Outlines and Deviations

The other day, there was a question asked in the comments on a post I made about writing an outline. It was a good question and made me think. This, unsurprisingly, led to the post you’re reading.

The question was about how much I deviate from my outline, if I do.

I’ll give the short version here, for the impatient. I do deviate, as much as the story needs.

You see, to me, an outline isn’t the final word on the story. It shouldn’t be, because a story needs to breathe and be itself, no matter what you thought it was in the first place. Sometimes things change, sometimes we get it wrong and on occasion, we don’t see how something develops until we’re right on top of it. That’s why I’m always willing to deviate at least some from what I planned to write.

Yes, that’s right, the hardcore plotter just said her outline isn’t the be-all-end-all. *waits for everyone to recover* 😉

But seriously, there are times I’m writing along and something starts to develop that wasn’t in my outline. If it feels right, I always listen and follow it, seeing what happens. To date, almost every one of those has turned out well. Most of them taught me important things about the characters or the story I hadn’t realized before then. Sometimes both.

I tend to think of these moments as giving the story room to grow and surprise me. Every novel I’ve written to date has had this happen, by the way. Some have done it a little. Others a whole lot. I once had to rewrite half an outline because the story abruptly took off in a different direction from what I’d intended. That resulted in one of my favorite secondary characters I’ve ever written. How can I possibly regret that, or fail to take the leap again?

Most of the time, the deviations are smaller than that. A scene that becomes a whole chapter because it ends up playing out a dynamic that needs to be bigger. A small action by a character that reveals something about them. A kiss that turns into something more. These are things that don’t derail the story. They just don’t happen to have been in the outline. And that’s okay.

In my experience, the more vivid the character is to me, the more likely it is that they’ll get a mind of their own and stubbornly say, “I’m doing this, like it or not.” Usually my first instinct is to start swearing when they do that, but after a moment, I remember how well following these things has worked out in the past, so I just roll with them. Besides, trying to ignore them usually leaves me sitting there, staring at the screen and trying to figure out where the torrent of words went.

Trust me, that’s a crappy feeling.

As I said, sometimes following the thread that develops will change your story, a lot even on occasion. That’s okay. It may force you to pause and rewrite your outline, based on this new thing. That’s okay too. It could very well lead you down a much better path, to a story you wouldn’t have discovered if you’d tried to force the story back to the outline.

The outline might be the first concept of the story, but it doesn’t have to be the final one. Think of it more as a guideline than an actual rule.


About Julie

I'm a writer and photographer. I always have something with me to take notes for ideas or writing projects I'm thinking about or have on the go. I also like to go around with my camera and take pictures of anything that strikes me as beautiful or evocative. I'm perpetually working on one story or another, while waiting for enough distance to judge the last one (or more). I'm always working on several projects at once, developing the next book, even as I'm editing the last. Beyond that, there's always plenty of scraps and twists of ideas rolling around in my head, eventually turning themselves into full blown stories.
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2 Responses to Outlines and Deviations

  1. quix689 says:

    The further I get in my teaching program, the more I realize how much writing and teaching have in common. With teaching, I have to create lesson plans that detail what I’m going to do that day. As my mentor teacher has said, though, good teachers realize that most of the time lesson plans aren’t followed. You need them to start with so you know what your goal is, but good teachers listen to their students and change their lesson plans when the students require it.

    It’s the same with writing. An outline can be great, but if it’s not working for the characters or the story, you have to be willing to change. I usually deviate from my outlines and then meet back up with them later, after I’ve made some adjustments. Not all of those deviations have been successful, but more often than not I’m happy with them. 🙂

    Great post!

  2. Hear, hear! Fantastic post–I agree entirely. Outlines are useful beyond belief but sometimes there’s just so much more to the story than we thought, and that’s always an amazing feeling to delve deeper. Guidelines instead of rules–very true (and makes me think of Pirates of the Caribbean. :P)

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