Most writers have heard the two self-labels we often use to describe our writing processes:
PLOTTERS are writers who plan out their plots in advance. They often outline. They do not feel secure without a guide to help them progress from beginning to end in an organized way. They often like to build in the four-act-structure to their works from the very beginning, so they don't have to go back and rewrite as much.
PANTSERS (short for "seat-of-the-pantsers") write their novels more improvisationally. They like the freedom of being able to take their stories in any direction as they write. They find outlines too restrictive. Sometimes they feel that outlines make their writing too stale and predictable. They thrive on the fresh discoveries they make as they write. They are willing to do more structural rewrites in exchange for their freedom in the process.
I am a plotter. I must have an outline to give me faith that I will actually finish the novel someday.
However, I use a process that preserves the freshness in the writing to walk a line between plotting and pantsing. I call it "the Butterfly Effect."
My initial outlines are simple. I write a sentence to describe what happens in each chapter. Sometimes, I start by knowing only the major plot arc, and composing a sentence-level outline for only the first ten or fifteen of thirty chapters.
My initial outlines are also NOT SO GOOD. :-)
If you saw my initial outline for the novel just contracted by Thomas Nelson, you would think "what on earth?" That crude outline bears very little resemblance to the final novel. In the first outline, my plot is heavy handed and vague. Many characters who appear in the final version of the novel are not present in that first twelve-chapter outline.
My outlines change as I develop each chapter because of the Butterfly Effect.
You've probably heard of this theory too: the idea that changing one small aspect of the world can cause a ripple effect that leads to major changes later. If you travel back in time and accidentally step on a butterfly, you may change the course of history.
I could not write well without allowing for a Butterfly Effect in my outlines.
When I write each chapter, I allow unplanned events and characters to enter my storyline if I sense they are good for the scene and don't ruin the overall major plot arc. In an early chapter of my debut novel, I needed additional conflict in a scene to keep it exciting. In walked a character I had never anticipated, to jazz things up a little. That character ended up creating a a significant storyline that enriched the whole novel. My outline metamorphosed into something more substantial and sophisticated because of the Butterfly Effect of that character's presence in the story.
Some novelists are truly PANTSERS and remain pantsers forever. They have an intuitive sense of plot and pacing that allows them to produce good work without a conscious plan.
But I've also met a lot of beginning novelists who stay in the pantser mode because on some level, they are afraid to try to work with an outline. The result is that they get stuck in endless rewrites and give up out of sheer frustration with the unwieldiness of their plot structure and the digression and slow pacing that resulted from a haphazard approach. Sometimes, they write themselves into a corner, plotwise, and give up because writer's block sets in.
If these things have ever happened to you, you might want to try working with a bare, sentence-level chapter outline and allowing for the Butterfly Effect to keep your writing fresh. And don't be afraid to let that first outline stink!
What are your experiences with outlines? Have they ever worked for you? Are you, like me, a die-hard plotter whose palms get clammy at the thought of no initial outline? If you're a pantser, do you end up rewriting a lot to shape the plot and pace, or does your intuition guide you pretty well in that first draft?