Just like each individual is unique, so is that individual’s writing style. Some people plot and outline every detail of their work while others prefer to wing it. It can sometimes feel like a tug-of-war between the two: am I plotting/outlining enough or too much? Which one of these methods is correct?
The answer is both. Whatever works for you is the correct one.
I have tried my hand at both styles and found a happy medium between the two extremes that works for me. I originally started making it up as I went along; I remember an occasion or two when I started a story and even I didn’t know who the killer was going to be in the story (a murder mystery with heavy emphasis on the mystery!). I also tried to completely outline my story from start to finish, dot-jotting all of the major events or details that were supposed to happen in a particular chapter for each and every chapter. Here’s what I’ve learned from my venture into the world of outlining and the world of flying by the seat of my pants and also the method that works best for me.
TO OUTLINE: Outlining can be very helpful for obvious reasons; with a blank page in front of you, figuring out what is supposed to happen when or what character is supposed to do something at a certain point in the story may seem like a daunting task. That’s where the outline comes in. Okay, chapter 1, I want to introduce this character and have him/her do this. I also want to introduce the conflict with this other character by some event happening. All right, now chapter 2…and so on and so forth. For some, having a definitive path to follow to get from page 1 to the final page is a must. With a clear cut start, middle and ending, the outline can help to reduce writer’s block. You already know what’s going to happen next. Granted, even though the next chapter’s details are already laid out for you, writer’s block still may occur when trying to get from point A to point B; don’t get discouraged! Then again, the writer’s block may be a good thing because it might be an indicator that there is a plot hole that needs to be fixed. Instead of trudging your way through hundreds of pages only to find a bottomless pit of a plot hole that could put the entire story in jeopardy, having an outline can highlight issues that might occur later in the story that will need to be remedied. Wait, this character can’t do that; it’s not in his nature! I have to go back and fix this. Or perhaps something like: why didn’t the antagonist just do this? It would have made this happen instead of that happening. I need an explanation for that reasoning/action.
NOT TO OUTLINE: Part of the fun of writing is the creativity that comes as a result of imagining characters, places and scenarios. A rigid outline could interfere with the natural flow of creativity. Oh, hey, that character would make a great addition to this scene! I’ll pencil him into this chapter and see what happens instead of shoot, this character can’t be in this scene, even though I know he/she’d have some great dialogue to add and/or would really help him/her in some way. Sometimes a character or a plot may need to change over the course of a story in a way that wasn’t even initially conceived of. My story Into the Fire was an instance of a character being brought into the story that wasn’t anything I had thought of doing when I started writing it. The piece itself was a side project I was doing, just having fun with different POVs and writing suspense, sort of like the movie Vantage Point (2008, with Dennis Quaid and Forest Whitaker); the different points of view all came together to tell a single story and the truth behind what happened. I got about five chapters in when an idea hit me: what if I made the cops called in to deal with the threat be Sam and Dahlia? I like the idea of putting Sam in more stories since he was a fun character to write and explore. Once that idea occurred to me, the pieces began to fall into place. The security guard became Sam’s mentor, Edwin. Sadly, though, Edwin’s fate in that story remained unchanged, even before Edwin Hill the security guard became Edwin Hill, retired cop/mentor/foster father of Samuel Marlowe. Because I wasn’t sticking to a rigid outline, I had the freedom to adjust the story accordingly.
THE HAPPY MEDIUM: I found that what works best for me is a flexible outline. I have an idea, whether it be a prompt or a scenario, that I plan to start writing. From there, I dot jot a couple of ideas that I want to happen in the story. Here are the notes I have for one of the stories in the next installment of Good Cop Bad Cop. This story is called (tentatively) ‘Paying a Debt.’
Gloria is going to the bank
Sam recognizes something is wrong and goes with her
He is off duty, so he has no weapon on him
Robbers show up
Turns into a hostage situation
Sam contacts [character name removed to avoid spoilers] for help
With these few lines, I have an idea of where the story is headed. The next step would be to create the characters, or, at least, get some names. With a flexible outline, I can add or remove characters as I need, so I usually just start off with a bunch of first and last names that I can refer to to create characters. Once I have some characters in place, I start writing. It’s fun to let the story develop on its own, with me, as the writer, merely along for the ride. I learned the value of this when writing a separate story a few years ago and the way the chapter was chugging along, I came to a confrontation between two characters that I didn’t plan on having in the rigid outline I’d created, but I loved the scene because it really fit the characters’ personalities to nearly duke it out until interrupted by a third character both were connected to.
The story is like a child and the writer, a parent. We spend days, months, years, working on a story, developing it and making it the best it can be. That story, though, can take on its own personality and traits or quirks that may not have otherwise developed if the writer hampered its natural procession.
Outline or don’t outline-whatever you feel works best for you but remember to let your muse and the story guide you at times. You never know where a story can go unless you let it take you there!
What do you prefer, outlining or winging it?
A New York native, Sallie has a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice, with a Specialization in Forensic Science. A lifelong mystery fan, she has combined her love and passion for writing with her interests in criminal justice, law, and forensic science.
Sallie currently resides in New York with her family and two dogs, and works as a freelance writer/editor.
Good Cop Bad Cop is her debut novel, and is available everywhere books are sold in both paperback and ebook editions.