Outlining versus Free Form writing is a hotly contested debate in author circles. I know, I know, the subject doesn’t carry the weight of discussing a solution to violence in Afghanistan, or searching for a missing jetliner in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But the fact that writers seem willing to spill blood over the issue, says something about us – we’re a bit too tightly wound for our own good and the voices of the characters in our heads start to take over if left unattended too long.
I’ve written a few novels using a detailed outline and others in a free-form, or more commonly called the seat of your pants method, used by “The Pantser.” Both methods work, but recently, as I wrote a section for a novel from an outline, a voice called out…
Voice: Hey! Whatcha doing?
Me: Writing. Hush, don’t make me lose my place.
Voice: Writing? Huh, doesn’t look like much. Following an outline, I see. That’s not really writing, you know.
Me: Yes it is. An outline keeps me focused on the story, moving between plot points, without getting sidetracked on mundane details that don’t add anything to the story.
Voice: Boring… I thought you were supposed to be creative? Where’s the creativity here Michelangelo? Looks more like coloring by numbers to me. You’re just phoning it in.
Me: What? Wait. Who are you anyway?
Voice: Who am I? Nobody important according to your precious little outline. I’m just some mundane detail, a secondary character you killed off in the last chapter.
Me: You needed to go. Your arc in the story had come to and end. Sorry.
Voice: Says your outline. Come on, be a real writer and write me back in. You know you wanna.
Me: Nope you’re gone. You served your purpose, thanks.
Voice: Ooooh, bring me back as a ghost, or maybe as a zombie. Zombie’s are the new black, everyone’s doing them.
Me: Not gonna happen. No zombies in this story. I’m keeping on track to the ending I’ve set up for this book.
Voice: A flashback? Flashbacks are cool.
Me: Why? It serves no purpose in this story. I’ve linked all the scenes, chapters and characters together in the outline and it makes sense.
Voice: *yawn* Boooring. Where’s your passion, man? All this nonsense about formula and outlines, it’s all poppycock. Where’s the spontaneity? You’re locked in on the story, a slave to the Almighty Outline. You’ve made writing a child’s game of fill in the blanks.
Me: No one’s locked anywhere. Maybe you should go lock up in the No Outline Sanitarium for Unwanted Characters Killed (NO SUCK). I used to think I was locked to my outline, but it’s not like that.
Voice: What was that? I couldn’t hear you through all that booooorrrring. What about bringing me back as reincarnated werewolf? Nobody’s done that yet.
Me: This. This is why I use an outline now. You can’t pull me off track. If I want to go off on a library snipe hunt, I can always find my way back to the path. My outline doesn’t tell me how my characters get from one point to another in a story, I figure that out as I write. I know the characters need to get to a place and time and I have creative license to design that journey any way I choose.
Voice: So, I’m hearing yes to reincarnated werewolf?
Me: It’s my choice. And No.
Voice: You chose poorly.
Me: The point is, the outline lets me know if a plot idea is necessary to the story, or a waste of time that I’ll have to delete during revision. I can weave in plot twists and changes in character arcs and the outline serves as a trail marker to get back to the main storyline. I can go anywhere the story demands.
Voice: So, let me get this right. You chose to write my character out in a bloody pulp?
Voice: You’re not right.
Me: Sanity is overrated.
Voice: I still think a reincarnated werewolf would be cool.
Me: *finger hovers over delete key*
Voice: Ok, Ok! Geeze, don’t have to get all sensitive and shit.
Me: I’ll let you know about the werewolf thing, but don’t hold your breath.
Voice: Fine. Whatever.
I do use a blend of outlining and pantsing as I write. The outline hits the big points and I get to fill in the meat of the story in between. I like the free-form creative feel of letting the characters loose and finding out what they do. The outline is only a survey marker I use to find the route to the next big point in the story. I don’t feel tied down this way and on the days I don’t have much creative juice flowing, the outline provides me with a starting point.
This hybrid approach seems to work for me, It might not be for everyone, but it’s something that help me push forward
What works for you?