Outlining vs Discovery Writing pt. IV

Outlining vs Discovery Writing pt. IV
Photo by Charles Deluvio / Unsplash

The mountain of undiscovered story that both the Outliner and Discovery Writer have before them

Last week I did some clarification on the false dichotomy many put up between Outliners (planners) and Discovery Writers (pantsers). I detailed how it is rather just two directions one can head along a spectrum, how both can lead to a good product at their respective ends (a quality piece of writing, with the requisite time, editing, and talent demanded), and how both have the same work of discovery of the bones of the story to do, but it's the process how each does this that separates them.

The previous article--which is found here--detailed various methods that a Discovery Writer can use. This week I want to focus on methods for Outliners. But before I do, let's clear the air of any misconceptions. There are some who are of a school of thought that an Outline is something altogether antithetical to the creative process; that it puts a saddle and reins on a horse that needs run bare and free; that a structure will make the process of capturing a piece of art into something contrived, artificial, and stale.

I will say here and now, that this is exactly untrue.

As I detailed previously, it is the mountain of undiscovered story that both the Outliner and Discovery Writer have before them, and this untapped potential in its raw form is the body of creativity that needs be carved out, brushed off, and shone to the world. Whether one throws themselves at the task with abandon, or takes a more methodical, scalpel and brush approach, in the end whatever process a creative takes that leads to a piece of creativity is the process that works, so lets clear ourselves of any stylistic, artistic hubris, and let each others' means be justified by their quality ends, once reached. Time would fail me to list the leaders in our art who keep to one school of thought or the other, from the religious outliners like Brandon Sanderson, to the zealous story discoverers like Stephen King. Prodigious ideas and writing lay down both ends, as it is the ideas and writing itself that is of value, and it's only here that I'm trying to illuminate different ways of getting to that value.

But digression has had the day again. So without further circumnavigating, lets get into it. There's a lot to cover, and I will probably only get to about half of these this week (or less), as it's Thanksgiving.

The outlining methods I'm going to discuss are:

  1. The Hero's Journey
  2. 3 act format in tandem with promises, progress, & payoffs
  3. 7 point story structure
  4. Brandon Sanderson's Method & modifications to this
  5. JK Rowling's method
  6. Synopsis
  7. Outlining in Reverse

Hero's Journey

This one has been written about a ton, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time on it, but for anyone who's interested, there's useful books written on it that can be found here, and here.

For any who don't know, the Hero's Journey was developed by Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature who focused heavily in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion. It's essentially a way of deconstructing stories through the lens of the archetypal hero, who has a series of waypoints they navigate to and from through the course of the narrative.

It's a useful tool, sometimes maligned for the rigidity and artificiality it can induce if a writer overuses it (coughs*George Lucas*). It can nevertheless be readily used to help guide one in outlining their novel. One will do themselves a disservice if they take every point and beat of the structure and superimpose it onto their story, but there are a number of points in it that can be used quite naturally and with an eye for upending tropes/clichés. The best way I advise you to do this is not to follow it by every point, but to look at the Hero's Journey holistically and see if there are any points that stand out to you, that you can pinpoint as your focus points that your novel will revolve around.

In looking at the image, the three easiest I can pinpoint are the call to adventure, Abyss: death and rebirth, and return. These are three points that a novel can easily revolve around without taking the model wholesale and implementing every point. Most novels are going to have their character beginning in a point of stasis/status quo (the time before the call to adventure comes). Most novels are going to have some low point, some nexus of calamity or crucible of pain and transformation that their protagonist has to wade into in order to resolve the conflict in the novel (the abyss, here). Most character's are going to have some sort of return journey. Here it should be noted that the return journey need not be a physical one, but can just as much (and probably should be) some form of return in the character's mind/will/heart. A character arc tied off with reflection over what has been traversed and travailed over, even if the character temporally and physically is in a different place entirely than when the novel begins. The return can and should be a moral one, rather than just a jaunt back to where they came from.

The most classic example of these three points (and all the others too) I can think of is in The Hobbit. Bilbo is our archetypal hero, and he beat-by-beat follows the Hero's Journey. Equivocation can be made as to which points in the novel encapsulate which points in the illustration, but at this point we are splitting hairs. Bilbo's return to the Shire is the most succinct reflection of the image as illustrated in a bit of narrative. He returns a changed man (er... Hobbit), bringing with him a treasure trove of wealth, material and moral transformation alike. Bilbo is never the same after his unexpected adventure, and it is in the Return that we get to appreciate all that has transpired in him.

The Hero's Journey has gotten some flack because it seems at times overly reductionist and contrived, but if it is used as a tool, rather than dogma, it is a powerful one. Additionally, the Hero's Journey can be used as a lens with which to view your story, to see what if any areas in your narrative arc are lacking, and it could have some points that are just what is needed, if applied with care and an aim for novelty.

If you are just devising your story, pick the highlights from the scheme that stand out to you, and find a way to revolve your story around these. Keep in mind also that Campbell was surveying many stories holistically, and don't stress out if you feel like the Hero's Journey makes your whole story seem sort of cliché... it has a way of doing that, as it is almost more a tool of human anthropology/psychology than a tool for crafting a narrative. It deconstructed how we already were telling stories, and tried to get at the underpinnings of reality itself, and how narratives pulled from this reality. There is always room for trope flipping and cliché upending also, and there is utility in the Hero's Journey, as long as we remember to not use it as an exact science or recipe, but a tool.

Three Act Format

I'm going to start this one of with some visuals, because I find them so helpful.

Note the Hero's Journey superimposed onto this one.

And one more, just for fun...

I think the main strength of the three act format comes when coupled with another phrase to keep in mind, and that is the importance of Promises, Progress, and Payoffs. For anyone interested, Brandon Sanderson has a great video you can watch here detailing the importance of this, and I find it especially useful when coupling it with the Three Act Format, as each act has a certain focus with this phrase in view. If you haven't noticed by now, I esteem Sanderson very highly, as I think he's the leader in the genre right now, and is a great role model in his writing, as well as what he gives back to aspiring authors. I implore any aspiring writers to check out his content, especially if you write speculative fiction.

But another shameless plug is over.

The Three Act Format is especially useful because it can be used to structure the entire novel, as each part in the format has general size and story-goal guidelines that can be followed to write a well structured novel. In general, acts I and III should take up about 10-15% each, whereas the bulk of the novel (the other 70-80%) is devoted to act II. The goals in each of the three acts are easy to pinpoint also.

Act I

Act I is heavy on set up, the sowing of moments/arcs/streams of tension that will build and interconnect throughout the novel. This is also where the promises of your novel will be first given. This may be a weird theme, but what I mean by promises is what you intend for the breadth of the novel to be about, regarding your chosen themes, your intended voice, your writing style, your character's projected arc, your foreshadowing moments, the seminal moments of what/who your characters will struggle against. Act one is where all this gets fleshed out, and promises are made to the reader about what this is all about, and why they should keep reading. There is also room for some sleight-of-hand here, as any red-herrings you'd like to lay in terms of aiming for a plot twist should be lain early, and probably by the end of act I, although you want to do so subtly, so as not to make it too obvious. This is the same with foreshadowing too. You don't want to make it overly clear what you are setting up. Illustrate it just enough that they can see its form off in the ether and not a sentence more.

In general you want this to be the second longest part of your book after act II. This is a rule of thumb, but it is a good one. You want to be elaborative enough that you delineate all the threads and what they are about properly, but you don't want to belabor anything and make it draw on too long, nor do you want to rush it so much that the reader is left spinning wondering what the story is even about as they are in the thick of it. You want to delineate through promises what the reader is going to get out of the book, in rough form. This may seem like I'm telling you to explain everything-and-the-kitchen-sink to the reader right up front... but I don't mean that. There's still plenty of room for mystery and the unknown here, but we want to get our readers feet wet to our story early on, so we can draw them on to the brilliant sweeps and crescendos we have planned.

Every book has a learning curve, and every genre has different general types of learning curve. A contemporary bit of fiction set in a region of the world that you are from with the types of characters and events that you are accustomed will have a much easier learning curve than a novel set in outer space with aliens and foreign cultures and customs. In general (notice I'm saying that a lot?... there's lots of rules-of-thumb in this business) Epic Fantasy has a higher learning curve than lots of other genres, and there is inter-author difference here too. Steven Erikson, who wrote the acclaimed The Malazan Book of the Fallen, throws readers in the deep end right from the jump, whereas many other authors ease their readers in more gently. In any case, act I will be where you want to set things up for the reader, to prepare them for the longer stretch of act II where all the challenges and transformation in your characters will ensue.

Act II

Act II is generally supposed to take up the bulk of your novel, up to 70-80% of it. It is in act II where all of the promises regarding character goals and motivations, and plot promises you've sown in act I will need to show progress of some sort. If you remember back to last weeks' article, I mentioned the concept of trial/fail cycles. This was a tool I gave to the Discovery Writer, but it need not only be used for the pantser. Try fail cycles are a great way of capitalizing on the perception of character growth, with the cyclical nature of the character applying themselves and failing in an upward sweep toward the climax of the novel.

Remember, the journey to the climax isn't a clean sweep upward, but an undulating, haphazard approach to it.

Act II is about progress, and you will want to have in mind the bits of character development, the flaws, the goals and ambitions that you illuminated in act I, and then devise a way in act II to highlight your characters' pursuit of it. You want to especially keep in mind to save the ultimate achievement of these goals/ambitions for the climax, as if you have them accomplished too early, you leave the characters' moral climax unwed to the plot/story climax, which is a failure at linking together narrative threads that can be used to pack a punch to the reader. This isn't to say that you can't have secondary and tertiary motivations and goals for the character that can be resolved in act II (and indeed, you probably should have these, to give a sense of growth and satisfaction as the reader proceeds)--but it is a warning that if you resolve all of the internal conflict in the character, and I mean the BIG internal conflicts that make them tick, then you are robbing yourself of depth to your plot and story payoff to come, you are making your multifaceted diamond with one less face, and the richness of the payoff will show.

Act II is where you want to have a series of miniature skirmishes--microcosms to your big event near the end--that build up to the big WAR. You want to take the threads you've knit in the beginning, and broaden them out, illustrating why they matter as you go, elongating and deepening them. In act I, you could merely introduce them in two-dimensional form. In act II, it becomes three-dimensional, gaining substance to it that you can strike home to show the reader why it matters.

The sense of progress in act II is also crucial in keeping pace, and helping the reader feel like they are learning about a worthwhile character going after worthwhile endeavors. Showing the struggle the character goes through is key. In act I we reveal the challenge, and in act II we have our protagonist set their feet and hands against it, and start to really push.

To accomplish this, think of your story as it is, and your character's goals/challenges that you've set up at the beginning of your novel. Then think of 3-4 obstacles that they can go through where these goals and challenges are highlighted. Then create a way where the character can almost attain these, but will fail. Put these goals/challenges as just within reach, but introduce some new stake or challenge or upping of the ante/difficulty that makes accomplishing these out of reach. Remember too to tie in your characters' flaws as reasons for why they fail at attaining these, so that their failure is as a result of some internal, deeper conflict, which will create depth to your character, and create more internal tension for them to face as you go.

Also think of ways that the character can partially obtain some of these goals, or, devise a way of revealing how the challenge they thought they needed to face was actually just a prelude to a deeper problem. That way they accomplish what they set out to, and show progress, but the stakes are heightened and the readers' interest will hopefully be stoked by a new twist in the plot. An unexpected turn of events is a great way to heighten tension, and doing so just as the character succeeds at what they thought was the problem is a great way to do this, accomplishing both the sense of progress, while also using the try/fail cycle.


Act III is where all the stops are pulled. It's where you want the big bang to...bang. It's where all the promises in tone and character growth and plot meet in one unified calamity of narrative brilliance.

Remember that as you progressed through act II, you had been judiciously revealing and deepening the character struggles and challenges, highlighting their strengths and growth even in the face of a harder challenge. You had shown their progress toward their goal, which you'd promised early on in the first parts of act I. There are a number of promises you could have made, and I'm not saying that all of them have to converge at the end and be paid in full to the reader in the form of one beautiful scene or chapter. There might be some promises that you made in act I that you accomplished in act II, or some in act II that you won't even address until a future book (if you are writing a series).

Harry Potter is a good example of this, how foreshadowing and promises can be ones that stretch the whole series. There can be promises tied in to the earliest moments of the earlier books, only to reach payoff in the later ones. I'm a huge fan of J.K. Rowling, and the main reason is the richness of some of the payoffs and the satisfaction and fascination I had as a reader in reading the later books of the series. One of the biggest payoff moments was around He-who-must-not-be-named (I won't say his name, never!)... I had tremendous amounts of enjoyment in books 5-7 as the curtain was pulled away from Tom Riddle (I will only use his real name... not his pseudonym). Learning about Tom's life through the pensieve scenes with Dumbledore was some of the more fascinating reading I've done, and it serves as a highwater mark for me as to what I want to create in my stories in regards to intrigue, especially around the chief antagonist.

Voldemort...ok, I said it... Voldemort had a sort of mystique surrounding him for the whole series up until about book VI, when Dumbledore leads Harry through a series of memories. This was the payoff for one of Rowling's threads, the Riddle thread. She'd sown so much into it in regards to promises throughout the series, how Voldemort was one of the most powerful wizards ever, the rivalry between he and Dumbledore, how he was a prodigy and a troubled youth... and when we get to read about the early memories of the boy and man, it is fascinating, and well worth the wait. I think coupled with this is the dark sense we get as we wade through the present day, chasing down the Horcruxes, in a way seeing the evil that the dark wizard penned onto the world, even if we only see a fractal of his life through the memories. We get to see some of the earlier moments, in pristine, simple clarity, and then we see the dark reality of the present, as Dumbledore drinks a dreaded solution and Harry is dragged under water by the undead.

Such a payoff is what we are after, and I think it serves as a good example that the payoffs need not all come in act III of a singular book, but can be tied up as the series progresses.

In any case, it is helpful in employing the three act format (whether you are applying it to a single book, or a series) to keep in mind the idea of promises, progress, and payoffs. Look at your story, whether you've already written it, or are planning it (because I think you can definitely outline even after you've written your draft... I did). Look at your story, and see where your story threads fall through act II, and then think how you can tie the highest number together in the richest, most natural way, while also preserving any threads that you've potentially devoted for future books. You want to tie all of your story together in a way that seems natural.

Let's say, for instance, that you want a big meetup of all your characters to happen, but you haven't devised a way for this to happen, or maybe it doesn't make sense to happen.... it is foolhardy to make it happen merely because you want the biggest bang for your buck, if you are mortgaging such a climax at the expense of what is a more sensible ending for certain characters as they presently are. I'm thinking of this in regards to fantasy, where geography is a big deal, and the map and world. Every story can't always end with all the characters together. There will be times where the characters will have to tie up their arcs separately. But as you plot, think of how you can bundle the most threads together as feasible, doing so with the try/fail cycles in mind. Wed the characters' most recent failures into the impetus for them to get out and try one more time in unison, an tie in all together in act III.

Bringing it all together, and where we go from here...

So far I've detailed the concept of the Hero's Journey as a plotting tool, as well as the Three Act Format coupled with the importance of Promises, Progress, and Payoffs.

In the Hero's Journey I discussed the importance of not relying on it too simplistically, or too strictly. It is not a rubric for your story, or dogma for your character to follow, but a device you can use to look at overarching narrative elements that you find useful/intriguing, and picking them and implementing them accordingly. Some homework for the week, if you are a new writer and brainstorming your story, would be to take 3-4 of the elements off of the Hero's Journey, and think about how you could build your story around these concepts. Think about how you could mold your story around these pillars, with a mind to the key three of the call to adventure, the abyss, and the return home.

Hero's Journey, with departure in reverse from original image.

Above is a more creative picture, but is essentially the same as the original near the beginning of the article. Notice the star at the bottom with the word Apotheosis. Apotheosis is Greek, and means "making into a god." In more broad terms, it is the sort of death/rebirth that many stories subject their chief protagonist to, in ways that can be physical/moral/spiritual. It is synonymous for the abyss, or low point that should come at the climax, where everything falls to shambles for our characters, and hope runs out. I like this image because it has a number of intriguing phrases that you can use for ideas for your story, many of which embody certain motifs or story types/arcs.

Aside from the Hero's Journey, we also discussed the Three Act Format in tandem with the three p's. Keep in mind the importance of the three p's as you go, and devise a way to use each in your three acts as you plot your novel. As said before, these are all tools, and not to be taken as dogma. Additionally, they are tools that can be used diagnostically to your story, even after you've written it. You'd be surprised how many of the concepts of the Hero's Journey are probably already in your story (which makes sense, as Campbell was deconstructing our nature of storytelling, more than anything). You'd also be surprised how your narrative rhythm will already be ebbing and flowing, and falling in line in three acts. I mean this not to say that it has to, but that it often does. My novel is composed of four parts, but really the end of part one through the beginning of part four are actually act II, in the format.

Next week I want to get to a couple more of these. They are proving to be more dense than I anticipated, and so I won't promise to get to more than I think I will. I think it's feasible to expect that I tackle Brandon Sanderson's method & modifications to this (including my own). If anyone is interested, there's an article where he posts his outline to one of his YA novels here. I will also be covering the 7 point story structure, which will probably take up some space. I might be able to get to Rowling's method, but we will see.

To you writers, I hope you found this useful. I am an amateur myself, but I have learned so much these last years, that I just want to share what has helped me. I hope this finds you well, and that you have a great thanksgiving. Thanks for reading, for learning, and take anything you think useful, and throw out the rest!

Best regards,

Jeffrey Ryan Beaupre