Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Discovery vs. Outline: Does it depend on what you're writing?

We've all heard about outline and discovery writers. We've even heard about some people who take different approaches for different projects. This lead me to wonder: are there different stories, or more technically, contexts, where one mode (outlining or discovery) is more adaptive?

Here's my hypothesis: fantastic stories require outlines, realistic stories need to be discovered.

In the first case (which includes fantastic things like murder mysteries and thrillers that take place in the realistic world), consistency, particularly where the fantastic elements are concerned, is paramount if we're to suspend our disbelief. In the second case, the real world is so full of elements with varying significance that you have to explore to discover the ones that belong in the story.

This, of course, is not to argue that discovery and outline writing are two mutually exclusive modes. [For my part, I like to outline at the chapter level, where I make note of key scenes and plot points (i.e., what the chapter needs to accomplish), and then "discover" what actually happens as I write the chapter.]

Rather, I argue that it is more useful to understand discovery and outline writing not as modes but as approaches or techniques. Like the artist who is more comfortable with one medium than another, you may prefer one approach. But the good artist knows how to work in both water colors and oils.

What do you think?

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /


Scott said...

I do kind of a combination, I write a rough outline of where I want the story to go and some major plot points, then I let the story take me where it takes me. I try to work in my plot points, but sometimes they don't fit once I get there. New characters come as I write. But the outline is often helpful when I'm feeling stuck.

I also find it useful a lot of times to write a quick two or three sentence summary of what comes next when I end a writing session.

Julie Daines said...

Well, your hypothesis just ruined my plans for NaNoWriMo. So much for my "takes place in the real world with fantastic elements written by the seat of my pants" novel.

Deren Hansen said...


You're welcome.