On outlines, and diverging from them

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

—E.L. Doctorow (as quoted by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird)

Some writers live and breath outlines. They detail out every plot point and twist and scene and character arc. It works for them, and that’s great. Writing is a personal, intimate experience, and we all have to find the process that works for us.

But I don’t—and can’t—outline. I’ve tried, and every time, the outline kills my creativity and sucks the life from my story. The quote above is a perfect example of how I feel (and go about) writing my first drafts. I often know the end destination. I’m typically aware of a few landmarks that I’ll pass along the way. But for the rest of the drive, I’m flying along, only able to see as far as the extended glow of my headlights–which usually consists of the scene I’m actively writing, and if I’m lucky, a tiny glimpse of the scene to come. Sometimes this approach can be a bit problematic—say, when I’m writing under deadline and someone wants to see a synopsis of the story upfront—but for the most part, it is the unknown that makes writing fun for me.

Nothing pleases me more than being surprised by my own characters, and with detailed outlines, I feel it’s nearly impossible to be surprised. Worse still, I end up a slave to my predetermined plot points. I’ll force my protagonist down the left fork in a road because the outline says so, regardless of the fact that he/she’s eyeing the right.

Then, not surprisingly, I’ll hit a dead end. I’ll polish and tweak the scene, hoping the dead end will magically disappear, when the only true solution is to cut the scene entirely and let the character take the path he/she wanted to from the beginning.

So I’ve learned to listen to my characters and let them run wild. If they diverge from my plans, that’s fine. As long as their actions seem natural and in line with their personalities, I’ll throw anything on the page during a first draft. There have been tangents that I’ve cut later because they were unnecessary detours, but there have also been the most amazing discoveries: secondary characters I’d never before envisioned. New plot threads. Raised stakes. A setting that seems so integral to the story I’m dumbfounded it wasn’t on my “landmark” list when I first set out. In fact, some of my favorite scenes have come from letting my characters hold the reins. For me, an open roadmap is a necessity if I want to find my story and truly meet my characters. (I swear, my stories are almost never about what I initially think they are, just as my characters are never quite who I first envision them to be.)

Still, the way you get to the end—outline or not—doesn’t matter. Whatever works for you is the right solution, especially if you always listen to the heart of your story, and remain open to diverging from your preconceived plans.

I think that’s what I’m really driving at here; that sometimes the magic hides a few steps off the beaten path, but you’ll never discover it if you view your outline—however informal—as absolute. Anne Lamott, unsurprisingly, sums this up best: “If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.” So, so true. But I’d love to hear from you guys. 

Do you outline, or are you more of a “headlight” writer? Have you ever stumbled across a gem in your own stories by diverging from your initial plans?

This post was originally published by Erin on publishingcrawl.com.
It has been republished here and added to her blog archive.

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