Saturday, September 17, 2011

Character-Driven Plotting Versus Outlining

There’s probably an official name for the kind of writing I do, but I’m going to call it character-driven. What I mean by that is I start with a character and a situation and then let the character take me through the story. I am always making notes and lists as I go along of things that need to be added into the story somewhere along the way, so that my protagonist doesn’t lull me into forgetting that the reader doesn’t know always what the she is thinking, even if I do.

In fact, I use Excel to track the notes and plot points as I go along. I number and re-number them, then sort by the numbers, to make sure they fall into the right slot in the tale. I suppose this could be an outline, of sorts, but it’s a living document that changes every time I sit down to write.

There are very strong proponents of outlining your entire story before you even begin to write. I’m not knocking it. I just can’t imagine it. My characters say and do things I hadn’t planned on and often they are the best parts of the story. They literally take over and it’s not only a great help to my writing, but it feels absolutely wonderful when it happens. I am transported into the story, happily, and begin to feel it happening around me.

This may be why I find it very hard to write a dark story. I don’t like being inside that sinister place, which I believe exists in all of us. In fact, I will happily abandon a movie that gets too dark for me (literally, I couldn’t finish the second and third Lord of the Rings movies because of it) or close the covers of a book which dwells for more than a few minutes at a time in the ugliness of life. I’m a lightweight. I just can’t take it.

Anyway, back to the outline concept. I’ve tried several types of outlining. When I was screenwriting, I did the index card thing – covering an entire wall with color-coded cards with scenes on them. Outlining by chapter in a very general, overall way, worked best for me, but my characters always managed to break out of the mold I had created anyway.

So, how do you do it? What’s your approach?


  1. I am all for outlining.
    Totally agreed that the character can change things, but to have one liner to explain what you think should happen to reach your end works well for me.

    I even jot down potential words per chapter


  2. I usually do stories they way you describe. I'm a "pantser". I find it most entertaining and fun to have a general idea for a story/plot points and then see where my characters take me.

    On my most recent WIP, though, I outlined the whole thing, from start to finish, in great detail. I knocked out a 75,000 word first draft in just under 30 days. And while I was excited that I could get a whole story written that quickly, I didn't feel as good about it as I did with all my other books (when I just wrote about my characters).

    But, that's what editing is for! :) Good post, thanks for sharing.

  3. I don't write outlines, although I see the importance of writing one. Anything that takes the fun out of writing isn't a good thing. I jot down things in a notebook. I know how old-fashioned, right? In my head I have a general idea of what is going to happen in a particular chapter or chapters.

    Outlines should never be a do all. If you want to make changes, do it. Some authors do have to turn out a manuscript faster and an outline is helpful.

    I'm working with another editor and she asked for an outline, so I was forced to write one. I'm not saying it was the best one, but I did finish it.

  4. When I start a manuscript, I know the beginning, the end, and the high points. How I get from Point A to Point B is a mystery at first.

    I have discovered that if I write a detailed outline, then I don't want to write the book because I feel like I'm following orders, not being creative. Besides that, I always change the story along the way as I write the first draft, so for me, writing an outline is a waste of time. Oddly enough, I frequently outline the book as a final pass to make sure everything hangs together.

    That said, I believe every author has to find the method that works for her or him--it doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you end up with a polished, finished book!

  5. I have to outline. If I don't, I write something and lose focus. Next thing I know my story is taking a strange turn that does not fit in with my plot. Then I get frustrated!

    I am trying index cards at the moment. I just haven't written anything on them... haha.

    Thanks for a great post.

  6. I don't write an outline, but I do keep a notebook with characters, plot ideas, a loose "outline", etc. I can go back to the notebook when I'm tightening up a section of what I'm working on.
    Good post by the way!

  7. Yo, Kathy!

    The setting usually comes first, then the character, then the story. Once I have a solid character and a place for him to be, then I'll outline basic chapters and proceed. As I write, I'll list scenes to keep the plot focused and also to stay productive with a daily scene "to do" list. The book I'm working on right now started with a golf tournament in the Yucatan Peninsula, an actual golf course in Cancun. The character, Rough Wallace, sprang out of that setting and then the story fed off of the history of that region: Maya, 2012, etc. The strength of the main character is what I look for and what drives the story. At least in regards to this book.

    You rock!


  8. I had the whole story in my head and have written it like a patchwork quilt, block by block in no particular order. When the story got unwieldy, I white-boarded it, so I could tell where I needed to fill in, or which scenes still needed to be written. Recently, I've had to use a notebook to keep track of little things I don't want to forget to add in. It's haphazard, but it works for me.

  9. I have a general idea...and then my characters take over. I love it. I love how the story turns out when I don't insist on keeping to a particular timeline. :) Thanks for sharing.

  10. Characters have to grow as they are being written, because if they spring fully formed from the author's head in an outline before the first word is committed to paper, those characters are simplistic and will tend to be static-flat as opposed to dynamic-round.

  11. You write just like I do. I can't really do an outline, although sometimes I write down things that I think of happening and reasons and motivations of why my character's are the way they are. Plot lines change for me quite a bit. I'm in the process of rewriting two chapters that I've rewritten before, but this time feels right.
    Thanks for this post. I'm glad there's somebody else that writes like me. :)

  12. I have a very rough outline usually, but I find my stories go off in directions I never envisaged - because of the characters. It's the fun of writing to see where it takes you. You seem very organised to me, Kathy, with using Excel and plot points. I may have to try that.

  13. Kathy - I have a similar style to what you described. I usually start with a loose outline of the set up for the story and then add and delete as I go. I also usually know how it's going to end so then the story itself can come to life and lead me to the ending. My best days writing are when a section of a novel takes on a life of its own. Thanks for sharing!

  14. I'm an outliner. I even use those triangular charts we had to fill out in middle school English where you track the rising action, climax and falling action. Along the sides, I give a brief description of the scene I want to write. It keeps me on track. Otherwise, I'd forget where I was headed. Now, this doesn't mean I don't leave room for fluid characters and plot lines, but I don't allow them to get me too far off track. If something amazing comes up because a character tries to do something I hadn't planned, I figure out a way to work it in. My plan is always changeable. that's why it's a plan.

  15. To outline? People seem really split on this. I think it’s partially down to how people think (which is an interesting topic in itself) and what kind of book they’re writing (fantasy and science fiction needs more planning, to my mind, or else the fictional universe either lacks depth or originality).

    I’m firmly in the ‘planner’ camp. Whether a short story, a novel, or a technical guide for software development teams, how can I write it well if I don’t know what it is I’m trying to convey? For fiction, I’ll plan it out a theme, key characters and their choices, conflicts and transformations; key points for the world-building; and a plot outline. When I’m convinced I’ve got a good story and it feels like it hangs together, I’ll write the first few chapters. After that, I’ve learned more about the story and the characters. I’ll change the plan, sometimes drastically; then it’s back to writing a few more chapters.

    Hold on, though! I’m changing the plan as I go along. Isn’t that what the ‘making it up as I go along’ camp do?

    I think on closer inspection, there is more of a continuum than a binary divide between two camps. Professional novelists who say they never plan often add that they throw away much or all of the first draft(s), using them to find out what the story is. That’s really no different from me sketching out a plan for a couple of weeks. I’m just working with less detail but in shorter iteration cycles.

    I worked in software development for 20 years. We’ve had exactly the same debate there since the 80s in the tension between structured system analysis and design (planners) and the rapid evolutionary prototypers (make it up as you go along).

  16. I throw paint at the wall and see what sticks. I'm not an outliner (hate the word pantser) -- more of an adventure writing. But it's not character-driven plotting. I'm actually a plot-driven writer. I just can't do an outline. It is, as mentioned above, how I think. I'm a holistic thinker, and I actually would have to write the entire story to be able to do an outline. If I try an outline before I write the story, well .. it isn't pretty and doesn't last more than three chapters.

  17. I always do an outline but how detailed just depends on the story. Usually it's just scene ideas and approximately where I want them to fall within the book. I do, however, spend a great deal of time researching and making more notes than I'll ever use. And I spend a lot of time on my characters because if I don't know them well enough, the story won't go anywhere anyway. And I like it when I have a general idea of where I want to go and they take it in a completely different direction. :)

  18. I never used the outlining type of approach before and then I took a book writing/publishing class. I just started the nanowrimo contest and thought I'll try this approach and see how it works. I'm like you. I let things develop and they're always changing. But, I thought...I'll give it a try. I wrote down the descriptions of the characters and found that having all that planned out ahead of time so that it kept me on track. I didn't forget how old someone was or that they were supposed to be 40 years old but I had said earlier in the story that they were born 25 years ago. So, in that way it is helping me. We'll see how it goes. Thanks for the post!

  19. I'd say I'm a loose outliner. I have a general direction, but it's loose enough for me to play and grow. I love hearing about how other writer's work!

  20. It's so great that this post has promoted so many comments. As writers, it's reassuring to know there are others out there struggling with the same questions we are.

    I've got to say that lately I've read several books that I realized I absolutely could not write - at least at this stage in my life, because I don't outline. So much research and so many details to track - I couldn't possibly handle it.

  21. I have never been an outliner ... and have consistently found myself getting stuck and frustrated halfway through a book, because the momentum of the story trailed off, or I couldn't work out the characters' motivations to do the next thing. For a long time, I assumed I was just a short story writer, that I didn't have the staying power for a novel.

    But then I decided to try outlining. And it makes a big difference. It gives me the confidence to know that I'm actually heading somewhere that makes sense. It provides me with a sense of momentum. I just have to be careful that I don't overdetail the outline to the point where I can't be bothered writing the story because I've already got it down in the outline!

  22. I do it pretty much the way you do. Works just fine. :)

  23. I do it pretty much as you describe, Kathy. I start with some characters I want to find out more about. And a place that interests me. I give them a dilemma, some problem or hurdle to get beyond, then I let them go and just watch to see what happens. If I try to figure it all out ahead of time it always ends up being less creative...boring even.
    I think there are as many ways to create as there are writers. Our first job as a new writer is to figure out what works best for us as individuals.