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Does Outlining Ruin Discovery Writing?
I’ve heard many writers say the same thing: I’ll never outline in full detail all the beats in my story ahead of time because it will ruin the joy I get from discovery writing.
This concept that writers have who feel if they dare to outline it will take away any hope they have of an undiscovered or uncharted journey their characters can take baffles me. And part of me wonders if this is something they heard from someone else and just applied it to themselves and this manufactured fear just took hold for so long they can’t get past it?
An outline is not some self-hired gunman whose sole job is to point his weapon at you and dare to pull the trigger if you so much as try to stray from your outline. That self-hired gunman is someone you manufactured yourself. That crippling fear that now you can’t be creative and your ability to discover new things about your character and your story is something you are doing to yourself.
Remember, at the end of the day, once another living soul reads your work (excluding any editors, of course) they will never and I mean never, stop in the middle or get to the end and ask themselves, “I wonder if they used an outline or wrote this off the top of their head.” Well, perhaps a fellow writer might ask that question, but I promise you, some random stranger who finds your book and makes the conscious decision to read it, isn’t. They don’t care. All they care about is if they liked the book or not.
No one is present when the words are actually being written on the page but you and the little devil and angel you bring with you, sitting on your shoulders. You know the ones. They tell you it’s cheating to outline or only the best writers wing it.
I consider myself a “PLANTSER” which basically is a combination PLOTTER & PANTSER.
I’ve shared my thoughts on how plantsing works for me many, many, many times, but as long as I hear the sense of fear in other writers (both new and veterans) that to outline will take away their creative storytelling ability, I feel I must share my thoughts in the hopes that it will change at least one writer's approach and thinking when it comes to outlining.
First, and foremost, let’s begin from a place of mutual agreement: You and only you control your story. We can all agree there, I hope? It’s your story and you get to (at least during your rough draft/vomit draft stage) dictate how it’s told. Editors and beta readers will swoop in afterwards to help you improve it and tweak it, but the concept, the characters, the plot, that’s all you.
By that understanding, an outline is merely an extension of you. It is a tool to help you. It is not another human being put on this earth to crush you and your spirit for all eternity.
When I use an outline I think of it as my breadcrumbs. If you know the story of Hansel and Gretel, they used breadcrumbs as a means to get them back on the path towards home if they should happen to stray. When I write I am a chronic strayer. I’m not kidding. You’ll probably be shocked to know that I have yet to write a novel where I’ve adhered to more than about 10% of the actual outline I wrote! You might be asking yourself at this point, why do I even bother to spend so much time on something that I only refer to during 1/10th of the drafting process? Well, because they are my breadcrumbs, my way back home. Or in the case of my story, the way back to certain points in the story I know are important in one way or another and I want to make sure I don’t miss those nuggets I unearthed during my outlining process.
Of course my characters will say something or do something I hadn’t intended when I’m writing each scene in each chapter. It is impossible for them not to. Just like it is impossible to write an outline that literally details every step every character takes. To do so would be to simply write the damn draft!
So, to reiterate and bring my point home, my ability to go on an as yet discovered journey with my characters, I feel, is only heightened and helped by my outline. And if I were to ever feel the cold barrel of a gun pressed against the back of my neck the moment I strayed from my outline (which is usually in the first paragraph of the first chapter), then I would instantly stop outlining. Cause that’s some crazy -ish right there!
Try thinking of your outline as just a helpful reminder to all those things you came up with in the very beginning stages. When your idea was born and you just had flashes of scenes or characters. You don’t want to forget those nuggets, even if they may not make it into the final draft. They serve as a reminder of the joy you had when you first came up with the idea. And let’s face it, as writers, a little joy and motivation and especially reminder of the moment the lightbulb went off on an idea is never a bad thing.