Writing Fiction: Outliner or Discovery Writer?

Some fiction writers work better by just jumping in and starting writing, no planning. They’re often called discovery writers (good podcast about DW).

Some writers produce better stuff when they plan and outline and world-build a lot. They’re sometimes called outliners.

Everyone is different, but most people can probably improve their writing by using a bit of both. For example, my own fiction writing happens something like this:

My process

  1. My stories start as simple concepts in my imagination. For example,
    • a girl who can see through other people’s eyes, or
    • a ghost trying to save a living friend in peril.

    Some come from dreams.

  2. If one strikes me as interesting, I try to build on the characters and setting around it and come up with a basic story (still all just in my head, so far). For example,
    • Who is the girl? What kind of person is she? What is her situation?
    • How can she see through other people’s eyes – what kind of magic or technology, and how does it work?
    • Why is it important? Who does it hurt/help? What situations does it lead to?
  3. If I create something I like, I decide to start capturing it (on paper or a computer file). I start a written outline consisting of info like:
    • Plot summary (a paragraph)
    • Characters (3-5 bullet points about them)
    • Setting
    • Major scenes (a short paragraph for each)
    • Etc
  4. In this way, I construct the plot, setting and characters until I can see one or two key scenes really coming together in my head.
  5. At that point I make myself stop outlining and actually write some of those key scenes to “flesh them out”
  6. Getting the whole scene written down helps me learn a lot about my plot, and characters. I see some problems and have some good ideas. So I go back and revise my outline.
  7. I do the opposite, too – after writing a few more scenes out, I return to the outline to see if I like the direction I’m going. I fiddle with the outline to improve a few things, then use that to chop and change the written scenes

So I recommend trying both together and seeing what works best for you.

Potential problems

Avoid:

  1. Outlining too much and never getting started with the actual writing (the Writing Excuses guys call this “World-Builder’s disease”)
  2. Jumping in with no planning and writing thousands of words into a story that never goes anywhere or ends abruptly/unsatisfyingly
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