Outlining Without Outlining

I’m not a plotter.  I don’t outline stories usually– it doesn’t work for me.  However, I like writing in large quantities, and author Rachel Aaron postulates that productivity is a combination of writing at a productive time, being enthusiastic about the scene you’re writing, and knowing where the story is going.  The first time I read this, I thought I’d try it out– I quickly figured out what helped me write faster and made use of that.  I couldn’t write at specific times each day, so I substituted that with 15-minute sprints.  As a pantser, I’m flexible with my enthusiasm; if I’m not thrilled with a scene, I throw out that idea and write a different, more awesome version.  Knowing where the story was going… eh, I could do without that.

Plotting novels is a glamorous idea.  An outline lets you think about an idea in a bit more depth, figuring out where the major plot holes are going to be before they pop up.  Unfortunately, as I outlined, my enthusiasm decreased.  If I couldn’t change scenes and add plot twists at the drop of a hat, I couldn’t keep things as exciting as I wanted.  Writing became less fun and more of a chore.

Thus, I discarded that idea.  I had done well without outlines before– I didn’t mind going without them again.  And although plot holes have abounded in these recent novels, I’m still enthusiastic enough about the stories that I can weed them out in editing.  Enthusiasm seemed to have much more value than planning.

After reading about Rachel Aaron’s process again, I reconsidered.  I definitely wanted to keep enthusiasm in my writing– full outlines weren’t going to work.  But there were definitely times as I wrote where I didn’t know where the scene was going, and my enthusiasm and productivity plummeted.  I would sit for minutes trying to think up a name for a character, or stumble through descriptions of a building I hadn’t even considered before.  Did they need to turn left or right?  Should the name start with S or Z?  Is it a porcupine or a hedgehog?  These little questions slowed me down.

What’s the answer, then?  A full outline wouldn’t give me those things.  Usually when I outlined, or even when I wrote a pitch of a novel, I would choose different names or no names at all– once I began writing, I would change names around.  Obviously, planning long before I began to write wasn’t a good idea.

So, I decided to try out micro-outlining on Desolation.  Instead of doing a list of bullet points and figuring out the entire story at once, I took it scene by scene, as I was writing.  Before I began a scene I’d sit down for five minutes and figure out who the characters were, what the setting was, and try to figure out a defining emotion that I could try to carry through the scene.  I would figure out why my characters were doing certain things, write down any plot twists I wanted to come up, and jot down some witty comeback or emotional phrase I wanted someone to say.  It was just a way to figure out the stuff beforehand that would hang me up while I was writing.

It worked, more or less.  As a pantser, I will always jump at plot twists that occur to me as I’m writing, but having a little outline written five minutes before allowed me to plan the scene and jump in without losing any enthusiasm.  I figured out logistics of operations, layouts of buildings, even trains of thought I wanted to follow.  I did everything but actually write the scene, and only for one scene at a time.  By the time that was finished, I had a starting place for the scene and an ending place, occasionally complete with a first line so I could start writing immediately.  It worked wonders.  Last week I managed a 10k day with the help of a lot of Tchaikovsky and individual planning.

If you’re a pantser, try this out.  Take a paragraph and go for it.  Even if you’re a plotter, this might help– bullet point outlines don’t do everything.  Have fun with it, and tell me how it works.

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75 thoughts on “Outlining Without Outlining

  1. Wow—I’m so glad I read this! I’m definitely going to try this. Outlines always seem to suck the life out of whatever I’m writing. Nice to read some outlining tips from a fellow pantser!

    1. See if it works. This idea has the potential to fail spectacularly, so be careful with it, but I think it’s a shallow enough outlining style that you can abandon it easily if need be. Glad you got something out of this.

  2. I have the exact same problem you have. This is a very interesting idea, and I will probably try it. Outlining, to me, takes out all the surprise. And I like surprises.

  3. I find I can do most of the minutiae in my head and remember them just fine, but that it’s helpful to write a list of very roughly where I’m going – and I usually write the very last line first of all to have a definite ending and goal.

    1. Interesting. I feel like if I get the ending down first, I’ll have to do all this contriving to get there because my story has gone down the wrong trail. If I have no plan, I don’t have a wrong trail– they’re all the same. But if it works for you, awesome.

  4. I am so sick of editing…

    I can still try this with editing and I might or will try this when Camp rolls around. Will let you know the results.

  5. I’ve always despised outlining a whole plot. Then again, I’m not much of a planner or list maker, maybe that’s why I find myself very seldom at the finish line. I do like your idea of “Micro Outlining” though. Perhaps it could lead me in a direction that just might allow me to complete a project or two. I’ll have to give it a try.

  6. I have to thank you for this post Quirk. I never plan or outline much, (okay so I don’t all all), but then I sometimes have trouble of where a scene or chapter is going, fall in a plot hole and then bam. Weeks without touching that story. I think I’ll give this a try, and hopefully it works. 😀 Also, wow, a 10k day! That’s awesome.

    1. Yep. That happens to me all the time. It still happens occasionally with the micro-outline, but I can usually figure out the problem in the next micro-outline.

      Yes, it was kind of a long day, but it was worth it.

      1. Come by the chatroom. We’ve got people writing in there almost every day, and almost every night. Doesn’t matter if you can’t get there all the time, just once in a while is enough to get a few words down.

        Indeed.

  7. Interesting. For Living Rain and sequel, I’ve done a basic three-act structure outline and that’s seemed to help me a lot. The outline still changes a lot as I write the thing, but it’s seemed to help me have at least some idea of what’s coming in the future, what to aim for. I like it so far. I found out with Different that no outline/plan whatsoever = a disaster for me later, so I don’t think I’ll ever go back to that again.

    1. I empathise totally! Sure, the intricasies of the outline change as I write but the larger picture remains unmoving and that really gives me some direction! I’d written a novel once without an outline. The plotholes made me morose and it was an editing debacle.

      1. *DK builds a nicely plotted novel on top of the plot hole, sealing in all of Robyn’s plot bunnies.*

        Yeah, I’m ruthless! XD

      2. *throws a spontaneous plot twist into DK novel* *the plot holes are opened by a magic system that uses shovels*

      3. Pfft. DK’s novel is impervious to spontaneous plot twists. *DK sends out an army of Plotter Wolves to devour Robyn’s plot bunnies.*

      4. *starts bludgeoning the wolves with the magic shovels*

        Psst! Pantsers!!! I could use some help…!

      5. Liam thinks outlines can be burnt. XD Ha.

        You don’t burn the outline. The outline burns you, pantser.

        *Eats Panster plot bunny stew*. I am now sleeping. We may resume later. Unless, Amanda, you’re stepping in. If you are, make us plotters proud! The numbers are against us but our edits are not!

      1. I was pretty surprised how that’s turned out. Glad I tried it, because I used to be pretty sure that was not going to work out for me.

        And again, we’ll see how this goes with future books…it could turn out to be just a one-time thing (though I kind of hope not).

      2. Indeed. There are a few authors I know who take a different approach to each book– sometimes outlining, sometimes pantsing, sometimes something in between. You never know, although I hope for your sake you’re able to stick with this.

  8. I don’t use bullet points at all, I’ll sketch a few scenes, jot down a few conversation bits, write down one/two word notes spread across the page and then draw arrows all over the place.

    1. Miko, correct me if I’m wrong, but is that the Black Butler on your display? (By the way, I love your name!)

      Oh, and sorry for randomly barging into the thread and saying random stuff 😛

      1. I don’t know any of those…

        I’ve only started watching anime as recently as last summer. I’ve watched Death Note (I love L) and I’m currently following Naruto (I love Kakashi). I’m looking for other animes and I’d shortlisted Black Butler. I’m also going to rewatch Fullmetal Alchemist, which I had seen years ago.

      2. You should watch them! Death note is good, really good. Love the manga more and think the voice for L on the english dub is spot on! Not for Light so much. I do love Light more though. I haven’t watched Naruto because I really don’t want to get sucked it that.. BLACK BUTLER IS A MUST. (Just so you know!) And which one? Brotherhood is more spot on to the manga. The first one is a joke. Do you also read the mangas or just watch the anime

      3. Yes, Naruto is a commitment! But it will be getting over this year. And I usually stick to animes unless I have no other option because I like the colour/volume and the battle scenes are FAR more coherent. Light is an interesting villain, but I hate him because he killed L. C:

      4. It is, a MAJOR one so I stray from it. Ah, well I do both. I enjoy the manga (sometimes) more. I actually love the whole black and white thing, but maybe that’s just me. Do you like watching sub or dub? Noooo, Light is the best villain! L, was outsmarten. Poor L, but Light totally cool. I hate Near for pulling such a dirty trick later.

      5. I definitely like the dub more, but I don’t mind subs when there isn’t another choice. Also, L was doomed the second Light added that fake rule in the Death Note. L would have figured it out eventually, but Light had Rem…

        Light had two weapons: the fake rule in the Death Note and Rem. L was at a disadvantage because he was surrounded by those he couldn’t trust. And he didn’t find out about shinigami until it was too late. It was a close fight, though.

        I hate Near. The franchise sort of went down the drain after L died.

      6. For me, it depends on the voice acting and the situation. I usually get the anime both subbed and ubbed for that. I love dubbed when it comes to the softer scenes and if the vioce acting really fits the character. I like sub when it comes to the action scenes because, for some reason, Japanese is a whole lot more violent than plain English. Plus sometimes the Japanese voice actors fit better than the English ones. For example, in Blue Exorcist, Japanese Satan is much more demonic than English Satan.

        L had all sorts of backup and his mind too though. It was a battle of wits and the resources they possessed. And the elaborate scheme, Light created with the fake rule and Rem has to be rewarded. The kind of planning that went into that…was genius. L was not really at a disadvantage, in fact, both were well evenly matched, intelligence-wise and resource wise. They just had different ones. And as for Rem, she was both a tool and a problem for Light, and Misa was all sorts of trouble too. I think the battle was really really close and I would have been okay with either side winning. Good or Evil.

        But Near winning? I was enraged when that happened. The lousy trick he did? Pathetic, childish, and no where near as meeting up to what L did. Near was a child doing pranks and mean tricks. L and Light were geniuses who battled with superior intelligence and schemes. (I am passionate about this, as you can tell lol).

        And I very much agree, after L died, the franchise sorta died off as well… Light would never have another worthy oppenent as good as L.

      7. It breaks my heart to think that L and Light would have been best friends had the Death Note not existed. I was so upset in that scene just before L died…when L gives Light a foot massage and Light dries L’s hair? So sad. And so beautifully done. That episode was fantastic and heartbreaking.

        Near…I imagine L must be turning in his grave at the thought of Near throwing away all of *L’s* hard-earned millions to KIRA SUPPORTERS! Mello was seriously annoying too. They claimed he was a genius but I didn’t see it.

        Have you see the live action movies? I couldn’t. How could they make LIVE ACTION films on an anime? And one as awesome as Death Note? The casting is all wrong! The actor playing L who I saw in the trailer needed to be about half his size and much more skeletal. The hair was all wrong too, and Light…the guy playing him looked just plain weird.

        By the way, I love Misa. Her stupidity is *hilarious*!

      8. Exactly! L even mentioned that Light was his only friend, at one point. The feels! Knowing Light has to go ahead and kill him. L knew he was going to die, he knew it, and that scene, while so depressing, fit perfectly well with that. The whole biblical reference just made it ten times more emotional for everyone..

        And YES, L fought with his brain and he certainly wouldn’t have given his money away just like that! Near did not deserve the title of L. Honestly, Light was more of a L than Near or Mello ever would be. They were both BRATS. Kids who tried to be L, but when the whole wrong way of doing so. Mello…he’s just all sorts of wrong. Even in the manga as well he just made me want to jump into the pages and kill him myself…

        LOL. Don’t get me started on the movie.. Just no. It was a disaster. Usually Live Action films of anime end up being disasters. I’m going to see the one for Black Butler and I hope it doesn’t suck too much.. maybe it’ll be different.

        Her stupidity made me scream. It was funny though at times. Especially how she speaks to herself. “what can Misa Misa do??”

      9. Oh, by the way, have you seen Code Geass? Lelouch seems like an interesting character. It’s one of the animes I’ve decided to watch over the summer.

      10. Hehe…I just started watching Code Geass a few days ago. And I used to watch Maid Sama–until I started to loathe it to the core. Too many stereotypes, and the main characters irritated me to no end. ESPECIALLY that main girl. She’s too perfect. That’s it, though. 🙂

  9. I already do this with the more complicated scenes. For example, when one is revealing vital information, or at the mid-point when the plot becomes clearer. That’s when messing up would be a disaster so I need to think it through before I proceed. But then, I am a plotter.

    I’m glad this worked for you, though. And the post was nicely written.

    1. Indeed. Personally, I like to think things through before I begin as well– it’s just the time between thinking things through and writing it all that ruins me. If I go scene by scene, I’m only separated by five minutes, so I don’t loose enthusiasm. But I think I said that in the post.

      Glad you liked it.

      1. I see. But what if there are huge plot holes? Doesn’t the thought of having to fix them sort of weigh on you?

        And with reference to my other comment: *pantsers. I always spell it wrong.

      2. Nope. I usually just ignore it, or I don’t notice the plot holes until later. If the plot hole is so glaring that I’m becoming dissatisfied with the story I’m writing, I’ll figure out what’s wrong and fix it there– I might reference some foreshadowing I forgot to include in all caps as a note to stick it in later. But even then, I’m pretty calm about it.

        I edited it, if you don’t mind. It’s no problem.

  10. I’ll have to try this method. I’ve found a combination of ‘pantsing’ and ‘planning’ works. I’ll try to sketch out the broad strokes of the novel – the main characters, the key turning points, maybe even some key scenes – and then I’ll use those as sign posts to move toward while filling in the rest as I go. The freedom of just making things up adds more fun for me as a writer, and I think it makes the story more lively for the reader.

    1. Indeed. I’ve tried that method as well and it often works (although I keep my outline inside my head), but a lot of my small pantser decisions affect the larger plot, which gets annoying. But, that’s the good thing about keeping it in your head– when it’s on paper, it’s more difficult to change. In your head, it’s mutable.

  11. I love this method! I’ve been experimenting with it myself for the past few days, and it works wonders — provided I don’t wait too long after planning.

    On the pantsing versus plotting note, I can do either. It honestly depends on the novel. There are some stories where plotting drains all the entertainment out of it for me, though I might have a general idea of where I’d like the story to go. For my current novel, I’m plotting almost to the extreme — it’s so complicated and multi-faceted that it’s necessary, but it’s also a fun enough story that it never gets boring to write.

    1. Oh, indeed. I accidentally got too excited about plotting a specific segment and couldn’t write the entire segment that day. The next day, I struggled to write the scene I was so excited about previously. Keeping the two close together definitely helps.

      Good for you. The process definitely varies as you change WIPs, but a few things hold true from one to the next. I’m glad plotting works for you once in a while.

  12. This is definitely what works best for me. Of course, I think I must have over-plotted this story I’m working on right now… 😛 It’s beginning to lose its vim and vinegar.

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