Outlining vs Discovering Writing pt. III

Part 3 of Outlining v Discovering Writing: Strategies for Discovery Writers

Not a real fork-in-the-road that writers need to divide themselves over...
Photo by Jens Lelie / Unsplash

I feel there is need to course correct, and it's not one coming from pure ignorance, but rather how much more delineated things become the further down the line of introspection, self-discovery, and learning one gets.

Thus far I have sort of dichotomized Discovery Writing vs Outlining, and I think this is a too simple view. Rather, it can be likened more of a spectrum, and one where the result at the end of a completed manuscript is the same, but it is the order of operations in how it is accomplished that is different. The end result is--hopefully--a great story, and I can say right here and now, that a good story can be achieved by either a planner or a pantser. And really, to typify these styles as "this or that" is a misconception...here is what I mean.

At the end of the day, the fire of creativity–of Creatio Ex Nihilo–is a bridge they must both cross. A bridge made of their own power... it's just how they decide to lay out the bricks that makes the difference.

This may be confusing, but really, the Outliner is merely the Discovery Writer who does his discovery before penning his prose. It's a false dichotomy to present it as either/or, as the more I've reflected, read, and learned, the more I've realized that as I was multidrafting (which is another phrase for the Discovery Writing process) I was developing an outline for the story, but on a broader, admittedly messier level. I was letting my outline work itself out as I wrote the story, but it was no less a sort of "canon" that was just as definitive and curative to my future ideas as a pointed story outline.

The Outliner, in contrast, multidrafts ideas and story arcs and plots in their head, putting them on paper in more concise, crystalized fashion, and it is the water of their narrative-to-come that will wet these ideas and grow them into their story. They collate their ideas, character motivations, and events beforehand, rather than letting them collate and spin off one another as they take to the page. The Discovery Writer lets the permutations of their ideas wed together (or war together, in a beautiful, blitzkrieg display) on the page as they are evolving, whereas the Outliner does this same process in a more concise manner before penning out the story. Both have the labor of finding their story, it is just how they go about finding it that is different.

The Outliner's germinal layer is set in a more concise, structured way, but it is a misperception to think it is by any means antithetical to creativity. For the Outliner, the muse has its course as they array the post-it notes, as they delineate their character arcs before actually writing the prose. There is plenty of creativity to be had here too, it's just the approach of the ideas that is different. The Outliner and the Discovery Writer both share the sense of discovering, or finding out, but it is how the story-to-be-discovered is taken into their mind and put on paper that makes the difference. Both are rubbing two sticks together, hoping to get a spark. At the end of the day, the fire of creativityof Creatio Ex Nihilo–is a bridge they must both cross. A bridge made of their own power... it's just how they decide to lay out the bricks that makes the difference.

This has been a realization to me of late, as before this I had the misperception that these were two polar opposite techniques. I've come of late to realize that they are rather two directions of a continuum, and it's how far down either way one wants to go that separates them. But in the end, both have a mountain of discovery to be had regarding their story, it's just how the individual decides to parcel it off.

From here, I thought it would be helpful to discuss some of the different strategies one can employ in Outlining or Discovery Writing. Almost everything I will be posting is from other sources that I frequent. I'm not some genius that can make up structures to guide ones literary pursuits... but I have applied myself to learning quite a bit, and I think it would be helpful to share what I know.

Discovery Writing Techniques

These are ones I've really learned about after the fact in writing my first book. As I said before, I really trucked through the first draft of my novel, flying by the seat of my pants... there was no strategizing or employed storytelling techniques here... just my gut. Nevertheless, there are some I've since then learned of, that could have cut down on the pain... some.

1. The "yes, but / no, and" technique

This one is great. It essentially revolves around every conflict coming to a head through the prism of either "yes, but" or "no, and". What I mean by this, is lets say you have your protagonist, and his/her goal is to go out and do something. Let's say they want to leave the village quietly at night, to slip away to some task they need to get to. As the character proceeds to slip away, conflict can be presented to them through either the events of "yes, but" or "no, and". The character gets out of the city, YES, BUT as he does, he proceeds in such a rushed fashion that he overlooks an opportunity to bring something important with him. Or worse, there's a roving group of bandits that have plagued the area, who he is actually leaving the city to go and root out, and in the haphazard way he leaves, YES he gets out without being noticed, BUT fails to see them enter in through the opposite side of town. They enter in, and burn the city down, which was precisely the end he was hoping to avoid.

In contrast, lets say he's trying to get out of town, he wants to get away without being noticed because his mother has lost all of her other sons to these roving bandits, and now she's over protective of her last boy, as any mom would be. Well now he fails to get out (no), and on top of that his mother realizes his motives to leave and fight bandits, and she gets even more protective, and gets the boys drunk step dad to lock him in his room.

These may be silly examples, but the yes, but/no, and technique is an effective way of taking every character choice and injecting conflict into it... and let's face it, we read because we want to learn about other people's conflicts, and how they overcome them. No one wants to read a book about how everything is always constantly a revelry filled, smashing success and the characters are all gloating about how great and blessed they are, and how there is nothing that could ever go wrong, ever... ever! Maybe I'm wrong... maybe those are the story elements of the next world-wide best seller. But, I think it's safe to say we enjoy reading because it involves exciting events, and exciting events are ones that get our pulses pounding, and conflict is indelibly linked to anything of the sort that can draw this sort of reaction out of a person.

It's the valley floors that make the mountain tops sweet, and the yes, but/ no, and strategy is a way of digging down deeper into that valley floor when one is stuck.

The reason I put it in the Discovery Writer's tool box is because this can be used readily, on-the-fly, with little planning. It takes some intuition and creativity to pull off, but that's the business we are all in, right? Also, there is a need to make the consequences of each yes, but/no, and fit. So for instance in the same example, if my character is going to escape the city unseen, I can't say "Yes he does, but then a dragon comes and scorches the town on his way out" unless that is a consequence in-world that I am ready to bring in. If dragons don't exist in my world, then it would change the story. Or if I make the mother respond in an overly protective way but haven't set this up somewhat ahead of time in her character, but written her as very off-the-cuff and free-wheeling, it would seem rather inconsistent. Granted, there can always be retroactive shoehorning done to get the consequences to settle smoothly, but some internal consistency with a mind toward character/setting/plot is needed to make sure the but/and are believable and consistent with what such consequences should be. The but/and which are the conflict injectors have to be comprised of details and consequences I'm willing to deal with, which I'm prepared to allow to play out in the world.

And there's more to this. If the answer is "yes" the character achieves his/her goal, then the "but" needs to be sizeable enough (yes... I went there) to still keep tension despite the sense of satisfaction of the character having achieved their goal. If the "yes, but" isn't severe enough, then the character will have achieved their goal but the wind will be let out of the sails. This could mean that any hooks you've planted in the readers mind will lose a little ground, or it may mean that you have to do something like a scene break to close out the success, resolving it without any sort of injections of tension, and picking the story back up later. This may be alright to do, but it is missing out on an opportunity to up the stakes.

Conversely, if the "and" in the "no, and" is too much, you could write yourself into a corner, raising the stakes to a level you aren't ready to have them yet. In general, you want your character to have successive wins and losses, in a sweeping crescendo to the books climax, but if the character is getting hammered with so many consequences, it could seem artificial or like the odds are hopelessly against him/her, which may be something intriguing, but could also mean the character isn't narratively qualified yet according to how you've written them to get out of the pickle placed. Granted, there's always the deus ex machina/God in the machine... but the deus ex can leave the reader feeling with a cheapened/dissatisfied experience, especially if they were banking on the viewpoint character's ingenuity to get them out of a jam, and not some godsend event that swept the board of any conflict in the character's favor.

These are all things just to consider as such, in that it is important to tailor the gravity of the but/and so that it couples well with the yes/no, and that it raises the tension and stakes at an appropriate level that you are equipped to deal with as you write.

As such, with the but/and, it is important to make sure that these are consistent both with the character that it is happening to and from the setting/plot/character it is coming from.

For more on this technique, check out these resources:

Article on the "yes, but" or "No, and" can be found here, by fantasy author Nat Russo.

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Infographic by fiction author Mary Robinette Kowal: https://www.patreon.com/posts/yes-but-no-and-15244550

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Here's a video with Brandon Sanderson detailing it. START AT 51:23

2. Try Fail Cycles

This one really hits home the importance of rising action, but it does so in a step-wise fashion, in a cyclical nature raising the tension as the character tries after their goal, going for it, failing, and setting their gaze on it anew. It is this cyclical, repetitious pattern of effort and failure that sows tension into your story, and is a technique that can be employed by Discovery Writers. It takes the simple upward slope of a story structure and shifts it, changing the ascent to story climax to a more tiered, dynamic approach.

Below is a simple visual, to allow you to see what I mean:

Overly simplified view of a story/plot arc

This is a different view, but helps to visualize the sort of trek we take the reader on as we approach the story's crescendo:

These images might seem overly simplistic, but they are helpful in visualizing what are actually philosophical concepts in story telling. As we write, we are taking our reader on a journey, and we have to be mindful about always laying more hooks into their attention as we spin our tale, and the try/fail cycle is one such way we can do this, and it doesn't take excel spreadsheets or story maps to do, just visualization of what our characters goals are, and some improvisation in drawing conflict out of our setting/story environment to oppose them.

The try/fail cycle is especially powerful when coupled with the yes, but/no, and technique. Though whereas the yes, but/no, and can involve more simple or external conflict applied to the character's arc, it is especially important in the try/fail cycle to make the failure tied to a character's underlying flaw or goal, something that is antithetical to their pursuit and also caused by them.

A simple metric you can use in this strategy is to have the character fail two times for every success they have, and to tie the character's fatal flaw in to each failure as a precipitating factor to this failure. In this way, the failure itself adds tension, but in addition the cause of the failure (the character's flaw) becomes a secondary concern, and one that you can increasingly levy against the character as a piece of longstanding tension, conflict that is very much character against themselves, but which is wrought by the events in character against society/nature/character. It is the character's internal conflict that can be the most poignant to read about as he/she shifts through it, and also can be the deepest demon in your story that they have to exorcise.

It is important however to note that if a character is seen as always failing, that it can be discouraging to the reader and make the character seem unempathetic or uninteresting, or make the plot seem overly contrived. Pointed attention needs to be paid toward handling these failures in a graceful way and one that draws the reader in more as the story progresses. Perhaps each failure needs to be topped by a better subsequent success, so that the sense of progress isn't impeded, and the reader feels they are learning about a character that is growing and not merely thrown into a blender of artificial rising action and conflict.

Below are some simple descriptions/examples of sources of conflict.

3. Writing envisioned scenes

This one I learned through reading about the late Robert Jordan's process. For anyone interested, there's a fascinating article by Brandon Sanderson found here about the Jordan's process as described by his wife. Brandon took over the finishing of Jordan's series after his untimely death, but was left a mound of notes and partially finished scenes to work from.

For those of you who don't know, Jordan was considered by many to be "the heir of Tolkien" and wrote an epic fantasy series spanning 14 books, in addition to others. He had a fierce work ethic, but didn't come anywhere near an outline as he worked. Reportedly, Jordan had certain big scenes or story events in mind, and he wrote toward those, letting the story unravel as it may as he approached them. He also didn't write in linear fashion, but purportedly wrote what scenes interested him at the time, wherever they may have been in the story.

This can be a useful technique, with the discovery happening in between each scene, where the writer has to fashion how they are to craft a road for their characters to traverse in order to accomplish/get to these scenes in a satisfying and believable manner. This is also useful if you are someone who doesn't think of events in an exact a-z manner, but your brain hops around to what interests you most. It can be a useful technique to focus on what interests you at present, fleshing those scenes out, which will help your story develop more and more. This sort of writing is almost like a puzzle, where work can be done on this corner and that corner, and even if they don't directly connect at present, the more they are fleshed out, the closer you get to connecting them.

A drawback to this would be if you find yourself only writing scenes that interest you. All of us who have written know the times when we have to simply get pen to paper, and pump out a bit of narrative to chug the story along. Reportedly, Robert Jordan didn't let his style as detailed above stop him from producing books, and it is reasoned that as he got closer to writing deadlines and finishing books, that he wrote in more linear fashion.

I do a little of this myself in my writing. I have certain big scenes or pivotal moments that are in my head that are the markers to my series, that I know stand as pillars of what the story I want to tell. All the fun comes in finding out the in-between spaces. I think where I am different than Jordan is that I also have a strong habit of writing in a linear fashion, and don't spend as much time writing these scenes out of order as he did, although it obviously wasn't distracting enough to prevent him from being prodigiously productive and successfull.

These are just a few of the Discovery Writing techniques I've learned about. As said before, I didn't knowingly use any of these, although if any comes close, it was the Rober Jordan method that probably guided me most. I always knew the pinnacle scenes that would drive Book I.

If you are a Discovery Writer, I hope these help you. If you are a committed Outliner, I also think these can help you. In the end, both ends of the spectrum have a mountain of discovery to do, and these are all just techniques to be employed in discovering this. I hope that you find these insightful. Check out the links I've shared, as there are also a bunch of other great articles/videos on each of these creator's websites.

From here, the next blog article will be directed at Outlining strategies. I plan to get it out sometime next week, and will detail strategies/techniques I've been learning about, and I will share where I am in the process of outlining book 2, which is a scary thought.

Have a blessed day, and thanks for reading!

-Jeff