Writerly Notions: to outline or not? idea or story

I think the parlance terms are “plotter” or “pantser”: Does one write a structured outline or structure the story as one goes along?

I’m trying to process this whole outline vs. no outline. And how that relates to revision. And where I fit. As I’ve done both, and I’ve done something in the middle, where I have a basic procedure of events following each other.

Like, if I have a rudimentary outline, but the actual first draft deviates from that and has developed a completely different tone and plot, which is the one that should be used in revision? The initial outline or impetus for the story? Or what the story became? Which is truer to the story?

And those questions open up a more important distinction: knowing what the engine or heart of the story is. This leads to what I’ve begun to realize: there’s a distinction between writing an idea and writing a story. This is where characters and character backstory and motivation becomes compelling.

More importantly, I’ve come to realize there’s a distinction between writing an idea and writing a story. This is where characters and character backstory and motivation becomes compelling.

I started re-reading an old how-to-write-short-stories book I’d forgotten I was reading. One of the exercises was to create a character and list significant details about the character.

I’m not going to go into how that — creating a character straight up from scratch — is just nope for me. But taking a pre-established character I have and digging up some significant details, maybe some I hadn’t known about…

The next exercise was to imagine a scenario the character is in and then to pick out significant details from the list that would be relevant in the scenario. Again, that was a bit of a nope for me. And that’s because it was much easier for me to work in reverse.

Select a significant detail (e.g. fear of fire, being a do-good-er) and frame a scenario (e.g. the climax, with emotional connections and rudimentary character concepts) around that. And bang, I had what felt to me like a compelling story — a character arc with change and something to overcome — rather than a compelling idea — certain concepts are used to built a non-outlined plot.

So, I guess this is part realizing that I work in ways that don’t jive with conventional writing rules (also I’m Lawful Good when it comes to Structured Rules* to my detriment) and part figuring out what it all means.

Maybe it really breaks down to knowing what a story’s heart or center is about. It can’t just be “oooh, that’s a cool concept from mythology” or “I think so-and-so would like a story with these specific ideas” or “that’s a compelling scenario; how did it get to that point?” (okay, the last one’s not terrible, but the story as written didn’t really, um, work. At all. Or set up the scenario well.)

And that’s why I think, for me, having some idea of why or what the story is for — it’s emotion, maybe — is important. Because then maybe I’ll have a guideline for gauging what to include or exclude in revisions. But that’s not having an outline. It’s having a heart. Or a character. Or growth. Doesn’t have to be positive growth; some stories can be tragic. But there’s growth of some sort.

Also, I may be disadvantaged by my love of fairy tales and myth. Stories don’t have to be about change or growth or heart or have characters with wants, stories just have to be entertaining, strange, and filled with wondrous events and deeds.

But if I combined the two — entertaining, strange, and wondrous events and deeds & characters and growth and the-heart-of-the-story — think of what that could be.

*strictly in an education or school setting



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