Writing Inside the (Out)Lines – Redux: A Creative Departure

(Or, Why Much of What You Plan in Your Outline Will Get Changed Along the Way)

A Distractions & Subtractions post for Rule of Stupid

Writing a novel is an endeavour of many emotions:

  • The excitement at having an idea take root in your head.
  • The pride you feel every time you sit down at the computer and add new words.
  • The anxiety that maybe you won’t be able to capture your idea in words as clearly as it plays out in your head.
  • The satisfaction of when all the plot pieces finally fall into place in your mind, and you’re finally convinced that yes, this story works.
  • And then, after months or even years of dedication, when the novel is finally completed, a satisfaction of a different sort that results from having successfully achieved a difficult, long-term goal.

But sometimes, this latter satisfaction comes prematurely; sometimes, satisfaction #2 and satisfaction #1 commingle, until they end up one in the same.

That is to say, sometimes, having devised a fully functional plot in one’s head (or on paper, or on the screen) feels like such a sense of accomplishment, the subsequent desire to actually write the novel disappears.

Such is the writing subtraction of poet/ranter, Rule of Stupid“I lose interest too soon,” ROS writes.  “Once the plot is mapped in my head I don’t feel compelled to write it any more – why should I, I’ve already read it!”

In my previous “Inside the (Out)Lines” post, I wrote about writers who work by the “seat of their pants” (pantsers) and those who outline and pre-write their work (plotters).

In both the main post and the comments, I touched on how each of these labels – like all labels – has certain stereotypes associated with them, both positive and negative: plotters are too rigid in their storytelling; pansters’ work is an “imagination free-for-all”; plotters are efficient, and streamline the entire writing process; pantsers are disorganized and often write themselves into corners.

The truth is, despite using both labels as a convenient shorthand to determine the methodical leanings of writers, I don’t actually believe in the existence of either plotters or pantsers in their purest sense.

There are many shades along the spectrum of plot creation that blend aspects of both plotting and pantsing.  Focusing solely upon the extremes – beyond strengthening the preconceptions held by some members of the opposite writing tribe – can make us forget this fact.

It can cause a writer to truly believe that a plot already mapped out is a completed story set in stone that will never undergo change.

But in looking past both the labels and the stereotypes behind them, one will find that both writing and plotting can be much more dynamic and free.

Building a tower of magic

Not all plotters are created equally.

Some (kind of like myself), write “outlines” that are little more than sequential brain drains – basically, what would otherwise (in my case) amount to a 136-page (for a novel in two volumes) stream-of-consciousness, run-on sentence were it not for injudicious use of bullet points.  A place to store the various twists and turns of the story to prevent it being forgotten along the way.

Others, however, aren’t so much seeking to remember what they came up with as physically build their novels from the ground up, like a tower.

They are the ones who decide up front how many words long a novel is going to be, and who mathematically calculate how many chapters it will have; how many scenes per chapter; how many words per scene, and how many scenes will be in each character’s point-of-view, not to mention everything that actually happens over the course of the story.  Fantasy author Holly Lisle is one such plotter who comes to mind.

But even über-plotter Holly Lisle is quick to mention the following:

You’ll discover surprises — scenes that play off of each other to create humor or tragedy that you had not foreseen. You’ll find a great deal of magic waiting as you shuffle your little squares of paper [scenes] around.

You’ll also find scenes that don’t seem to fit….  By working in backstory, changing some of your plot around, and devising some deceptions and surprises, you can often create a place for the out-of-place scene that will add layers, depth, and power to your story.

In other words, an outline is not the be all and end all.  It need not be an inviolable contract to be executed to the letter, to the point that all the joy of actually writing the story is shot dead in a spray of bullet points.

Quite the contrary: if you let it – if you change the way you think about what an outline actually is – there’s still plenty of room for creativity to emerge.  Indeed, it will be impossible for it not to.

Changing circumstances

Let’s stop talking about novel outlines for a moment and instead think about everyday life.  How often does anything in life go totally according to plan?

Not that often for me, and I’m probably one of the most rigid over-planners you’ll ever encounter.

Circumstances are always changing, both for the better and for the worse, thus forcing us to adapt and often experience different outcomes than what we’d originally had in mind, again both for the better and the worse.

A novel outline is no different.  Having set out the major points of a story, I think you’re giving yourself far too little credit, ROS, if, over the course of your novel’s 80,000+ pages, you think you’ll never have a new idea that might take your tale in a different direction.  And perhaps giving yourself too much credit to think you’ve accounted for every possible thing that can go wrong in your story before you’ve even started writing it.

Other books or movies could inspire you in a new way.  Current events could give rise to a new theme in your story.  You could learn something new about the subject you’re writing about.

Certain characters might prove less interesting or important than you thought.  Or more important; an otherwise minor one could totally take over the story, and take it along a much more engaging path.

You yourself might change – your beliefs, your values, your interests – particularly if a substantial amount of time has passed between the devising of the outline and the commencement of the associated novel.

Do you really know what’s going to happen in the story?  Do you really know how?  To assume yes it to deny yourself to chance to truly find out.

A creative departure

I don’t like to think of an outline as a tour bus itinerary in which I know upfront that first I’ll visit the prince’s castle and then the enchanted forest and then the hermit’s hideaway within said forest because that’s the tour I paid for.

Writers tend to refer to the act of outlining as “mapping out the plot”.  In this vein, I find it more helpful to visualize an outline as a genuine map – a representation of where I’m starting and where I expect to conclude – yet with countless side streets and byways and detours I might either knowingly choose or inadvertently be forced to travel along to avoid unforeseen plot holes, slow sections, or other roadblocks than can bog down a piece of writing and necessitate a change of course.

Your novel is never going to be actually as you imagined it; there is a whole substructure of themes and subplots and allegories that don’t even exist until you start writing it and your subconscious beings to surface.  Discovering what form that substructure will take is one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing there is.

Garth Nix, author of the YA fantasy Abhorsen Trilogy writes,

For all my longer works (i.e. the novels) I write chapter outlines so I can have the pleasure of departing from them later on.

And not to restrict this notion to writing, Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest and most influential painters/sculptors of the 20th century, is quoted as saying,

I begin with an idea, and then it becomes something else.

(Image source)


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10 thoughts on “Writing Inside the (Out)Lines – Redux: A Creative Departure

  1. I’m about to put my money where my mouth is (despite the unsanitary aspects of doing so) and start a novel for which all I have is a concept and three characters. I need to get over the “this will turn out bad” hump that’s currently standing in my way.

    In fact, I’m going to blog about it.

    Thanks. This isn’t the first time you’ve inspired a post idea.


  2. Glad to be of inspiration, Eric. 😉

    And yes, it’s best to just get over that hump, for a fully outlined novel has just as much potential to turn out badly as a pantser’ed one…. Er, that was meant to be encouraging.

    Looking forward to reading your post.


  3. I really loved the way you described this…”I find it more helpful to visualize an outline as a genuine map – a representation of where I’m starting and where I expect to conclude – yet with countless side streets and byways and detours I might either knowingly choose or inadvertently be forced to travel along to avoid unforeseen plot holes, slow sections, or other roadblocks than can bog down a piece of writing and necessitate a change of course.”

    I’m in the outlining phase once again, and I must agree that I use it as a map, to join the beginning and the end. An odd smattering of dialogue inhabits some sections while choppy bullet points inhabit others, but it’s all about the bigger picture so I can connect the dots when the time comes.


    • Hi Britt, thanks for the comment. We seem to be of like minds on this matter. Connecting the dots is a great way to put it. Sometimes, unexpected things happen in between those dots, but that’s no problem for me (I actually kind of like it that what’s going to happen is a mystery even to me) because I always have something to come back to if I get lost amongst my meandering. 🙂


  4. Pingback: What’s the Hardest Part of Writing? « Sonia G Medeiros

  5. I agree completely. It’s a good idea to have a basic direction to start heading – when I don’t, I tend to write myself straight into a tree. But I know it’ll be the characters who tell me all the best parts. Like the rest of us, they can’t be sure of what they’ll do or say in a certain situation until it actually happens to them.

    I usually start with a really loose outline for the whole story – literally maybe four sentences total – and do a slightly more detailed one for about two to three chapters ahead of where I am.


    • Hi double-F Jenniffer. 🙂 Thanks for the comment. I like how you put it: “Like the rest of us, they can’t be sure of what they’ll do or say in a certain situation until it actually happens to them.” So true, and so very in keeping with how my characters start to live their own lives inside my head the longer I spend working on their stories.

      That’s an interesting technique you have of only plotting 3-4 chapters in advance – kind of a hybrid of plotting and pantsing. For me, my novel is plotted to the very end, although I’m currently on an extended detour (which I haven’t bothered to plot out), and will therefore be arriving at that end via an alternate route.


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