By Doug Diaczuk
We all know that writing can be a struggle. For some of us, myself included, that struggle begins before we even write a single word. I’m not talking about fear and doubt, (though that is always present), I am referring to that dreaded question: to use an outline or not use an outline. This is something that I have struggled with since I first put pen to paper. As early as high school we are taught that any writing project, whether it’s a short story or an essay, needs to start with a thorough outline. Writing needs a plan. We need to know where we are going before we can even start. However, I have recently thrown off the shackles of the outline and I think you should, too.
Several years ago I drove across the country, from Thunder Bay to Victoria, British Columbia. While the idea to embark on a cross-country trek may have been spontaneous, the planning certainly wasn’t. There was months of mapping out routes, creating timelines, booking hotels, and deciding what to see. We even had a lime green binder full of maps, addresses, distances, and brochures that we constantly referenced while on the road. We knew exactly where we were going, how we would get there, and what we wanted to do when we arrived at the many stops along the way. And while this plan eased the stress and uncertainty that was sure to come with such a journey, some of the more memorable moments that we experienced came from leaving that lime green binder in the car and simply following our feet and our curiosity.
We experienced the power of a prairie thunderstorm in Regina after getting off at the wrong bus stop, we stumbled across the beautiful Mirror Lake on the side of a mountain while hiking to the tea house near Lake Louise, and we stood in the centre of a massive fir tree carved by lightning after taking a random path in Stanley Park. There was the delicious vegan buffet that we discovered in a market square while wandering the streets of Victoria, the delightful fringe festival in Saskatoon recommended to us by a friendly city transit worker, and nearly being attacked by a snapping turtle near Kenora after an impromptu decision to go swimming in a roadside lake.
Our destinations were carefully planned but we never hesitated to stray from that plan every once in a while. I now approach writing in a similar way - I know where I’m going, but always leave room for discovery. Some writers swear by detailed outlines, while others prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. I have tried both methods. I have written several stories that were carefully planned ahead of time with chapter outlines, bullet points, and character sketches. I have also written stories that were completely made up as I wrote them - no plan, just writing. After trying both methods, I find that I lean more towards the latter, though I will admit that a little planning still goes a long way.
Any stories that I’ve written that started with an outline felt too stiff, like I was trying to force pieces of a puzzle together that just didn’t want to fit. The writing was methodical, mechanical, boring even, trying desperately to adhere to the outline that was already established. There was no room for movement because if I strayed too far from the outline, I would never find my way back. I spent more time in front of my notebook than actually writing as I tried to plan plot points in chapter 27, then flip back to chapter 3 to make sure everything lined up. It was tortuous, unproductive, and in the end, didn’t really work. I was so focused on plot that the writing became a second thought. When the writing finally began, there was no sense of discovery. It was like reading a book that already had the ending spoiled, and who wants to keep reading after that?
The stories that I wrote with no outline or plan had a better flow, more attention to detail, and above all, they felt honest. I liked discovering the story as I went, as though it was being told to me and I was simply writing it down. The characters determined the plot, they grew right before my eyes, they set the direction, and I couldn’t wait to discover what would happen next. There was so much freedom. I always had a destination in mind, things I wanted to say or do, but I never let that determine or affect what I was working on in a given moment. I would get there when the time was right and discover new things along the way. But discovery doesn’t come without a price. There were times when things just didn’t work, where the plot just didn’t seem to make sense, if it was even there at all. Despite that, I still feel that these off the cuff stories have helped me grow as a writer more than any stories that were preceded by a carefully thought-out plan. We grow as writers by writing.
The approach that I take now does not involve outlines or any real planning. I don’t want to lose the spontaneity or the discovery that comes with simply writing. However, I still know where I’m going. I always have a destination in mind, however small, be it the next scene, the final words, or even the smallest of ideas. How I get there, though, is something that unravels along the way and sometimes the curiosity, the tangents, or straying can lead to amazing things.
When I think of my journey to the ocean, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m thankful for that lime green binder because it reminded us of where we were going. But sometimes you have to throw that binder in the back seat and just see where you end up. What you discover might surprise you.
Do you swear by outlines or do you fly by the seat of your pants? Do you have another method all together?