How to Write by the Seat of Your Pants: Outline or No?
by Dermot Davis
Whereas most writers I know favor one form of writing preparation to another, I tend to differ my approach each time, depending on the project. If I was to do a quick survey of writers I know, however, most, if not all would tell me that they definitely – will always – outline a story before they begin to write the first line of the story. To write without outline, some will tell me, is akin to flying in the dark without radar or any navigable aids to assist you. Not only have you no idea where you are heading – and hence, you could end up anywhere – but you also, just might crash!
Whereas I agree that crashing (presumably, getting so stuck in the story that it becomes impossible to complete) does not sound like a good thing, ending up somewhere that you never intended to go may not be such a bad thing, at all. In fact, it may turn out to be a very good thing. Ending up in some place that you never knew even existed could be downright magical!
Admittedly, sometimes I may just be just being lazy by not outlining a story before I begin and in fairness, I find a lot of pre-preparation of writing a book to be downright boring but that doesn’t take away from extolling the virtues of not outlining a story before you begin to write, proper. Many authors I know will “beat outline” a story in depth and write full biographies of each of the characters that inhabit the story, perhaps even including where they went to kindergarten and what their favorite color is. The beat outline chronicles every scene and twist and turn in the story, right down to length of scene or set piece and covers how each character will change and grow, resulting in their overall “arc” or their final growth resolution.
Whereas I may not go into such detail before every project, I have deeply outlined a story in great detail. Doing so, to me, feels like telling a story with a safety harness attached. It gives a great sense of purpose and direction to the writing and I know that if at any point of the way I may get stuck, I simply study my outline again and I’m back on track. Another wonderful feature of the detailed outline is the fact that you know whether the story you’re going to write works, before you even write it. That’s worth the price of admission, right there. In fact, by outlining the story before you begin is almost like doing the hard work; doing all the heavy lifting first so that the actual writing of the story becomes a breeze. You’ve already figured out the kinks and problems with plot, so you know you’re not wasting any time by writing yourself into any troublesome corners that you can’t get yourself out of.
Writing without an outline – or working with only a very general outline – is a different form of writing that I reserve to the stories that I only have a loose idea about and I want to explore them while I’m writing it. Sometimes I like to surprise myself and in the act of writing itself, I surprise myself often. Many writers have expressed that sometimes the story “writes itself” or characters become almost real and seem to generate their own ideas about where they think the story ought to go. Whereas I might describe outlining as “imposing” personality traits and motives upon my characters, when writing them without outline, they can “come alive” and tell me what their motives are and seem to develop personality traits, all of their own.
In this form of writing, yes, very much you are writing by the seat of your pants and just like the opening analogy of the airplane pilot, you could end up somewhere you didn’t even know you were headed. I have to admonish that writing without outline is a risky proposition and like most risky propositions, you could end up lucky or just plain broke. I have written stories in this way that turned out magical and beyond my own initial creative impulses but I have also ended up with unusable stories that have so much problems with them, it’s not worth my investment in time to fix them and they end up in the proverbial bottom drawer.
How do you decide to outline first or not outline? I would suggest trying it both ways and seeing where your aptitude lies. Only you can answer for sure if flying by the seat of the pants is a worthwhile thrill ride for you. Or not.
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Genre - Literary Fiction
Rating – PG