Outlining vs. Exploratory Writing

It’s the classic battle of writing styles! Is it better to plan a story down to the smallest detail before you begin writing, or fly by the seat of your pants, figuring out everything as you write it?

Of course, this is a false dichotomy. If you really plan a story down to the smallest details (the actual words), then you’ve written the story. And you can’t really write a story without having some sort of starting point. But there is clearly a spectrum between extensive preparation and very little preparation.

Like so many religious wars, adherents on both “sides” have strong feelings about the right way. I’m going to talk about feelings, because there’s a strong emotional component to writing. But there are logical and structural components to writing as well, so we should consider those too.

First, let’s define our terms.

What is Outlining?

At first glance, it may seem silly to even ask, but I often find that taking the time to define something sheds light onto what I’m actually trying to accomplish. Let’s take a crack at it.

An outline is a recipe for a story. In software development, we would call it an algorithm. It describes the story by breaking it down into small, ordered ideas.

A recipe has a limited level of detail, but different recipes might be more or less specific. They will probably tell you a temperature to preheat the oven, but they probably won’t tell you to open the door to put things in, or close it afterward.

The outline of a story has many more axes along which it can be more or less detailed. It could describe the plot of a novel in a few paragraphs, in chapter descriptions, or down to individual scenes. It could map out the emotional arcs of characters, or the flow of conversation in important dialogue. It could track the locations of characters or the web of their relationships.

In short, an outline can track many different aspects of a story, but it’s generally going to break them down in terms of the plot, and usually chapter-by-chaper or scene-by-scene. It will usually place them in chronological order (although it may be out of order in a non-linear story).

What is Exploratory Writing?

Exploratory writing starts with one or more ideas – “story seeds” or anchors that start to define what the story will be about. From there, you simply write to find out what will happen next.

Much like exploring a new land, you don’t know what’s ahead. You might try a path, only to discover that it leads to a dead-end and you have to back-track. You might also go a long way, only to turn back and see that there was a much better way you could have taken.

Exploratory writing embraces the idea of discovering what a story should be by going through the process of writing it.

The Feeling of Writing

There is an emotional, and some would say spiritual, aspect of writing. More than one author has connected the act of writing to the sculptor “discovering” the statue embedded in a block of marble.

When the words just seem to flow, it can feel like writing a story is more an act of discovery than a work of skilled craftsmanship. The story seems to already exist, somewhere out in the ether, and it’s the author’s job to snag it from thin air and pin it to the page.

Being a conduit for the power of a muse like this feels good. However, there are dangers to this brand of writerly mysticism. It rejects the agency of the author in their own story. It favors blind intuition at the expense of forethought and careful craftsmanship.

The Illusion of Discovery

People have been telling stories for thousands of years – before cities, before agriculture or writing. Human brains are built for narrative. Just as eyes will see phantom shapes when exposed to complete darkness, human mind will find stories and narratives in meaningless coincidences and mindless systems. It’s the fuel that drives everything from conspiracy theories to astrology.

In modern times, stories are more ubiquitous than ever before. There is an incredible abundance of stories across a wide variety of media. We are all inundated with narrative and steeped in stories from birth. An amazing side-effect of this media-rich environment is that it trains our writing intuition. We learn, instinctively, many of the shapes that stories can take.

Intuition is the brain’s subconscious pattern-matching system. We train our intuition by feeding in examples – in this case, stories. Unfortunately, intuition is an unconscious process. Recognizing that a particular pattern or trope “feels right” doesn’t automatically give you an understanding of why it works, or what the trade-offs might be. Analyzing those patterns and working to understand them helps us to improve, tweak, or fix the bits that don’t quite fit.

Pre-Editing and Post-Editing

Let’s assume for a moment that all good stories need revision. I’m going to write a first draft, and if I rewrite it several times, it will be better in some way after each revision.

In my personal experience, when I write without an outline, I end up with a rough first draft. I’m discovering what the story is about as I write it, so it’s meandering. It starts down a path, then veers off in another direction as I find the “good stuff.” The tone of the writing sometimes changes as I try to figure out what sound matches the plot. Character and their motivations may be muddy and confused.

In this case, the revision comes after the first draft, and it’s a lot of work. A lot of things need to be cut, changed or rewritten. The cost of not following a recipe is that it may take a few attempts before you manage to cook something tasty.

If we call traditional revision and rewriting “post-story editing,” then one of the advantages of outlining is that it allows for “pre-story editing.” It’s much less effort (in terms of number of words) to write the outline than it is to write the entire story, but it forces you to do a lot of the same work – figuring out the story beats, defining character motivations and arcs, and so on. Some of the problems that would eventually be obvious after writing the story out are also obvious when looking at the outline. But the cost to fix the outline (in terms of number of words) is considerably less than the cost of rewriting those portions of the completed story.

Of course, some problems just don’t reveal themselves until you get deep into the details of the story. Even with a great outline, you’ll still have problems to resolve as you write. But there’s a balance to be struck here.

The Obligatory Razor Mountain Part

Ultimately, I want to write a good story. I want to shape it into the structure that works best for it. Razor Mountain is going to be a serial. By outlining up-front, I can make sure my mysteries have pay-offs. I can make sure I’m not painting myself into a corner. I can plan my characters’ plot arcs. I can more easily keep track of the non-linear portions of the story.

However, I also want to be open to happy accidents. I want to be able to discover things about my story and incorporate them. Having an outline doesn’t preclude this.

You might say, “How can we incorporate new ideas if we already have an outline of the story?” Well, the answer is to change the outline. The outline is a guide, a recipe. A good chef tastes the food while cooking. Maybe it turns out to need a little more seasoning here and there, and they make adjustments in the middle of the process.

The outline is the clear path. It’s a way of knowing that there’s a guaranteed line from the start of the story to the end, and it’s a good path. But you can still veer off and come back to it if you notice something scenic along the way.

Even better, an outline is a record of the challenges you faced as you first built the story, and also a list of ways you thought to solve those challenges. You might think of other ways as you write. New ideas can be plugged into an existing outline to see how well they work. Maybe the new idea causes some problems. Good! Now you know the problems you have to solve if you want to incorporate that idea. You can see the trade-offs and make informed choices.

Looking Behind the Curtain

I have been in the process of outlining Razor Mountain as I wrote these last few posts. I think it’s interesting to see how other writers work, so I may end up posting my outline and other prep materials. Since this will obviously spoil the plot of the story, I may wait until it’s done. It might also be interesting to compare the initial outline and the completed story.

Are other writers interested in this sort of peek at another writer’s process? If so, would you rather be able to see everything as it happens, or get more of a recap at the end, to avoid story spoilers? Let me know what you think.

6 thoughts on “Outlining vs. Exploratory Writing

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