On outlines, and diverging from them

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

—E.L. Doctorow (as quoted by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird)

Some writers live and breath outlines. They detail out every plot point and twist and scene and character arc. It works for them, and that’s great. Writing is a personal, intimate experience, and we all have to find the process that works for us. But I don’t—and can’t—outline. I’ve tried, and every time, the outline kills my creativity and sucks the life from my story.

The quote above is a perfect example of how I feel (and go about) writing my first drafts. I often know the end destination. I’m typically aware of a few landmarks that I’ll pass along the way. But for the rest of the drive, I’m flying along, only able to see as far as the extended glow of my headlights–which usually consists of the scene I’m actively writing, and if I’m lucky, a tiny glimpse of the scene to come.

Sometimes this approach can be a bit problematic—say, when I’m writing under deadline and someone wants to see a synopsis of the story upfront—but for the most part, it is the unknown that makes writing fun for me. Nothing pleases me more than being surprised by my own characters, and with detailed outlines, I feel it’s nearly impossible to be surprised. Worse still, I end up a slave to my predetermined plot points. I’ll force my protagonist down the left fork in a road because the outline says so, regardless of the fact that he/she’s eyeing the right.

Then, not surprisingly, I’ll hit a dead end. I’ll polish and tweak the scene, hoping the dead end will magically disappear, when the only true solution is to cut the scene entirely and let the character take the path he/she wanted to from the beginning. So I’ve learned to listen to my characters and let them run wild. If they diverge from my plans, that’s fine. As long as their actions seem natural and in line with their personalities, I’ll throw anything on the page during a first draft.

There have been tangents that I’ve cut later because they were unnecessary detours, but there have also been the most amazing discoveries: secondary characters I’d never before envisioned. New plot threads. Raised stakes. A setting that seems so integral to the story I’m dumbfounded it wasn’t on my “landmark” list when I first set out. In fact, some of my favorite scenes have come from letting my characters hold the reins. For me, an open roadmap is a necessity if I want to find my story and truly meet my characters. (I swear, my stories are almost never about what I initially think they are, just as my characters are never quite who I first envision them to be.)

Still, the way you get to the end—outline or not—doesn’t matter. Whatever works for you is the right solution, especially if you always listen to the heart of your story, and remain open to diverging from your preconceived plans. I think that’s what I’m really driving at here; that sometimes the magic hides a few steps off the beaten path, but you’ll never discover it if you view your outline—however informal—as absolute.

Anne Lamott, unsurprisingly, sums this up best: “If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.”

So, so true. But I’d love to hear from you guys. Do you outline, or are you more of a “headlight” writer? Have you ever stumbled across a gem in your own stories by diverging from your initial plans?


31 Responses to On outlines, and diverging from them

  1. jeffo Apr 23 2013 at 7:49 am #

    Funny, I’d never seen that quote before, but that’s exactly how I think of it. I’m glad I never made a public statement like that and tried to claim originality!

    I’m definitely a ‘wingman’ when it comes to writing. I have an opening image/scene (which often doesn’t end up as the first scene) and that’s about it; I learn the story as I go. But even then, I’ve surprised myself with unexpected turns from time-to-time. It’s part of the fun.

    The people I know who outline tell me that they, too, can be surprised by their characters and story development. I think most of them recognize the need for flexibility, that even an outline is a starting point, and not carved in stone.

    • Erin Bowman Apr 23 2013 at 11:11 am #

      Isn’t it the perfect analogy? And I’m right there with you regarding opening scenes and learning/meeting your story as you write. I am the same way 🙂

  2. Emily Kate Muyskens Apr 23 2013 at 8:57 am #

    I’ve been pondering this same “method of writing” ordeal for a while now. I’ve been at both extremes in my writing – very detailed outline and zero outline whatsoever – and I’ve found that, for me, my story unfolds best when I hit a happy medium. There are still fun discoveries to be made along the way but I’m not aimlessly wandering to the end of the story finding that there really is no major conflict at all and I’m not trying to bounce from one bullet point to the next. Like you so wisely pointed out, to each their own. Thanks for the post!

    • Erin Bowman Apr 23 2013 at 11:13 am #

      A middle ground is definitely nice so you feel that you have something you’re writing towards — plot point destinations. (I say I don’t outline, but I *do* scribble down those few milestone markers I can foresee up front. It definitely helps with my focus while drafting.)

      But yes, to each his own! (And to be honest, sometimes I think each book even needs a different approach. It all depends on the writer and story.) Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  3. Marc Vun Kannon Apr 23 2013 at 9:00 am #

    Every time, all the time. I don’t outline, not because an outline would kill my story, but because I really don’t know what the story is about until I write it. I don’t even have the relative luxury of working with predefined parts and fiddling with the arrangements in new ways. My stories are like bonsai trees, I try to influence how they grow by arranging the water and sunlight, but how the tree grows toward them is its own business.

    • Erin Bowman Apr 23 2013 at 11:15 am #

      “My stories are like bonsai trees, I try to influence how they grow by arranging the water and sunlight, but how the tree grows toward them is its own business.” <-- I love this analogy! And it's so true. Thanks for sharing.

      • Marc Vun Kannon Apr 23 2013 at 1:05 pm #

        It makes them very difficult to describe or synopsize, though. They don’t tend to be linear.

  4. Annie Apr 23 2013 at 9:55 am #

    I’m totally a headlight writer. What I enjoy about my process is writing in layers so that with each draft I only write what I know about that scene and the characters at that time. It can be sketchy or full of dialog or just listening to the emotional play happening. Then I write onto the next scene and the next. When I go back and start the next draft/layer I understand the characters and the world so much better from having gone beginning to end only writing what I know so that when I come back to that scene – I know so much more this time around and can write in more layers, give it dialog or description or whatever it’s missing. It’s still hard work sometimes but it’s also liberating not to put pressure on myself to write more than what the story is telling me for the time being.

    • Erin Bowman Apr 23 2013 at 11:17 am #

      Oh goodness, I *absolutely* know what you mean about layering. My first draft is often a mess, but a necessary one, as it helps me meet my characters and understand their story. It’s the revision–the layering in of details and depth–that really makes a story shine.

    • Marc Vun Kannon Apr 23 2013 at 11:42 am #

      I did a post recently about story layering! I do it at the page level though. I don’t know what to write next until I read what I previously wrote, and as I reread I often come up with new stuff to insert.

  5. Gretchen Apr 23 2013 at 10:41 am #

    I feel like I do a bit of both. Lately, I’ve come to realize I need to writer about 20-30K in the story before I can touch an outline. Once I have the story as I’ve termed “under my fingers,” it’s time to delve back into the mechanics and structure and see where this thing is heading. Then usually it’s still not an outline, just a large trail of post-in note ideas.

    • Erin Bowman Apr 23 2013 at 11:18 am #

      I scribble notes on post-its or in notebooks as certain plot points grow a bit clearer as well! It’s never much of an official outline, but I have to get the ideas out of my head and on paper, or I start driving myself crazy 😉

  6. Rachel Ballard Apr 23 2013 at 10:45 am #

    I’m in the process of planning my first novel and hoping to start writing in a few weeks when I finally graduate from my Master’s program in a totally unrelated field to writing. When I say planning, I mostly mean world building, figuring out my main characters, and planning a few landmarks along the way. I thought I was all set to put the first words down, then I saw some blog posts about outlining each chapter and the goals of the chapter and what the character is doing, and making sure that every little detail has a purpose and direction toward the end and and and… the thought of doing that completely overwhelmed me. So, thank you for telling me that I don’t have to do it that way. I can have the end destination and a few stops along the way and still write a great story. Right now, I’m a headlight writer. But since it is my first novel, who knows if I’ll stay that way or not. Thanks for the post.

    Another thing on my list for post-graduation freedom: read Taken. I cannot wait to read your book!!

    • Erin Bowman Apr 23 2013 at 11:27 am #

      Each chapter should definitely have a goal, and each scene a purpose…by the *final* draft. But if someone can write a first draft that does all this, I want whatever drugs they are on 😉

      I think people who outline all these points upfront are hoping to write as clean a first draft as possible. But every story requires tons of revision–always!–and since it sounds like the mere thought of this approach is overwhelming for you, I say jump in! Start with your end goal and milestone markers. Draft wildly and eagerly. You’ll have plenty of time to perfect the chapters/scenes/characters/dialog later, but you can’t polish something if you don’t get it down to begin with.

      Best of luck with your writing and master’s program!

  7. Kateri Ransom Apr 23 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    It honestly reminds me of an Actual Road Trip because when you go on one with your friends and you all have places you’d really like to see, but the things that you see and that surprise you along the way become just as, if not more, memorable in the end. That’s how the book can be just as fun for the writer as it is for the reader, and for me that’s a really crucial element. Cause if i didn’t enjoy writing it, then who’s going to enjoy reading it?

    • Erin Bowman Apr 24 2013 at 10:16 am #

      “Cause if i didn’t enjoy writing it, then who’s going to enjoy reading it?” <-- AMEN! (Love the road trip analogy as well. Very true.)

  8. Stephanie Noel Apr 23 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    I rarely find posts about outlines that really match my feeling about them; yours just did. I’ve tried both ends of the scale and realized, just like you, that a thorough outiline can be a real killer. I love to listen to my characters and see when they’ll lead me. I have the map, let’s enjoy the journey.

  9. Diana Apr 23 2013 at 3:11 pm #

    I kind of have a love-hate relationship with outlines. There was a time, near the beginning of my writing, where I wouldn’t touch one with a ten-foot-pole, but that never turned out very well. The last few stories I started I tried to outline very strictly, and they died right away due to a total lack of any conflict or interest at all. I’m in the midst of both planning a series (scary!) and finishing up a novella to which there was no outline at all (also scary, considering the amount of revision/redrafting it will need). Midway through, I tried scrawling out the plot points I thought might come next, which my characters predictably turned on their heads. It’s incredibly strange to see how my series is thriving under the outlining while the novella wilted whenever I tried to lay down even the most bare-bones plan. In short, it really does–at least for me–seem to be a case-to-case and a story-to-story basis.

    • Erin Bowman Apr 24 2013 at 10:17 am #

      “Midway through, I tried scrawling out the plot points I thought might come next, which my characters predictably turned on their heads.” <-- I actually do this as well! Sometimes you have to get a few of those vague notes/ideas out of your head and onto paper or you feel like you might end up drowning in them 😉

  10. Rosanna Silverlight Apr 23 2013 at 4:47 pm #

    Hi Erin, congratulations on the release of Taken! You must be (more than) buzzing! I can’t wait to read it. 🙂

    I’m working on my first novel so don’t have a WHOLE lot of experience under my belt, but I can still totally relate to your approach. I tried planning it – didn’t work. I tried writing a synopsis and following it – STILL didn’t work. In the end I wrote my first draft and got to know my world and my characters while writing it. Ideas I had while I was planning or synopsis-writing turned out to be total and utter baloney. So I reverse-planned my novel, getting the thing out on paper/screen and then taking it apart and seeing how it fit together.

    The reverse-planning method is ongoing – I’m getting to know my world and my characters BETTER now that I’m revising my (crappy) first draft. I think that whichever way you approach planning, you’re going to have to put in the hard elbow-grease-type work at one end of writing or the other: before you write it, planning it out scene by scene if you have to, or after you write it, during intensive revisions.

    Okay, I might be a little biased on that last statement as I’m doing the Holly Lisle How To Revise Your Novel course at the moment, but for me, I see meticulous work as being inevitable at one end of the process or the other. For me, there’s no way my story will come out fully formed the first time around. (Back to that first novel thing: perhaps it gets easier/more possible with experience?) My revisions are hard work, yet there are moments of pure unadulterated free-thinking creativity in there too, as new ideas are born and scribbled down in notebook-frenzy. And I’m choosing to see my first draft as a surprisingly solid foundation – there would be no ideas to better, no ideas to build on, if it hadn’t been written yet.

    I would like to try doing a LITTLE more planning next time I set out to write a novel from scratch, but I think that the headlight approach is fine as well. At some point along the way you have to get ideas down on paper, scrap or refine them and start over, right? Might as well muck in and do it while letting your story grow organically. 🙂

    • Erin Bowman Apr 24 2013 at 10:21 am #

      Hi, Rosanna. Thank you for the release cheer!

      “I see meticulous work as being inevitable at one end of the process or the other.” <-- Yes! I absolutely agree. And then this: "I’m choosing to see my first draft as a surprisingly solid foundation." Couldn't agree more. That's really all you can hope for. Some people use that meticulously detailed outline to help them get a solid foundation. Others are more loose in their planning. But I really do believe it's all about getting the bones of your story in place. If you find how you are comfortable working, and can secure that "foundation" as you've called it, you will be in GREAT shape when it comes time to dig into revisions. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Alexa Y. Apr 23 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    I’m both that girl who outlines and the girl who doesn’t, even though that’s obviously contradictory. I outline initially, just to get a feel for what I think the story should look like. There’s a beginning, an end and lots of fun little parts in the middle that I feel make sense. BUT when it comes down to the actual writing, I have learned that I tend to just write, let the characters move naturally and will often deviate away from the plan I made up for them in the start.

    I think I like having the security of an outline to (possibly) fall back on. But if it becomes obsolete while I write, that’s perfectly okay with me too 🙂

    • Erin Bowman Apr 24 2013 at 10:23 am #

      “I think I like having the security of an outline to (possibly) fall back on.” <-- I hear ya! This is why I always scribble down my ending an those few landmarks I envision along the way. Even though I don't think of that as a very formal "outline," having the thoughts on paper makes me feel more prepared going into the draft. (And less overwhelmed.) And isn't it amazing how our characters always deviate from our plans when we let them react naturally? Why are they so difficult? 😉

  12. Claudia McCarron Apr 24 2013 at 10:01 am #

    I started off with an outline for my first draft, and I loved the security it peovided. However, I became too attached to it, and as a result I have a first draft with a plot that has to be totally scrapped and rewritten. So I’m going to try being more flexible. The problem is that I don’t like not knowing where I’m going, it makes me uncomfortable… hopefully I’ll get used to that feeling.

    • Erin Bowman Apr 24 2013 at 10:25 am #

      “The problem is that I don’t like not knowing where I’m going, it makes me uncomfortable…” <-- I know this feeling. It's exactly why I always try to have a few landmarks in mind so even if I don't know *how* the characters get there, I at least know what I'm shooting for. That said, here's a trick I like to use when I'm completely stuck and can't see what comes next: Switch to pen and paper. I've found that if I just scribble down what I think happens next, in very loose bullet points, I'll often work myself out of the corner. (If I stay on the computer, the writing seems so formal still, and I tend to spin my wheels.) Best of luck!

  13. Sammy M. Apr 24 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    I’m kind of 50-50 between the ‘headlights’ writing and an outline, but I totally agree in letting characters take the reigns! In fact, when I was first planning the current WIP I had always written on outlines and little plot plans that a character’s name was Sirach. Lo and behold, I get to writing and his name has changed to Silas! It took me up to chapter 7 to realize that this had actually happened, and now I know it’s the perfect name for him. 🙂

  14. Peter Frahm Apr 27 2013 at 11:20 am #

    I like the headlight quote. (Sometimes my writing is more like “deer in headlights” but that’s another story.) When I begin a story, I have a rough outline and a list of characters. I have a rough idea of where I am going, but I tend to take the scenic route. It makes for a more enjoyable trip.

  15. Kim Apr 29 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    I’m a plotter. It really helps me figure out where I’m going if I plot out the story. One MS I wrote, I managed to get out the first draft in only a week (granted, it was very, very rough) because I plotted it so tightly. After I let it sit for a while, I knew I had to take some things out and add a few things more, but plotting really helps me. If I’m writing, though, and and something I had planned to happen doesn’t make sense for the character or story anymore, I’m fine with leaving it out while I draft.

    My CampNaNoWriMo manuscript was only plotted loosely, so getting through the first draft has been harder. But somethings have popped up that I hadn’t seen coming and I like it. So while I like plotting, it’s not always easy to do.

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