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To Outline or not to Outline?

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There are so many good writers here. I have a question about outlines for a story of 100 pages or more.

Do you construct an outline?

If you do, how detailed and do you stick to it?

Do you depart from the original plan on small elements or primary elements?

If you do not outline, to you know the entire story before you start?

If you do not outline, do you compose the story as you go along?

Is the conclusion preconceived?

Do you write until you arrive at a conclusion?

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This is the age-old debate between "pantsers" (people who write by the seat of their pants) and "outliners."

I can only tell you that I decided to try the "pants" approach on a story several years ago, and just launched into it. Many chapters and 60,000 words later, it's a pretty good yarn, but I have painted myself into so many corners I'm not convinced I will ever get out. A number of people have looked at it and have pleaded with me to finish it, but I'm not sure I'll be able to.

So . . . my advice is to do homework before writing.


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I'm a pantser, I guess, by R's definition.

Anyway, to respond:

Do you construct an outline?

-- Absolutely not, but then, this is a silly question in one regard. Everyone has to do what works for him, so what I do, or anyone else does, is what they’re comfortable doing. I don’t outline because I enjoy creating in the moment, forcing myself to come up with something out of nothing. I love doing that. When I’ve tried outlining—only a couple of times—I never finished the stories because it was too boring for me to write them. I already knew everything and no challenge was left.

Writing isn’t like rug weaving or playing the ukulele. You don’t do it by watching someone else or taking lessons. You do it by doing it, and learning while you write. To know whether you need to outline or not, try it both ways. Then you’ll know which you’re more comfortable with.

If you do not outline, do you know the entire story before you start?

-- No. See above. If I knew everything, it would be the same as outlining. I’d get bored.

Do you compose the story as you go along?

Well, yes and no. For the most part, yes. But before starting, I’ve learned that I need to know the substance of the story: what overall message I’m trying to communicate to the audience, how it will begin and end, and some idea of what goes in the middle. Just a general idea of that, but enough so I can point the story toward where it’s going to go. That’s why I need to know the end. If I don’t know how it’ll end in advance, I usually don’t end up finishing it.

Do you write until you arrive at a conclusion?

-- As said, I know what the conclusion will be, so yes, I write toward it so the story has forward energy, and when I get where I’m going, I stop. What else would one do?

This is all stuff you learn as you go. I think one has to write to learn how to do it. What works for me wouldn't work for most people. But the way they do it wouldn't work for me, either.


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I don't outline. Instead I have a set of events and an ending in mind. My journey is discovering how to get from the start to the end visiting as many of those events as I can (I do drop some of them if I decide that events stop them from working). The events can also morph during writing. For example, in Leopard Spots originally I had character X doing something, but when I got to that particular point in the story, character Y was better off as the one to be involved in that event.

I do, however, always keep in mind where the story is going. I won't start writing a story unless I have a good idea of how it will end.

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Thank you Graeme, Cole and Rutabaga for your responses.

I didn't pose this question to find out which was better but to see what other people are doing. I was also specific about writing the longer story. My earlier work has been mostly 5 to 15 pages but I have started writing longer. Writing longer often leads me to dead-ends.

I take great pleasure in designing a character with both desirable characteristics and flaws. Usually they are outsider types.

The impetus for the story comes when I drop them into a set and setting that is liable to produce conflict. The conflict is often between the character and the world. I guess you could call this a character driven story. I do not outline, instead I live the character when I write often have no idea where I am going. There is an effort to discover the undiscovered or the previously unspoken.

My question centers around writing the a longer story that is 100 to 200+ pages. In a story like this does the situation become more prominent? (The world, the environment and the circumstances).

Being honest, I have found the biggest and most difficult challenge in creative writing is the story itself. It can be about the character but it is often about something bigger or beyond the character.

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My four main stories had different approaches. Bogs/Gray was pantsed as Bogs which was then drastically revised as Gray, having changed from the planned teen romp to a romance in chapter six of bogs, the mismatch of styles between the first and second halves of Bogs jarred.

Wandervogel had a known start (discovering his fathers memorabilia) and a known end (Hitler and the escape from Berlin). How to get to Berlin was pantsed, how to escape was researched. Virtually all the story in between was spontaneous.

The Moor was entirely unplanned. There was one segment of a thousand words that had a known place before I started and everything else fitted round it.

Down There required that history happened in the correct order so I wrote an extended essay on European history from 1930 to 2000 and then wrote more or less linearly, adapting the history to blend into the story as I went. I actually had a problem in that I had two endings. The solution came by taking one of the endings and using it as the start... those who read it will know what I mean.

So, in my case at least, I don't have a writing strategy, it has depended on the story

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I see a lot of similarities among Cole's, Graeme's, and Jeff's approaches. I think they all have valid approaches and the bottom line seems to be 'experiment to see what works for you.'

I think Rutabaga needs to clean that paintbrush :laugh: .

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I don't follow an outline in the creation of a story, instead I spend a good deal of time thinking on the subject while doing other things. Events have inspired most of my work, some of them historical and others just a part of daily life. I suppose a known event is like an outline in that it has a beginning and an end, but even then I find my stories are character driven.

I try to think of a story in terms of dialogue between characters. The thoughts of a fictional individual motivate the action within the context of an event. If you've read Boys in Blue and Gray you can see that happening from the very beginning. That started with a very specific historical event and spun off into the main character moving between battles and meeting known historical figures.

To address Rutabaga's conundrum with an apparent dead end in a story, my choice when something like that happens is...make a ninety degree right turn. I can't tell you how many times that the creation of a detour from the main objective has allowed the story to roll onwards. Add a new character, perhaps one that is only there for a few pages but will inject a new train of thought in your ensemble of fictional people.

Blue and Gray was actually two stories I combined. When writing on the subject of young men achieving maturity so many stories contain the same ideals and with a little effort will meld together quite well. The objective is not to give up after all the effort you have put into the work. Let things simmer on the back burner and allow the flavors to combine in your mind. What you wrote last year might just have greater meaning in the future.

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The thing I do when I reach a place in a story that's bedeviling me is to stop writing strictly within the story's chronology. Many stories have parts that are difficult to write for whatever reason. So, just skip the problematic part. Think of a scene that comes later in the story and write that. Then another if the frustrating piece still won't compute. These too can be parts that land anywhere on the timeline of the story. You can keep doing this, giving yourself stepping stones. At the end, all that's left is connective tissue to add. This can work a charm.

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I usually use Cole's method when I hit an apparent dead-end, but I also like to try to work out why it's a dead-end. My characters are bossy -- they do their best to avoid doing things that aren't in character, even if I want them to. I've hit dead-ends as a consequence. To fix those ones, I go back a little and change something leading up to the dead-end point, so the characters can work around it.

In Leopard Skin Cover, there was a point where one major character had decided to not tell anything what he had planned until certain events had occurred. I then sat and stared at a blank screen while trying to work out what to do next. Eventually, I realised that I had closed off all options to continue the story in the short term until those events happened, so I went back and changed that decision. The character decided to only tell a handful of people, but that gave me something to write about until those certain events took place.

Naturally, that technique only works if the blockage is within the story itself and the parts that need to be changed haven't already been posted online, but that's one of the reasons I try to stay well ahead of the posting cycle with my writing. It gives me time to go back and make alterations if needed to help.

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In my early stories, I didn't outline or plan ahead or even know where I wanted to go-- and it showed. I my recent stories, I have written detailed outlines which I end up changing as I write the story. My characters often don't like the outline I've written and go off in their own direction. Jeremy and Rafael were quite independent in that regard. As Rafael said, "Jeremy's a bullheaded little bastard." I understand Cole's process, wanting to have the story unfold as he writes, and it is fun to have the story reveal itself as I write, but too often I have written myself into a corner and the outline is the only way I can avoid that.

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I realized that I had used an entirely incorrect metaphor when describing my writing experience. It wasn't really a matter of painting myself into corners. it was, if you will, setting up an overabundance of corners that I could paint myself into, once I made up my mind which of many story threads to pursue.

It might be better to call it the "Squirrel!!" syndrome, although that may overstate it. It was simply a matter that as I progressed in the story, I kept seeing opportunities to foreshadow and set up possible future things, without having any real clear idea whether I was going to pursue them or not, and, if I did pursue them, where they would go, and how they would fit into and serve the overall story.

So, for example, we learn early on that our young hero's father is some kind of professional (probably a corporate lawyer or some kind of dealmaker) who travels all the time and is therefore rarely home to interact with his two sons. A bit farther into the story we learn that the father has called the mother to say that his current trip will be extended, and he has to go from London (where he is right then) to some meetings in Paris. The protagonist and his younger brother roll their eyes when they hear this from their mother, because it's such a frequent occurrence. And elsewhere there are hints that the mother is kind of reaching the end of her rope with these prolonged absences. There is even a faint suggestion that the father might be fooling around with someone who accompanies him on these trips.

At the same time, our hero is surrounded by other school friends whose parents have divorced or who have other family problems. There is an interesting irony bubbling in the background as to how his family situation might be considered more "normal" than others, even though in actuality it is lacking in many ways.

The problem is, I have no idea where I would be going with all of this. It really is a complete side issue to the main thrust of the story, which is pretty straightforward coming-of-age stuff involving his own self-discovery and acceptance. I don't really need the father as a component of this story, but I just kept throwing little bits and pieces in. As far as my story is concerned, I could leave the father in Europe the whole time. Or I could bring him home, and have him interact with his sons -- but how? That's my problem . . . I have this story element hovering out there, and have trouble deciding whether or not to use it, or how to use it if I decide to. I've already got so many other things going on that I don't feel a compelling need to raise another set of stakes with the father. Yet I'm still intrigued by where it would go. So I'm like a kid in a candy store, not sure which of the many interesting and delicious things to choose.

This was definitely a seat-of-the-pants exercise on my part. I started out with a fairly simple premise and modest ambitions, and wrote a few thousand words. A friend who read it said to me, "you should make a list of your characters and write down some things about them." So I did that, and found myself becoming much more interested in the characters and where they would go in the story. And I became much more conscious of the importance of making these other characters (friends of the hero) different from one another and distinct in their personalities, rather than clones of each other with different names.

I then figured out basically where I wanted the story to go in the end. However, there are so many different ways to get there!

So I guess I'm dreaming that if I had really done some proper planning before I plunged into this tale, I might have a better handle on what elements to use or not use, which directions to take, and which "Squirrels!" I can safely leave alone.


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I don't think what you're lacking is an outline. We've already heard how having an outline seems more like a vehicle built to carry writers away from the theme as different characters climb into the driver's seat. No, I think what you're describing is a lack of discipline. If you know where the story is going, my advice would be to take it there, to not get sidetracked in twelve different directions. It's OK to have several things going on, but in my opinion, they should all be related to and supportive of the main story, or else you're just plastering words on the page to make the story longer.

I'd suggest holding the father's adventures for another tale. No reason it can't be the basis of a different story altogether. There's something to be said for keeping simple tales simple tales.


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  • 2 weeks later...

Since I write from a single characters point of view maybe following a muse is not such a bad thing..

If i was inclined to write sub-plots and complex and multiple characters comin and goin, I would have to outline just to maintain continuity, but I don't.

And I am forever influenced by the simplicity of the short story.

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I'll not be doing it again, but my short story "What are your men doing?" (on IOMFATS) was written as an outline for a much longer story. However, after I corrected the spelling etc I realised I had in fact written a rather short story, and when looked at from that point of view, to use it for its original purpose seemed rather silly.

I'll not rule slightly expanding it, but only in respect of adding a bit more detail about testicular cancer, one of the largest causes of death in young men.

Not that I've done anything to it for a while, but my attempt at a serial novel does have a clearly defined beginning, the end is sort of obvious, but point of the story is how it gets there. To that end, chapter one is mostly written, chapter two only has a title, but most of the action has been worked out and the technical bit of chapter three has been written.

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