements of story in place as an architect… while also making headway on your actual book.


The skeleton draft is a 15-20k word draft of your 70-90k novel. I develop my skeleton draft over a few crazy days where I pound away on the keys, getting all the ideas out of my head. At the end of those 3 days, I have something even better than an outline – I have the shape of my story AND it all contributes toward my word count.


The skeleton draft is messy. It’s about building a plot and pushing your characters toward your ending without worrying about window-decoration. When I write my skeleton draft, I set out chapters and I may write a few hundred words of dialogue and action to move through what needs to happen. Sometimes, if a scene is particularly vivid or I’m on a roll, I’ll flesh it out a bit more (the first three chapters of a skeleton draft are usually quite close to the finished product). Some chapters will only be a couple of sentences or even just a note to myself. (INSERT SEXY TIMES HERE).



Not much – and you probably have most of what you need wrapped up in that gorgeous noggin of yours :)


Before you begin your skeleton draft, you need only three things:


1. A character. This is your protagonist. Now, your story might have several protagonists or POV characters. In the beginning, focus on one character who will be the person acting on your hook to bring about your ending.


Your skeleton draft is how you get to know your character, but you need to have some spark of them before you begin. You may have a certain archetype you want to write, or an idea for an interesting moral dilemma you want to explore, or just some unique traits/wounds you want to throw into the world of your hook.


Your character may also have certain traits or a particular job because of what’s popular within a genre. If you’re writing a police procedural or an urban fantasy, your main character will be some kind of law-enforcement officer. Certain genres may dictate the gender of your main character – a cozy mystery will have a female protagonist, as will a romance written for the MF market. A hard science fiction book will probably have a male protagonist.


As gardeners, we don’t “waste time” filling in character sheets or asking ourselves questions about this character yet. We learn about their eye color and their wounds and their vernacular and their didgeridoo skills as we write the book.


2. A hook. This is the spark that interested you about the story idea in the first place – the detail that seemed interesting enough that you might want to spend months or years immersed in an imaginary world based upon it. The hook takes your idea and ensures it has enough meat to become a fully fleshed-out story.


When you’re outlining and writing, your hook is your “X marks the spot” – it keeps you on track and stops you from going completely off the map.


What does a hook need to work?

  • A character (see above).

  • A conflict.

  • A genre.

 That’s a lot of work for a couple of sentences. But don’t worry. You can rock this! 


Let’s deal with these elements one at a time. I’m going to use a couple of my own ideas as examples.


My ideas usually come as ‘what if’ questions. I might have an idea I want to explore or an interesting character in a unique setting. I might even have a few tropes I want to write. What I need to tease out is a conflict. And I do that by asking myself a few questions until I’ve got something with high stakes for our protagonist. 


You might also ask yourself questions about the setting, the character, the genre, or the story elements you have so far. Sometimes these provide sparks to help you develop your conflict. 


As part of knowing your hook, you should also have an idea of the genre. Is it a mystery? A fantasy novel? A romance? Is it literary fiction? Each genre has its own conventions and tropes that will need to be included. Consider this example. Here’s a generic hook.


What if Millie casts a love spell to try to make a person in her life fall in love with her, and it ends up summoning a demon instead?


This has a character – Millie – a hook – and the conflict – WTF is this demon going to do? What it doesn’t have is a genre. It can become two completely different stories, depending on the genre:


  • A supernatural mystery: A paranormal investigator has to investigate the source of an unlicensed love spell that has unleashed a demon on San Francisco. The demon’s magic makes people unleash their most reckless, passionate desires, and it’s causing chaos.
  • A romance: A librarian named Millie wants the cute barista in the cafe across the street to notice her, so she performs a love spell she found in a dusty old book. Instead of making the barista fall head over heels, she summons a demon who makes it his mission to insert himself into every aspect of her life, making the barista jealous and thereby fulfilling the spell.

It’s the same idea, but from the hook, you get a sense these are two completely different stories. One is gritty and dark, while the other is more light-hearted and funny. Also, note that in the urban fantasy story, our protagonist isn’t the person who summoned the demon – you can play with your idea to look for less obvious twists that might make a more interesting story. 


3. An ending. This is the most nebulous of the three essential requirements. Gardeners take note – you do not need to know exactly how the book will end right now. Of course, you can’t know this – you haven’t written the book yet. You can’t slot the pieces together when you haven’t even taken the pieces out of the box. What you do need to know is how the book will resolve.


The key to understanding the resolution is to first understand your book’s genre. Notice a pattern here? You guessed it - genre plays an important role in defining the shape of your story.


Is your book a mystery? If so, your ending is that the mystery needs to be solved for the reader. Is your book a romance? If so, the reader needs a happily ever after? Is it an epic fantasy novel? Cool – then you know the bad guys need to be defeated.


(Yes, sometimes authors take the conventions of their genre and totally toss ‘em out the window. Let’s say for argument’s sake that this isn’t you). 


Right – now I have these three elements essential to a great story. What I don’t have is a plot – a direction. That’s what the skeleton draft is for. And we’re going to get started right now.




Now that we have our three main elements in place, we can start writing. 


That’s right. I give you permission to begin the actual writing of your book knowing only these few scant details. Why? 


Plot comes from character. You take a person who thinks a certain way because of all the events in their life that have led up to this moment, You thrust ‘em into a situation, and what they do next is entirely hinged on who they are. This means that I need to get to know this character to get some plot. Architects use character sheets and fill out stuff like eye color, hair color, family members, etc, in a neat little list. I don’t care about that stuff. And I don’t think in lists. 


So I start writing my beginning. I know what needs to happen at the beginning of my novel because I have my hook – and I know my hook has to be revealed in the first 30 pages or so. Ideally in the first chapter. I know which character I’m going to follow because I’ve already decided. So I can get to work on my opening scene.


I don’t spend any time worrying if this actually IS the opening scene or not. Because I’m skeleton drafting so nothing is set in stone. I focus only on getting words on the page and moving the plot forward and getting to know my protagonist.


Based on what little I know about my character at this stage, I’m able to move to the next scene. And the next. And so on. I let her take the lead. As I go I get new ideas, and as the character reveals herself to me I learn more about how she grows and changes, and I build and build on those ideas until I get to the ending.


It’s exactly the same process, I, as a gardener, use to create a full novel. I’m just doing it at speed, not giving a flying fuck what the prose looks like, not stopping to allow any description or even to give my characters names. I am just getting the story down.


When I reach THE END, I look back and see the shape of a story. Now I get to start at the beginning again and go back over the book to create an actual first draft. My “first” draft will be around 50k, then I’ll do a second draft and a third pass to bring the book up to the 70-90k wordcount.




It's kind of obvious.


Let me explain.


In skeleton-drafting, you’re relying on your character to lead you logically from one scene to the next. I’m always asking myself, “what would my protagonist do next?” and this guides the book. 


Along the way are little helpful scenes I like to call ‘set-pieces’ that are already effectively done for you (in your head). All you need to do is lead your characters to these scenes. Set-pieces are the shorthand you use as an author to power through your skeleton draft.


Set-pieces are the scenes readers expect in your story. Some set-pieces are based on your book’s genre and tropes. So, for example, in my nevermore bookshop mysteries, it’s a murder mystery, so there’s got to be a body discovered by the heroine. That’s our first set-piece. There need to be suspects and clues. Many of the clues are part of Chekov’s arsenal (discussed below). There needs to be an escalation - so usually a second body or the heroine is directly threatened or accused of the crime. That’s another set-piece. There needs to be a scene when the killer is revealed. But it’s also a romance so there needs to be the development arc around that. My books have 2.5 sex scenes, so I gotta fit those in, too. Just like that, I’ve got ten scenes in the book I can skeleton outline.


Some scenes come because of the Chekhov’s arsenal you set up as you go. Chekhov’s Gun is a literary device that states if you show a gun on the wall in the first act, by the third act it needs to go off. As a gardener, you can plant a whole bloody Chekhov’s arsenal while you write, and then resolving/relating back to these guns will give you more scenes.


And finally, some scenes will be obvious based on your character and her emotional wound. If your character secretly doesn’t believe she deserves to be loved because her parents abandoned her, then you’ll immediately realize there are several key set-pieces you need to incorporate so readers understand this wound. She needs to push away someone who cares about her. She needs to tell a lie to herself about how she ‘doesn’t really need anyone’. She needs to see that forging ahead without backup gets her into trouble. She needs to experience a moment where someone pushes against her boundaries…


What you’re doing in your skeleton draft is using your main character to stitch together these set-pieces into a cohesive story. You’re basically writing a plot outline – like an architect – only in the form of a rough first draft.


    “I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they’ve planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have, they find out as it grows. And I'm much more a gardener than an architect.” 

    George R. R. Martin

    Author of Game of Thrones.



    I love editing my skeleton draft into a workable first draft. The story is still so new and fresh and I’m excited about the twists I’ve created that I. Because I know what’s going to happen later in the book I can weave in foreshadowing and red herrings. I can pick up on symbolism for my character’s wound and repeat it through the book. I can build in light and shadow in my words to turn a ghastly rough draft into something beautiful.


    Skeleton drafting really is the best of both worlds.


    As I edit, I keep a second file open on my computer. In this file, I:

    • Keep a running list of open Chekhov’s arsenal pieces I need to incorporate.

    • Make rough notes on characters, such as their smell, hair color, etc, that I need to easily find later.

    • Copy/paste any sections of writing I delete from the manuscript, in case I want to use them later.

    • List ideas/twists for future books in the series, in case I forget them or can’t write them for some time.

    As I clean up the manuscript over successive edits, I delete items from my secondary file and try to keep it as small as possible.



    That’s skeleton drafting! It’s how I’m able to write a 90k novel in less than two months, publish frequently, and build a badass author career. I’d love to hear about your experiments with skeleton drafting in the FB group.


    For more information, listen to my podcast episode on skeleton drafting, and join the newsletter to be updated when my new skeleton-drafting course goes live.


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