Outlining Insight

I often chat about the writing process with a particular fellow writer who is also fascinated by the topic. I am an outliner; she is not. But unlike most of the non-outliners I see, who defiantly declare that outlining would suck all the joy and discovery from the writing process, she wishes she could outline. She’s tried and it produced one of her most negative writing experiences. That gave us a starting point for a very interesting conversation.

I’m always very bewildered by the anti-outliners, because as documented elsewhere on this site, there’s still a lot of discovery in my writing process, no matter how detailed my outline is. A metaphor I like is that I start with a small square of paper, upon which is my basic premise. I then unfold that, and have a few squares, and that’s my big plot events and major characters. I unfold again, and I get more events and minor characters. Again, and I start detailing chapters. And again, and I have this big sheet of paper with dozens of squares on it– but I still have to fill in each square to create the story. There’s a lot of discovery that goes on in those squares. And if things don’t go quite the way I expect, I usually go with it. It rarely derails the whole story, though it might have ramifications that change the story’s theme or mood significantly.

For example, today I was writing a Big Scene. I expected the protagonist to have a discussion with a semi-antagonistic supporting character, which ended with the supporting character volunteering to accompany her on a journey. As I wrote the scene, I realized that I couldn’t make that conversation happen. Instead, they had a fight in a dark warehouse, and when the protagonist won (or they had a draw, depending on your perspective) she then invited him to come along. Same end result: the two go on a journey together. But the dynamic has shifted, for the better. And the scene has a tension I was worried it would lack. I don’t have any qualms about departing from the outline, because I can tell what I’m doing is better. It’s very much like writing a second draft; it’s an iterative, improving process that relies heavily on an intuitive understanding of both the characters and the plot.

My wise friend then suggested that the big difference between me and people who consider outlines book- or joykillers is that I’m willing and able to trust my intuition when it leads me off-outline. She, on the other hand, can’t help but view an outline as The Rules. The Book, to be adhered to. Which, yes, WOULD destroy joy, especially if you found yourself writing something that sucked and feeling like you had to do it because it was right there written down already.

So, anti-outliners: I now understand, I think, and am properly sympathetic. Carry on with whatever works best for you.




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