Discovery Writing for Outliners

How do you discovery write with an outline?

In the writing world, there are typically two types of pre-writing techniques that people discuss: planning and pantsing. Planning, or outlining, means the author takes the time to plan out each part of the book, every plot point, subplot, and character arc. Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants), or discovery writing, as Brandon Sanderson puts it in his Writing Excuses podcast, is writing without planning out what you’re doing.

And then, of course, there is a hybrid of the two, which is usually about where I fall. So how does one plan and also discovery write? Well, I’m glad you asked. That’s the topic of today’s post!

Planning

To discovery write as a planner, you of course need to start with some sort of plan. What that looks like may vary from person to person, but here is the basic idea:

  1. Plotting your story beats. Story beats are the points in the story when major things happen, such as your inciting incident, midpoint, and climax. I follow K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors method for this, with a 3-act structure, for many of my stories. In general, having these mile posts provide a loose structure and goal posts for your writing, giving you direction for your writing. For me, they also give me how many words I should have at each point so I can get closer to my final target word counts (which is good for marketing and querying).
  2. Plotting out the beginning and end. Another method of pre-planning is to just explain what happens in the beginning and what happens at the end. Nothing else, just where you start and where you’re going.
  3. Plot the character arcs. This is one other way you can pre-plot: you figure out where you characters start and where they are going. This might be more applicable for perhaps a contemporary story or character-driven fiction.

Discovery Writing

After you have something small plotted and your milestones in place, the next part is the fun part: you get to just write to see what happens. And it’s perfectly fine to have ideas for scenes already in your head as you start, too! But this will allow for more flexibility to grow your characters and your world, as you’re not constrained by your outline.

I have found when I use a combination of outlining and discovery writing that I develop richer stories with deeper meaning. Take the next Seasons of Magic release, All That Glimmers, for example. I started this book with a simple outline highlighting the main character’s need for academic validation.

And then, as I was writing between my outline points, I discovered that my main character was grieving. She had lost one of her closest friends. And she was desperate to get her back.

By allowing myself this flexibility, I provided the space to develop a deep theme and push my characters with intense motivations that ultimately led to a better story than I had imagined when I started.

And, to me, that’s the beauty of this hybrid method.

Disclaimers and Final Thoughts

Every author approaches their writing process differently, and everyone I’ve ever talked to has gone through a different writing process for every book until they find something that works for them. And that’s both okay and expected. Every person’s brain is different, and what works for one will not work for all.

That said, this is a method, found through trial and error, that works well for me! Using a hybrid, I have a road map that allows me to keep pushing toward each smaller goal, which is much less overwhelming to me than just pushing to the ending. But I also get to just have fun with the writing.

And I will tell you, I have tried both methods to the letter. I over-outlined early on…and broke the outline almost immediately because my new ideas wouldn’t fit. I’d wasted so much time creating the first outline, then making a new outline, then another new outline when I broke it again. I’ve also written a book entirely by pantsing, starting with nothing more than a character. Well, that book is still on a shelf waiting for a full rewrite. Because I figured out important points that completely changed the story as I wrote, and the beginning of it is no good anymore. And I will never pants a story with no outlining every again.

But you know what? This is the beauty of being a writer. It’s experimentation and creation. It’s trying new things and finding things you love. It’s creating the way you work so you can create beautiful worlds and stories.

So, even if this method doesn’t work for you, chin up my friends. You will find your methods. Just keep trying new things. 🙂

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What is your writing process like? Do you consider yourself a plotter, pantser, or hybrid writer? Let’s talk in the comments!

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