I envy those writers who outline their whole novel before they even begin chapter one. They sit down at their computer, begin typing and already know what they’re going to type. A little expansion here, a little fleshing out there. There’s no fretting as they try to pick out their story’s path one step at a time.
O boy, do I wish ….
But no, I’m a panster (as in I write by the seat of my pants). I’ve tried outlining, but except for a handful of scenes, I simply cannot tell what needs to happen in a story until I start writing in my characters’ voices. One scene leads to the next.
But as J.R.R. Tolkien famously said, “All those who wander are not lost.” If you’re a panster, trust yourself to discover your novel’s path as you write it. A little wandering is likely to give the story a few surprise twists. There are, however, a few tips that will shine a light on your path though, so you don’t get so far off the track that you have a mess on your hands when you’re done.
Keep your premise firmly in mind as you write each scene. It may take you a hundred pages to truly discover where your story is going, but you should have a strong premise from page one, and each scene should build and deepen that premise in some way. Follow tangents as you wish, as long as you keep this in mind, and you’ll still have a coherent story in the end.
Before you write, choose two or three comparable novels to the one you intend to write as loose guides. That is, select novels you’ve read that have the type of structure and audience you’re aiming for. The goal isn’t to copy other plots, but to give you solid ideas for your story’s structure as you go.
Know what your characters’ goals are and put obstacles in their way. In every scene. Don’t be shy. Stir up the waters and create lots of trouble for your characters. Ultimately, if you write most scenes to make your reader worry, you’ll end up with a story that stays on track.
End each scene with a hook. This may simply mean that you’ve moved your character and his or her goal further apart. But anything that makes your reader want to read on will do (i.e., a mystery that is laid out in the last paragraph). Incidentally, ending on a hook may make it easier for you to know where to start when you come back to the computer as well.
Aim for the finale. Although I don’t outline, I generally have a fairly strong image of the catastrophe at the end, that great battle that makes it seem all is lost, but ultimately brings the character to his or her reward. If you know the finale, you’ll faithfully build to it.
If you follow these guidelines, you don’t need an outline to make sure your story stays on route. But what about coming up with the story itself when you have no outline to refer to?
Last but not least, leave time for your story to stew. If you’re not following an outline, you must give your muse time to dream up new scenes. For me, that means taking long walks or doing mindless activities (dishes or laundry) alone, while my mind drifts. When I let my unconscious mind free, I usually find images or snatches of dialogue that will take me through the next scene or two.