A popular post from March 2009
by Annette Lyon
You've likely heard the debate between two basic camps of writers: those who swear by outlining and those who shun it, instead discovering their story organically as they go.
Which is right?
Well, both. And neither.
Outliners swear by the idea that if you think through the entire story from start to finish, you'll be able to write a pretty solid book in your first draft. The story will have a better shape, it won't be directionless, and you won't waste time wandering around and driving into ruts and having to back up. A lot of Outliners say that thanks to detailed outlining, by the time they've finish a first draft of the actual book, it's pretty darn close to the final version.
Discoverers, on the flip side, don't want to be held down by a strict structure. They feel like half the joy in writing is finding out what happens right along with the characters. They do end up with several drafts this way as they find their way, and yes, a lot of what they might be considered a waste of time by Outliners, but they wouldn't have it any other way.
Do you have to pick a camp and set up your writing tent there? The good news is that no, you don't. There aren't just two camps, because the Outliner/Discoverer techniques are really two ends of one big spectrum. Most writers fall somewhere in the middle.
I personally lean just a teeny, tiny bit toward the Outliner side, but I'm pretty close to center.
I can't truly "outline" a book in detail. I tried once, and when I started the actual writing, the story fell flat. I'd already "lived" it, so to speak. The spark was gone.
On the other hand, any time I've gone into a story blind, without a clear idea of where I was heading, it's turned into unstructured mush.
The way I work is first having a clear story concept (what is this book about?). I need to know roughly where the story starts. I need to know where it'll end up. I must know several major landmarks along the way, including the major conflict/s, main characters, and several pivotal scenes.
That's it. I don't necessarily know how I'll get from one landmark to the next. My "outline" is pretty skeletal, but it's there in some form. As I write and "discover" an upcoming scene, I'll add it to the outline, such as it is.
This method is my writing method. Every writer's will be slightly different. The trick is finding what works for you. Let yourself discover where you fall on the spectrum.
Try outlining and see if it works for you. Remember that outlining is a spectrum concept. You don't have to write down every detail. Try different levels of outlines. Maybe you do need an outline--just not one as fleshed out as another writer's would be.
For example, if you don't know how you'll get your characters from scene B to scene C, no worries. Figure that out later. Not knowing the bridges doesn't mean you can't benefit from an outline.
On the other hand, maybe you'd benefit from trying your hand at Discovery writing. Maybe that works for you.
Or maybe you're a mixture of the two styles, falling slightly to one side over the other, like I am.
Try several styles and learn what "clicks."
Wherever you fall, don't let anyone tell you that your way is wrong or inferior. It's just different. It's YOU.