Outlining…Or Not: Some Tips for Discovery Writers

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As I mentioned in another article, not every author outlines, and if you find the idea of outlining too stifling for whatever reason, then I highly recommend trying discovery writing. But while discovery writers often eschew outlines, that doesn’t mean that they don’t prep for their stories in other ways.

In some math class in high school (one that I’m sure all of you took), I learned that you need two points in order to draw a line. I think that stories, especially for discover writers, are similar.

Most authors already have a strong idea of how the story will open, since that’s usually the scene or set of scenes that cause us to want to dive into the story. However, if you’re discovery writing, I’d highly recommend having a strong grasp on the closing of the story as well. This way no matter what amazing subplots or sidequests you find on your draft-writing-journey, you’ll always have something to put you back on track.

Having an ending in mind will also make your first draft feel much stronger. A lot will probably need to be trimmed from a discovery writer’s first draft, and some sort of order will need to be imposed on the scenes that have been written, but at least the story will make sense and not just peter out. Similarly, knowing the ending can provide a good litmus test for whether a scene can stay or should be cut from the next draft.

Discovery writers are often guided by their characters, probably more so than their architect counterparts. If you plan to try discovery writing, I think creating detailed backgrounds for your characters is a great way to have a continuous source of ideas to explore in your story. Feel like you’re writing yourself into a corner? Maybe now is the time to whip out a friend from your love interest’s shady past. See where that goes.

Along a similar vein, especially if you’re writing something like a sci-fi or fantasy story, having a good deal of world building done might help. Knowing the ins and outs of your world can help you come up with ideas of things for your characters to do, even when you don’t have a specific plot in mind.

Make sure you keep the tension in your story building as you go along. Your story needs to hold together through causality, but don’t string together a series of “and then this happened” scenes or events.

Instead focus on snowballing the tension of your story by moving between scenes using “therefore” or “but”. “Therefore” implies that what’s happening is directly chained from what came before. “But” implies a complication or setback that the characters must now face that wasn’t necessarily foreseen (at least by them).

Above all, don’t be afraid of exploring whatever you happen to come up with as you’re going along. If you’re stuck, look for some details in your scene, maybe things you considered throwaway phrases and just pursue them to see where they go. You might come across a great subplot or even find a new direction that the primary plot could go.


Brian Klems wrote a great article for Writer’s Digest about how to write without an outline. So if you’ve been having trouble bringing your thoughts together in an outline structure, consider picking up some of his advice.


2 thoughts on “Outlining…Or Not: Some Tips for Discovery Writers

  1. This is great advice. I’ve gone through different phases as a writer. I started out just writing whatever came to mind, with no end goal in sight. It’s a horrible way to write, for me at least. I found it hard to finish stories with that kind of writing. With my first novel my writing was a bit more refined with some outlining of the plot. But my second and third books consisted of detailed outlines, which helped more than the ‘no end in sight’ writing. I’m considering doing a bit of discovery writing for my next book, though. Outlining books beforehand has added an extra level of stress. I’ve become too worried with, ‘What SHOULD happen next?’, instead of trusting my characters. I have a complete beginning and ending already laid out for my next book. Discovery writing might be the way to go, even just for a change of pace. Thanks for the info, J.

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