6 Secrets of Writing a Novel Without an Outline


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I have a confession to make.

When I was in school and a teacher would assign us to write an outline for a story, I’d finish the story first, then go back and write the outline so I’d have something to turn in. Even as a teenager I thought outlining was counterintuitive to the writing process.

—Steven James

But outlining is still taught as if it’s “the right way” to shape a story. I have a master’s degree in storytelling and I can’t think of a single time I’ve received instruction on writing a story without an outline. You’ll hear the importance of plotting out your story trumpeted at writing conferences nationwide, and if you don’t follow those formulas you’ll be labeled an SOPer (that is, a “seat-of-the-pantser,” or sometimes just a “pantser”—and no, I’m not making this up).

Over the last decade, as I’ve taught writing seminars across North America I’ve found that when I advise people to stop outlining and instead develop a more personalized, organic writing process, I get strange looks as if that goes against some sort of rule.

Well, if that’s the case, I invite you to the rebellion. If you’ve ever wanted to throw away your outline and uncover a story word by word, here’s how to get started.

1. Re-evaluate what you’ve heard about story.

Lots of outliners teach that a story should have three acts.

That’s simply not true.

Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, this is what it needs to have in order to be effective and complete: an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climactic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character or situation (usually both).

If you want to divide those into three acts, have at it.

Forget, too, what you’ve learned about stories building through “rising action,” as many popular plot graphs would have you believe. Stories build through escalating tension. Simply making more exciting things happen doesn’t ensure that readers will remain interested as the story progresses. Tightening the tension does.

[Want to land an agent? Here are 4 things to consider when researching literary agents.]

That means it’s equally unhelpful to think of your story as “character-driven” or “plot-driven.” Describing a character or simply telling us what’s happening will not drive your story forward. Tension comes from unmet desire. What readers need to know, then, is what your character wants but cannot get, and what he is doing to try to get it.

Popular outline and structure “formulas” are filled with misconceptions about what makes a story work. Rather than straightjacketing your story by forcing it into three acts, or trying to map it out as “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” take the organic approach by first simply asking yourself what is truly at the heart of your story.

Remember: What your story really needs is an orientation, a crisis or calling that disrupts normal life, relentless escalation of tension, and a satisfying climax. Along the way, you’ll need to make sure readers are compelled to empathize and connect with the main character(s), feel enough emotion to stay intrigued by the story, and gain enough insight to see the world with new eyes when they’re done.

Focus all of your attention at the heart of your story, keeping these essential elements and goals in mind, and you’ll begin to intuitively understand what needs to happen to drive the story forward.

When you’re informed about what makes a story work, you’re never writing from the seat of your pants. By letting your story develop organically, you’re delving deeper and deeper into the essence of what storytelling is all about.

2. Let narrative forces rather than formulas drive your story forward.

Imagine a giant ball of clay being held by a group of people. As one person presses against the clay, the clay’s shape changes.

The clay is your story; the people surrounding it represent the narrative forces pressing in upon it to shape it. For example:

Escalation: The tension must continue to escalate  scene by scene until it reaches a climax after which nothing is ever the same again.

Believability: The characters in your story need to act in contextually believable ways. All the time.

Causality: Everything that happens must be caused by the thing that precedes it.

Scenes and setbacks: If nothing is altered you do not have a scene. If your characters solve something without a setback you do not have a story.

Inevitability and surprise: Each scene should end in a way that’s unexpected and yet satisfying to readers. The end of every scene must be not only logical but, in retrospect, the only possible conclusion to that scene.

Continuity: Continuity develops through pace (the speed at which things are happening) and narrative energy (the momentum carrying them along).

Genre conventions: Readers enter a story with expectations based on their understanding of its genre. You need to be familiar enough with genre conventions to meet or exceed those expectations without resorting to cliches.

All of these elements, plus voice, setting, mood and more, press against the story in a continual give-and-take relationship, affecting one another and forming the shape of the tale. As you write, constantly look at the pressure each of these concepts places on the story:

OK, I need to escalate this chase scene—I had a foot chase before, so I can’t do that again. Maybe a helicopter chase? But will that be believable? Well, I’ll need to foreshadow that someone knows how to fly the helicopter and make it inevitable that they end up at the helicopter landing pad at this moment of the story. But does that fit in with the pace right here? Can I pull this off without relying on narrative gimmicks or coincidences?

Listen to the story, using questions like those in the sidebar below. It will reveal itself to you as you lean into it.

3. Follow rabbit trails.

Forget all that rubbish you’ve heard about staying on track and not following rabbit trails. Of course you should follow them. It’s inherent to the creative process. Who knows? What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that eclipses everything you previously had in mind.

Without serendipitous discoveries, your story runs the risk of feeling artificial and prepackaged. Give yourself the freedom to explore the terrain of your story. Wander daily through your idea field and unreservedly embrace the adventure.

[Did you know there are 7 reasons writing a novel makes you a badass? Read about them here.]

4. Write from the center of the paradox.

Think of your story as a contract with your readers, an agreement that you will entertain, surprise and satisfy them. Every choice that your characters make has an implication; every promise you make needs to be fulfilled. The more promises you break, the less readers will trust you. And often, when readers put a book down, that’s exactly why—they’ve stopped trusting that you’re going to fulfill the promises you’ve made.

Here are some common ways that outliners may break their contracts with readers:

Foreshadow something and fail to make it significant.

Introduce a character, make readers care about her, and then drop her from the story.

Develop conflict and then fail to resolve it in a satisfactory way.

Have characters act in unbelievable ways.

Organic writers are well-equipped to make big promises and then keep them. We’re never directionless, because we can always work on scenes that fulfill promises we’ve made earlier, or go back and foreshadow the fulfillment of promises we think of as the story takes shape.

In storytelling, what will happen informs what is happening, and what is happening informs what did. You cannot know where a story needs to go until you know where it’s been, but you cannot know where it needs to have been until you know where it’s going.

It’s a paradox.

And that’s part of the fun.

I find it helpful to discard the idea of a first draft and think of writing the entire story as an integrated whole. As you pay attention to the choices your characters make and let the implications of their choices play out on the page, you’ll find yourself writing your story forward and backward at the same time, weaving in narrative elements to create your work intuitively rather than mechanically.

5. Trust the fluidity of the process.

I love Stephen King’s analogy in his book On Writing comparing stories to fossils that we, the storytellers, are uncovering. To plot out a story is to decide beforehand what kind of dinosaur it is. King writes, “Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”

His analogy helps me to stop thinking of a story as something I create as much as it is something I uncover by asking the right questions.

When people outline, they’ll inevitably come up with ideas for scenes that seem important to the plot, but in the resulting manuscript, the transitions between these scenes (in terms of the character’s motivation to move to another place or take a specific action) are often weak. You can usually tell that an author outlined her story when you find yourself thinking, But why wouldn’t the character just …?

As you learn to feel out the story by constantly exploring what would naturally happen next, you’ll find your characters acting in more believable and honest ways.

Here’s the biggest problem with writing an outline: You’ll be tempted to use it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more of that dinosaur left to uncover.

6. Re-evaluate continuously.

So, in practice, how does this work? When you sit down at the keyboard each day, what do you do if you don’t have an outline to work from?

Reorient yourself to the context. Print out the previous 50 or 100 pages (once a week I find it helpful to do the whole novel) and read it through the eyes of a reader, not an editor. Remember, readers aren’t looking for what’s wrong with the story; they’re looking for what’s right with it. Continually ask yourself, What are readers wondering about, hoping for and expecting at this moment in the story? Then give it to them.

Draft the scene that would naturally come next. The length and breadth of the scene needs to be shaped by the narrative forces I mentioned earlier.

Go back and rework earlier scenes as needed. What you write organically will often have implications on the story you’ve already written.

Keep track of unanswered questions and unresolved problems. Review them before each read- through of your manuscript.

Come up with a system to organize your ideas as they develop. In addition to files of character descriptions, phrases, clues and so on, I have four word processing files I use to organize my thoughts: 1) Plot Questions, 2) Reminders, 3) Discarded Ideas and 4) Notes.

If you find yourself at a loss for what to write next, come up with a way to make things worse, let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening, write a scene that fulfills a promise you made earlier in the book, or work on a scene you know readers will expect based on your genre and the story you’ve told so far. When you understand the principles of good storytelling, you always have a place to start.

Move into and out of the story, big picture, small picture, focusing one day on the forest and the next day on the trees. Follow these ideas, and stories will unfold before you.

Leave outlining to English teachers. Let the rebellion begin.

Follow me on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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36 thoughts on “6 Secrets of Writing a Novel Without an Outline

  1. Majormanafemale

    Yay. I make basic outlines so I don’t forget names and basic thoughts. I am glad outlines aren’t so nessacary for a story. Obviously for play or movie you do need to write it out bit more and out line it etc and write out a script.

  2. Burt

    I loved this article. It was what I needed to hear. Sad, but I hadn’t even considered that there was such a thing at outline-less writing. I’ve never gotten too far into the planning and structure stage and typically end up with lots of piles of not much. I tend to get bogged down in details. Everything from drawing maps to details about character clothing. I recently began writing during my lunch hour and am just posting whatever I do in that time. Not worrying about dialogue or punctuation beyond what comes quickly to me – just following the thread of my thought. I realized I’d have to do some rewriting on the weekends but think it could work for me. It became obvious that I need some sort of guiding principles though and my searching turned up this article.

  3. Diogeneia

    I just ran across this article. I feel like we need a live debate between you and K.M. Weiland (look her up if you don’t know who she is) regarding outlining. She’s as much for it as you are against it–she has a whole book on it. LOL

    I have mixed feelings about outlining, but despite a bachelors degree in creative writing (summa cum laude) and a successful non-fiction writing career, was never one for the sort of outlining typically recommended. I don’t feel like I write entirely by the seat of my pants either.

    Full disclosure: I am a fan of John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story , and his 22 steps. So what I do is work through most of the exercises in his book, working out the premise, character details, desires, conflict, story world, etc. Then I jot down ideas for scenes and try to cover each of his 22 steps. This process inevitably takes on the form of an outline. Doing this helps me figure out if my story idea has any legs.

    Then I set it aside and just write. I really don’t look at any of the prep work again until I finish the first draft–unless I think of something for the story world or characters that I didn’t capture there. I do that just to have a continuity reference.

    For me, it’s not totally about whether I remembered the exact scenes I thought of or every detail of the outline I created. Just doing that prep work organizes my creative process while still allowing me to create the actual story organically.

    So my point is, in order to be successful, each writer has to do what works for him or her. Of course, if you are not getting anywhere with whatever you are doing (outlining or not, or some hybrid), a writer should also be willing to consider a different approach. 😉

  4. WesT

    Although there have been many comments about HOW the information was given, I feel that the techniques offered will help greatly in my writings. The only question I have is Where are the “questions like those in the sidebar below”?? Has anyone else found the sidebar??

  5. Blamires

    I have been reading your posts for quite a while now and I keep them in a file for when I can get the time to read. So, sorry it’s taken so long to get to this one! WHICH IS EXCELLENT BEYOND WORDS!!!
    I love everything you write and you’re totally my favorite WD writer.
    Can I just tell you, this article has validated EVERYTHING I have believed about writing, which I’ve always been told is the wrong way to do things! I LOVE THIS ARTICLE! Of course, despite all the naysayers, I have always written using my own ‘free-style’ method, with no restrictions on my imagination and no fences around my words to prevent me from exploring every avenue, with the ability to have my stories and characters ACTUALLY take on lives of their own that tell me where the story should go.
    Keep up the GREAT work. It is truly appreciated!

  6. saluk

    I feel like you are coming out strong against perhaps some equally too strong proscriptive instruction on how to write, but few of your critiques really speak to me as critiques of the writing process. They are all examples of poor writing – but that poor writing can be a result of outlining or pantsing. (In the NaNoWriMo world, pantsing is more normal than outlining, and the term is worn as a badge of honor).

    I think the real issue is that writing contains multiple processes that use different parts of your brain. Putting together a good plot, handling foreshadowing, layering in themes, making sure historical facts are accurate or fantastical laws are consistent… these are very different tasks than following a character (who doesn’t know what will happen next) through their processes of discovery, their failures and triumphs, their joys and their sorrows.

    I think some people prefer to have some structure to work in first, so that they know where the boundaries are. It helps them be more free within those lines. Others want to roam around until the bump into the edge, and go, aha! There’s my story. But the end result – if the writing is good – will usually satisfy both needs: Having a good story structure that feels organic.

    The process described here, one of roaming about and then continually evaluating and refining what you have done, is not that different from the process outliners use. Outliners maybe do some more of that logical structure-oriented work before they start writing, and have less cleanup to do after; but they also have to take a bit more time before they start. Discovery writers are going to do more of that work on the backend.

    There are positives and negatives to both approach, and either can be used as a crutch if you aren’t careful. And don’t forget people like me, who do a bunch of brainstorming before hand and write many possible outlines, before throwing everything away to jump into a random character and stumble around in the dark. But that process beforehand is important to immerse me in my world and allow me the tools to actually be able to shoot from the hip in a natural way.

    Thanks for the article! Even though it came off as a little overly rebellious, there’s a lot of good reminders. I think it can help discovery writers remember things to look out for and keep track of. And for outliners, remembering to aim for fluidity, and embrace the paradoxes is really good to hear!

  7. Nicole Evelina

    Thank you so much for this article. I tend to be an outliner, but I don’t stick to my outlines rigidly. My characters seem to enjoy blowing them to bits, so they are really more of a guideline (as Captain Barbosa reminds us.) You don’t know how much it means to read not every follows the three-act structure. I have always felt like I was doing something wrong because it doesn’t work for me. Now I won’t worry about that.

    I love your advice about following the rabbit holes. Some of my most beloved secondary characters were created thanks to those rabbit holes. (I also wrote a lot that I didn’t use, but I consider it worth it; practice makes perfect, right?)

    Your ideas of going with the flow mesh with my own experiences. When I just let go and let the characters tell their stories, beautiful things happen. It’s only when I get in my own way by forcing myself into preconceived rules/boxes that I experience writer’s block.

    Thank you again for this. I have it printed out and will be consulting it every time I start a new book or need a little nudge.

  8. Sylvia Auclair

    The way of writing described here is the way I almost always written. While I usually have a mental plan, an idea of where I want the characters to go and how I want the story to end, I never have a formal outline. I usually have a list of characters with their basic information and maybe a note of something important for each to do in the story, but that is it. I let the characters find their own way through their story. I also do like to go back and re-read from the beginning, which many people have advised me not to do. But I like to see how it reads and it gives me the opportunity add in scenes that I realize are needed for future events in the story. It’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one who does this.

  9. MookyMcD

    This article is a machine gun of logic fallacies. If someone wants to write without an outline, more power to her. But don’t use the blatantly flawed logic in this article as your rationale:

    “Lots of outliners teach that a story should have three acts.”
    According to whom? Outliners say this, but pantsers don’t? That is a general storytelling concept. First you introduce the characters, then you put them in terrible peril or in the middle of a huge conflict, then you kill them, save them, or resolve the conflict (either favorably or unfavorably for them). That has nothing to do without outlining. You want to have a bunch of conflict before introducing the characters? Go for it, but nobody is going to care about the conflict, because they don’t care about your characters involved in it yet. Resolve the conflict before anything else happens? OK, but (1) nobody will care about the resolution, because they haven’t been introduced to your characters yet; and (2) the rest of your book is going to suck, because all of the conflict was resolved in the first act. Good luck with that.

    “Popular outline and structure “formulas” are filled with misconceptions about what makes a story work.”
    The hundreds of thousands of unpublished/self-published novels written without any idea where they were going are personifications of misconceptions about what makes a story work, too. Again, this argument has nothing to do with outlining. You can outline in a bad story structure as easily as you can pants a bad story structure. This simply has nothing to do with the pros or cons of outlining. It has to do with the cons of bad storytelling.

    “Here are some common ways that outliners may break their contracts with readers:”
    These were my favorites, because the arguments are nonsensical:

    “Foreshadow something and fail to make it significant.”
    Is this a threat with outlining because if you don’t outline you don’t ever foreshadow? If you do a bad job storytelling, this can happen if you outline. If you do a good job, the fact that you actually know what is supposed to happen four scenes down the road makes it possible to foreshadow. At best, this can be read as “since you don’t know what’s going to happen either, you don’t ever foreshadow.” Not what I would call an advantage. Chekhov wasn’t only telling us that the gun from the first chapter needs to be used by the third. He was also telling us that if someone grabs a gun to save the day in the third, it should have been introduced in the first. The alternative is deus ex pantser.

    “Introduce a character, make readers care about her, and then drop her from the story.”
    What the hell is this person talking about? Before an outliner introduces a character, she knows whether she’s relevant to the story. This is a problem outlining helps you avoid (see the “advantages of rabbit trails” analysis in the article, which directly contradicts this part of the article).

    “Develop conflict and then fail to resolve it in a satisfactory way.”
    Again, an outline is not guarantee this can’t happen, but it is a step in the right direction. Outlining requires the writer to think of what the conflict is and then reason through the resolution conceptually. Just letting your characters wander around does not lead to more satisfactory conflict resolution.

    “Have characters act in unbelievable ways.”
    Maybe I missed it. Is this article just tongue-in-cheek sarcasm? Looking at the cause, effect, interrelationships and long-term results of a character’s actions from a bird’s-eye view does not make them act more unbelievably. If I need a character to pick a lock in Chapter 8, I’ll show him getting out of prison for burglary in Chapter 2 and maybe even have him dig up his old lock-picking tools that he buried years before in Chapter 6. Knowing where the story is going ahead of time guards against this, it doesn’t cause it.

    This author just listed a bunch of disadvantages not knowing where your story will go (you can’t foreshadow if even you don’t know what’s coming next, you can’t know what significance your character will have in the last chapter when you introduce her if you don’t know what is going to happen in the last chapter, same for conflicts, same for planning out things so they remain believable.). Then just blithely asserts that they are disadvantages of outlining.

    Some people write incredibly well without outlines, so that part doesn’t bother me. Irrational arguments swimming in patent logical fallacies, however, bug the crap out of me.

    1. jaredbernard

      Thanks for coming back for a second post, Mooky. I wholeheartedly agree with your critique of this article’s pretentious pretzel logic, as I hinted at yesterday. I’m not condoning elaborate set-in-stone outlines (I don’t even know who uses them aside from maybe screenwriters) or arbitrarily aimless narratives, but this article is using certain arguments against outlines that are fundamentally irrational.

    2. Svapne

      In regards to your comments on “Have characters act in unbelievable ways,” I think that the article refers to bending characters to suit situations. So you *outline* the plot, and it has to go that way (because you can’t, you know, change the outline… I don’t really think anyone would write in concrete like that), but you’ve *developed* the character in a different direction- such that the two don’t mesh. I have seen a lot of bombing on the writing prompt forums when people use created characters because they’re being inserted into scenes they were never meant to be in.

      I think a lot of the points are silly if they’re based on someone that writes in concrete, but I’ve also never met anyone who writes like that. If I ever meet one, I’ll stop thinking so many of the points here are flawed.

      So, in summary, I agree that it sounds like this article is totally one camp vs. the other with no middle ground (and I express my thoughts below, in a comment of my own)…

      But, honestly, though I get your points, but you’re going about making them in… I don’t know how to say this, honestly… maybe… harsh/ rant-like way. Not that it’s not warranted on some of these points… I guess where I’m coming from is that I’d love to read a retort to this article that was… well… a professional retort you would submit to a journal or something. If you’re here, you’ve got writing talent. Don’t squander it on angry rants when you can weave a much more elegant reply.

  10. scribe.di@cox.net

    I’ve written two novels as a pantser and have received positive feedback from other writers and editors. Outlining seems so…contrived. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone!

  11. Kathy Steinemann

    Brian, I really enjoyed your thoughts. I start a story with a seed and then watch the branches grow in various directions. An outline is herbicide on that process.

    I don’t know if a satisfying climax is always the right direction to take. Sometimes stories that end with questions are the ones that stick with readers.

  12. MookyMcD

    I think there are two ends of the spectrum that any writer who is interested in commercial or even mainstream literary success should probably avoid. At one end of the spectrum is a concrete outline that stifles any organic character or plot growth. At the other end of the spectrum is starting a 100,000 word novel without knowing where it starts and where it ends and having a reasonable idea how it is going to get from the former to the latter. There is a lot of real estate between those extremes, and I’ve found myself at different places on the spectrum because of the nature of different projects, but I cannot imagine going to either extreme for any project.

  13. JohnA

    As far as I know, Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad were just two writers who didn’t outline – who wrote seat-of-the-pants – and they didn’t do too badly.

    And while a novel is fiction, were the story to be real life, the characters might plan and plot, but they could hardly dictate the outcome of a course of action. Why should a novelist?

  14. Laura DragonWench

    Thank you for this article! I no longer feel alone. Whenever I received a writing assignment of any kind that required an outline, when at all possible I did the same thing as Steven James: I’d complete the assignment early (and several hundreds of words over the required limit) and then write up an outline. I’ve never been able to write within the strict confines of an outline, yet every time I read another piece of writing advice, one of the first things I see is “create an outline of your story.” And I immediately feel inferior because if I fail at not being able to complete that initial step, does that mean I’m automatically destined to fail with the rest of my writing? (My low self-esteem invariably answers with a resounding “YES!” which I try to ignore.) I enjoy letting my characters and the situations of my story take me where they will. Sometimes I have to wrangle things when they get too far out of hand, but other times I discover that the wandering path I’ve been led down has actually created a more cohesive and creative narrative. Not to mention I can deepen my characters’ personalities and motivations by letting them “speak” to me; in a way, they explain why this particular story needs to be told. If I follow a narrow outline, how much then am I missing out on?

  15. Kerr Berr

    Since when did the writer of this excellent revelation learn how to read my mind? Our stories are live entities when properly translated into words. I’d share this wonderful epiphany with all my friends, but it tastes so delicious that I want to hoard it until they beg for the secret. Although I knew all these things, I can’t imagine putting them into words so eloquently as is done here, and only hope my characters continue to take me in new directions as they always have because they achieve a life of their own beyond my control.

    Call it “muse” if you wish. I call it magic.

  16. Becky

    I have never been able to outline. It seems a bit too pigeon-holed and forced. That is a rigid outline: I, II, III–etc. I could never force myself to do that. I am working on my first novel now. I’ve written several short stories in college years and years ago and completely stopped writing for a very long time. Then, forced into an early retirement for health reasons, I had all this time on my hands, so decided to write the novel I’ve always wanted to write. The issue that I’m having is structure. I tried to outline at first, to no avail. So, I decided that I’d just start writing. Then I got stuck. I didn’t know where to go. I am writing a dual mystery in two different timelines, a cold case from 1993 and an even colder case from old west 1871. I’m finding with a mystery, you do need to do some plotting to know where you are going, but not so rigid that it stifles creativity. So, I guess I am half and half. I read Stephen King’s On Writing too. I am a big fan as a reader, and I’ve read a lot of how-to books on writing. This one is the best of them all. It is as if he is sitting there in a recliner or sofa next to you, telling you his story. It amazes me that he can write the huge volumes with so many characters and not outline. Anyway, I am still finding my way. Does anyone have any advice for me about weaving a tight murder story organically?

  17. johnmorrisbenson

    I even discouraged starting with a packet of 3×5 index cards for research papers. I saw nothing wrong with what was most comfortable for the student. I was nearly banned from the English department.

    But wait! I had been making a very good part-time income as a technical writer (while teaching) and had more published articles than the entire department.

    In the words of Tevye, “Tradition, Tradition”

  18. Jeri Baird

    Big sigh of relief! I write this way and rather happily. Then I read an article that makes me feel somehow deficient because I don’t plan at all. This article seeped deep into my soul and said, yes, trust the process! This is how the magic comes.

  19. Svapne

    I would agree that writing a concrete, no-deviation outline is stupid, but I’ve never seen anyone do that. Kudos to a writer that can make it actually work without forcing characters that are developing in a different direction adhere to the original plan.

    I would agree with jaredbernard that it’s got to be impossible to write with no idea where things are going. Even if it’s in your brain, you probably have a rough outline of *some* sort. I’m one of the most chaotic writers, and I even keep a brief mental outline. But I’m pretty sure this article means to refer to those soul-killing, set-in-stone, table-of-contents-to-be outlines, and not some simple mental notes.

    As for my own style, I’m generally fairly organic and sporadic, writing what comes to me completely without regard to logical order.

    -I generally write the beginning, because I usually think up rich expositions first.

    -If I know where it ends, I write the ending next (either very broad how-the-world-changed stuff or very narrow, personal stuff that doesn’t necessarily change too much even if the character(s) involved are sole survivors or among the masses).

    -While I may have a general idea for some things in the middle, I usually leave that to develop organically, and shape whatever else happens around what grows. I write chaotically, so when I come up with an idea, even if it is three chapters ahead, I write it down. It keeps me from forgetting things and allows me to work them in as I go along.

    So I’m glad I’m not alone in the chaos!

  20. Mertz

    At last…someone else who seems to work the way I do. I started writing only a few years ago after spending years fixing computers and did things similar to this article right only to be told by other “writing” friends I’ve met online that I was doing it all wrong. They knew more because of the Creative Writing courses they took in college. Ahh…what a relief that I didn’t listen to them!

  21. JKDauer

    For years I have tried to outline my stories before I write them, and find halfway through the process that I give up, completely frustrated. In every aspect of my life I am detailed and make lists for everything, but when it comes to my writing I just have to dive in and let the story take over. I don’t believe there is a right way, or a wrong way…only the way that works best for you as an individual. If that makes me a Rebel, so be it!

  22. sassy

    The topic of “pantzing” as opposed to outlining comes up all the time. Most instruction will suggest outlining over pantzing because it organizes thinking. In other words, an outline is a “skeleton” guide for the writing to flesh out into an organic body of the story that goes from the beginning (setup or protagonist’s ordinary life style) to the middle (extraordinary crisis and stakes that disrupt pro’s ordinary life style, forcing choices) that lead to (life style changes) the end. That is the outline for every story genre. It is the outline for life itself. We all live it. Director Hitchcock said it best: Entertainment is life with all the dull stuff taken out. We relate to and learn from the experience even if it is fiction.

  23. jaredbernard

    Sorry, but this is a little pedantic. I agree that organic writing is important — Alice Munro taught us that — but to imply that outline-less writers are better able to fulfill contractual obligations made to readers because they are more attuned to the direction of their stories is hairsplitting pedagogy. You just have the outline in your head. What difference does it make if the writer keeps the story’s direction in mind or if the writer writes it down? I think outlines are often useful, but I rarely write them down and when I do I only write a rough back-of-the-napkin style half-pager. Whatever works. But don’t tell me keeping your story’s plans in your mind is not an outline.

    1. FailingBetter

      I hear what you’re saying, and I get that even when we’re not planning we’re a step or two ahead in our minds. To me what resonates in this article is not being too formulaic. I can tell when I pick up a book that’s just been too, TOO planned out–like some romance books for instance. They do have a formula, some of them follow it a little too strictly, and it’s like . . . where’s the tension? Even if I do know there’s going to be a HEA, I need some great back-and-forth guessing.
      Anyway, that’s my nickel, for what it’s worth.

  24. Sankat

    I am so glad to find out that I’m not a freak of nature of the writing world. I don’t use outlines and just let the stories flow and then go back and rearrange and edit. I believe that better stories are told that way because you are not over-analyzing each and every scene. Thank you so much for such a great article. I’m proud to be a REBEL!!!!!!

  25. captainbarred

    Great article!!!!

    In all honesty, it is rather refreshing to read this. I have NEVER been able to outline as I tend to lose interest in the story when I know how it plays out. I often feel as though I am reading something new and exciting even as the words form across my screen and that excitement to find out what happens next is what makes me keep writing!

    Short stories aside, I have never finished a novel/rough draft when I have the story planned out.

  26. Jackie

    Amazing article that raises a lot of good points. With my latest project, I’d been doing all my brainstorming and planning before settling down to write it. Every other story I’ve written, I’ve done the exact opposite, barreling in without my idea being fully realized, so I’m doing this for a change of pace. Nonetheless, I’ll take a lot of this to heart while I continue along that process, especially when it comes to making sure my character’s motivation is concise and the ensemble of cast members act within their given characterications


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