Should You Bother Outlining and Planning Your Story?

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The first word you put down says a lot about what type of writer you are. Is it the first word of your story, the first word of your outline, the first word of a text to a friend that you’re about to start a story? For many, very little thought goes into  this aspect of our writing because we assume that what’s natural is what’s best. Well, maybe you owe it to yourself to challenge that assumption. Planning out aspects of your plot, setting, and characters can benefit all writers. On the other hand, allowing a little more flexibility can get the creative juices going.

The Types

To understand why you should care what type of writer you are, it makes sense to first familiarize yourself with the possibilities. There are two broad types of writers. To put it simply, there are planners and doers. However, each type is more similar to a spectrum than a box.

Planners

Planners, as the name implies, plan. For some, planning is an extensive process that can take weeks and involves collecting research and planning out the smallest details of their characters and settings. For others, it’s a much more brief process of creating a skeletal framework for your story to fill in. Most writers do at least a little planning, even if it is mental.

Doers

Doers let the story and characters come to them as they write. How will the story end? They may not be sure, but believe the right ending will reveal itself as they become more familiar with their story. How will the chapter end? It will end when they reach a point that feels like a good ending. And if they don’t reach that point, maybe they’ll just try again. It’s all about discovery and letting the story unfold naturally and organically.

Advantages of Planning

Planning has a few very nice advantages. Probably the biggest advantage is that it allows the author to provide very satisfying endings. Think of the type of ending where “it all comes together”. One of my favorite authors who exemplifies this is Brandon Sanderson. The endings to his books are typically very satisfying because he knows how his story will end. This lets him methodically build in clues and steps that lead naturally to that ending. It also allows for the satisfying realization that you actually had enough clues earlier in the book to figure out the unexpected aspects of the ending, but would have had to read carefully.

Another advantage is that books, particularly in the science fiction or fantasy department, can become as complicated and intricate as you want. If you have a document tracking characters first and last names, relations, rank, or physical descriptions, you can avoid the moment when you forgot what name you gave to that guy forty chapters ago and avoid having to go back and sift through until you find it; writers have closed their word processors for the day over less.

Disadvantages of Planning

While it offers great advantages, planning does have a few drawbacks. For example, there is a sense of satisfaction and fun from jumping into a chapter and letting it take you where it will. If you have already planned your story extensively, it can feel like you’re just going through the motions when you sit down to write.

Many want to jump right in and get started. The idea of sitting down to think about their story in detail before they start it is enough to keep them from starting all together.

Others will argue that characters are more realistic and relatable if they are created organically. Though I would step outside the point of this section to say that very few writers will create natural and believable characters just by winging it. The natural human tendency is to make our characters do what we would do. We also tend to make them do things for the reasons we would do them, or the reasons we would like to see them get behind. It takes a little artificiality and a meticulous mindset to systematically avoid this.

Advantages of Doing

One of the biggest advantages of casting aside the planning and just jumping in to your story is that it’s fun. At first. It’s as close as you can come to reading your own book as a reader would. You don’t really know what someone is going to say next and everything is a surprise. How exciting!

Disadvantages of Doing

Disadvantages already? I forgot more advantages of doing? Nope. That was all. I’m admittedly a little biased, but I also come from the perspective of a former “doer” purist. I was the kid who would sacrifice a letter grade on my essays in school out of spite because I refused to outline my essays. So naturally, I approached writing the same way. I always loved my first chapters. My second chapters weren’t quite as good, then my third chapters started to drag. It started feeling like I was at the head of a runaway train before long.

Eventually, I would be stopped in my tracks by the overwhelming feeling that each new “discovery” I made about a character, the setting, or my plot, seemed to contradict something I had added earlier. “Dang,” I would think. “This scene is only going to make sense if X happens, but if X happens, I have to go back to scene 2 and make Y happen. But to make Y happen in scene 2, Z can’t happen in scene 1. . .” That was usually when I would close the word processor.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, so what. You’re disorganized and I’m not. I don’t have that problem.” Maybe you don’t. But even the best writers who write as they go create a very different style of book than planners. The style isn’t necessarily worse, but a true “doer” is going to write a story that has fewer connective themes running between scenes. They will also likely feel more episodic and meandering. You might not even feel like you know what a character wants or who they are until a third of the way through the book because the author probably hadn’t figured it out yet.

Final Thoughts

The message I want to send is that every writer can benefit from planning. Refusing to try is a disservice to yourself as a writer. To claim that planning stifles your creative juices is to lump all planning into one box. Imagine planning a painting. Would you just grab a random color and start making a line? Hopefully not, because most painters realize their art will be more beautiful if they take a second to think of composition.

Try it out. If you’ve never planned and think you’ll hate it, try it anyway. There’s nothing more detrimental to your writing than believing you are an expert.

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