Writing is magic.
Yes, it’s also a lot of fucking hard work. But magic happens out of that effort.
Truth is, I have no idea where it comes from. I write and the characters make their own decisions. I know some of the things that are going to happen in my story, but not everything. Even for a short story, I surprise myself. In my short story, The Hermit of the Haunted Woods, I had no idea the title character’s voice would be so rich and soothing. Or that he would have a stash of old Penthouses and Hustlers piled up in his little camper. Those are some of the little details that make the story and they weren’t planned.
I’m what you’d call a pantser, as in a writer who flies by the seat of his pants. I make it up as I go–ostensibly, without a lot of planning.
Except, I do plan. I just don’t plan out every scene, every moment. I do not make an outline.
Why not? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?
Anne Rice made outlines but then never consulted them or used them when writing. I spend a lot of time thinking about stuff for my story. During these thoughts, notions will occur to me that I’ll write down, but also there are things that just stay with me even though I never write them down. This is how I know they belong in the story. Or how I know the story has to be written in the first place: it won’t leave me alone. I can’t forget about. My mind keeps returning to it.
Stephen King is another famous pantser. There’s no way you could ever accuse him of not knowing what he’s doing as he writes a story. I don’t how much prewriting he does or what kind of notes or research he does, but I’m sure he’s got a mental bastion of information about the work he’s about to embark upon before he begins to type word one. I’m sure he knows an awful lot about the characters (but that they still surprise him as he writes).
Who am I to compare myself to Anne Rice and Stephen King?
I’m not comparing myself to them.
I’m starting out the same exact way they did: as a nobody, with nothing.
Nothing but a blank piece of paper and a burning “what if…” question.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t make an outline. You do whatever you want. I’m talking about what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. This is mostly a conversation I’m having with myself. You’re invited along for the ride, but in no way is this instruction or advice.
From having spent years in the world of marketing before throwing that all away to become a writer (and good riddance), I suspect the reason why outlining is so often recommended is because “just start writing” doesn’t sell writing courses. You can’t sell it if it’s not a “system” or a “formula” or a “blueprint.” And anyone who’s trying to sell you something is never going to simplify their offerings over time. They can only complicate them and bloat them in order to appear to have more in the current offer they’re trying to sell you than in the previous offer they sold you.
Without an outline, I want to know my characters as much as possible before I begin writing in earnest. I need to know what they look like and their traits, as if I’m playing them in a pen-and-paper RPG. Strengths and weaknesses. Fears and foibles.
Most importantly, I want to know their back story. I want to know how they got to be in my story and why they’re involved. I want to know what the stakes are for them and why they give a shit. What they want and what they stand to lose. What they’re willing to risk and where they draw the line. How they change (or not) during the story.
I’ll even write a work of flash fiction or a character sketch with no intention of including it in the story. I do it to imbue these characters with life. I’ll write diary entries by the character so I have an idea how the character speaks.
The plot doesn’t drive the characters, the characters drive the plot.
Bad Guys First
In particular, I need to focus on the villain as early as possible to determine what drives the action. I made a big mistake with my current WIP by not doing this. I had to stop everything while I figured it out, and then I had to change some of my other ideas as a result. I had to throw a good chunk of work away because of this. It was worth it, but next time around I’d rather be smarter about how I begin. Starting with the villain, not the protagonist, is important for me, otherwise my villain will be weak and that weakens the overall story.
Characters may drive the plot, but villains drive the characters.
Conversations with Myself
I’m also planning for my current WIP by writing about what happens in the story, without writing the story itself. Questions come up that need answers: how does X happen? Why does it happen? I know I want certain events to occur in the story and they have to make sense, have reasons for happening, and connect to other events and characters. Answering these questions for myself leads me to understand more about the story’s characters, which circles back around to the characters’ back stories.
The Hero’s/Writer’s Journey character archetypes can be useful, but I try to think up the characters I want to have first, and afterwards see if they fit any of these archetypes. That way, I can make them more into the kind of character they need to be. What I do not do is start with this list and then try to make up characters to fill in the slots.
- Hero– someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others
- Mentor– all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts
- Threshold Guardian– a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome
- Herald– a force that brings a new challenge to the hero
- Shapeshifter– characters who change constantly from the hero’s point of view
- Shadow– character who represents the energy of the dark side
- Ally– someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving variety of functions
- Trickster– embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change
These roles are not exclusive, nor are they unbreakable rules. For example, I could have a character who is both mentor and trickster. I could elect to not have a herald character at all (easily done). A threshold guardian isn’t necessary. My hero may not be willing to sacrifice anything on behalf of others, maybe not at first, but maybe not ever.
Focusing on my story’s major structure is not even close to being on par with outlining, because to my mind outlines need to be far more detailed. Starting with structure might be the first step in writing an outline, but does not itself an outline make.
Here are some structure ideas I’ve been working with: “Acts” as in a play or movie, and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” which is the basis for the “writer’s journey.” Even though they may differ from one another, they’re not mutually exclusive. And again, I’m not making these as though they were OSHA safety procedure flowcharts. It’s more like the Pirate’s Code: more of a guideline, really.
- Act 1 Opening Scene
- Act 1 Inciting Event
- Act 1 Crisis
- Act 2 Revelation
- Act 2 Midpoint Reversal
- Act 2 Disaster
- Act 3 Plan
- Act 3 Climax
- Act 5 Denouement
The three-act structure is not the only way to structure a story, but many of the alternatives I’ve seen are nothing but a more elaborate take on the three-act story. Probably the Hero’s Journey is the best “template” to use, although certainly not the only one.
- The Ordinary World– the hero is seen in his/her everyday life
- The Call to Adventure– the initiating incident of the story
- Refusal of the Call– the hero experiences some hesitation to answer the call
- Meeting with the Mentor– the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to commence the adventure
- Crossing the First Threshold– the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure
- Tests, Allies and Enemies– the hero explores the special world, faces trial, and makes friends and enemies
- Approach to the Innermost Cave– the hero nears the center of the story and the special world
- The Ordeal– the hero faces the greatest challenge yet and experiences death and rebirth
- Reward– the hero experiences the consequences of surviving death
- The Road Back– the hero returns to the ordinary world or continues to an ultimate destination
- The Resurrection– the hero experiences a final moment of death and rebirth so they are pure when they reenter the ordinary world
- Return with the Elixir– the hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world
Not a Brain-Dead Formula
These are not required to be used in a straightforward manner. I could have an “anti-mentor” or the hero returns to the ordinary world, only to leave it again and bring back no boon to improve the ordinary world. The hero may be ruined for the ordinary world (which is exactly what I’m considering for my novel). The reward may be terrible, and by terrible I don’t mean low value, I mean more like a punishment. This is a theme Lev Grossman explores to great effect in his Magicians trilogy: the hero doesn’t get glory, the hero pays the price. The Road Back could be an all-new kind of secondary Ordeal, like the Terminator films that never seem to end (or, rather, have a false ending and then a surprise and then the real ending).
Point is, I can find these elements in any story I care to examine. I don’t create my stories according to this template like filling in a Mad Libs book. You remember those, right? Am I really that old? Don’t answer that.
What’s the Point?
Seems like an awful lot of work just to be able to say I don’t outline, doesn’t it?
So… why? What’s the point?
The point is that I when I begin putting one word after another of the story come November, I want to just go. I want to simply write. I don’t want to have to stop and interrupt myself because HOLY SHIT I FORGOT SOME MAJOR THING.
That will not do.
Great improvisation comes from practice and from being prepared.
Granted, I still might end up throwing away entire chapters because I come up with something later that’s too good to not use, but to use it I have to rework a significant portion of the story. If it means a much better story, I’m fine with that.
What’s Your Method?
Are you a planner or a pantser? Outliner or random note writer? Come, Keepers of the Word, tell me your stories.