Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Great Debate: Outline or Discover?

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.


Kimberly said...

This strikes such a chord for me. I started out parked firmly in the Discoverer camp (not surprising since I wrote my first draft during NaNoWriMo), and found a great deal of joy in it. And then frustration over the endless rewrites as I struggled for cohesion. I'm definitely finding more balance now, and this post made me grin rather hugely.

Josi said...

I have a very difficult time outlining, not because the story isn't fun after I know it, but because I feel like I have to stick to it and my stories don't usually grow that same direction. At the same time, the discovery method is why I end up with hundreds of cut pages for my books. I'm still trying to perfect my way of going about it, but am so glad to know there is an option there that can just be 'me'. I also love learning how other writer's make it work, I often get ideas (like your landmark idea you gave me awhile back) that helps me out a great deal.

Julie Wright said...

I'm a fence sitter and do both. I don't do formal outlines on paper, but rather informal ones in my own head. I know where the story is going and have an easier time writing.

Danette said...

I have written two historical fictions and outlined them according to history and it worked well. But like you said you don't know the detail to the T, or how you are going to cross the bridge until you get there. It's like saying your going to eat a taco, but as you prepare your taco (write within the outline) you decide to add lettuce, sour cream, salsa, and fresh tomatoes, which gives it the finished product. I have also written one young adult novel and had only the idea in my head of what I wanted to happen. Each chapter was plotted one at a time. In both methods I think the creative juices have shown me how the writer learns the story right along with reader. That is the part I love the most! Its like unveiling an unknown world, what could be better?
(I know being published!!!)

Heather Justesen said...

I totally started out as a discovery writer, which is probably why I have over a dozen unfinished books on my hard drive. In the last year or so I've been leaning more toward outlining first and writing has become much easier for me.

On the other hand when I head about people writing 50 page outlines I just want to shake my head. I tend to write the first few scenes (because I have to know who my characters are and the setting before I can plan), then pull open an Excell document and write one-sentence descriptions of the basics of what I want to have happen in each scene.

Do I refer back to it often? No, not so much, but if I start to feel lost or I want to make sure I'm staying on track, I'll refer back to what I've got written up and make sure I'm hitting all of my major signposts along the way. Sometimes I add scenes at the last moment, or I finish the book adn then realize I wrote scene in a different order, but that doesn't matter, what matters is that I have enough conflict to carry my story (conflict does not grow organically for me), and I don't lose any of the major threads.

My recent projects are not only getting finished, but I do so in under 5 version instead of 15 or 18.

Laura said...

Hmm. Yeap, I'm both. If I don't have a clue what the story arc is, I don't have a story. If I outline myself to death, I kill the passion and spontenaity. I definitely find things out as I go, discover new angles and think of cool twists that never existed in my original plan. I do like having something written down before I start my book, though. It's kind of like a road map. I might not know where I'll stop along the way, but I really need to know where I'm going.

Celise said...

I'm definitely a Discoverer. I write the whole the whole thing first and then go back, chapter by chapter, and summarize what I've talked about in each.

I've tried to be an Outliner and it's never worked for me.