Relative to the never-to-be-resolved debate between “pantsers” (writers who forego outlines and write by the seat of their pants) and, er, “organizers” (funny that there’s no funny name for writers who outline their novels– how about “architects” for a more colorful handle?), I came across advice by author David L. Robbins posted in a Backspace article that said this:
“…keep in mind that imagination is limitless. Do not, therefore, reduce your story to outlines and sketches, notes and 3×5 cards. You will make your story finite this way and it will suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline. Juggle your story: by this, I mean keep eight balls in the air and only two in your hands. Let the story – the eight balls – float free, dangerously so. That’s the beauty of watching a juggler: where will those balls fall? Chase your story, believe in your characters and follow them. Do not predetermine every step they take but record what they do, and do the recording breathlessly but with control, as if you just came inside to report an accident or a marvel you have just witnessed.”
Me being a pantser, his words were, of course, delightfully affirming. That’s me, boy, taking in what’s happening and putting it on paper. Sometimes it happens that I’ll be able to see a little further down the road than the immediate scene, say a chapter or three, but that’s as far ahead as I ordinarily go (except for knowing the ending, which I usually do).
But I wonder about Mr. Robbins’s assertion that a story will “suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline.” Cannot? I’d like to hear from you architects out there on this, but that seems to me to assume that you don’t have the creativity and flexibility that pantsers do. I seriously doubt that, although architects may have to resist a natural resistance to dumping their work, much the same as a pantser does.
While we pantsers don’t have to worry about keeping to or straying from an outline, we are often faced with a need to throw out perhaps thousands of words because our pants have walked us into a blind alley. In my own writing, I now know that when the narrative stalls and I just can’t seem to make it move forward, the problem lies in a wrong fork taken. When that happens, I backtrack and reread until I see the error of my story’s ways, throw out the bad stuff, and my writing is re-energized and the flow resumes. I’ve scrapped chapters, sections, you name it.
It seems to me that architect-type writers must be able to do the same thing with outlines. We pantsers know well how an unforeseen development can steer a scene or a chapter to an unanticipated destination. An architect’s outline may seem perfect at the conceptual stage, but unexpected twists must also happen to them as they write. I don’t think that good architect writers limit themselves, as Robbins suggests, to sticking with the outline no matter what. I’ll bet that they do the same thing I do, only with less waste motion—re-evaluate, find the right path, and then reorganize (same as me rewriting, only a lot less labor-intensive).
For what it’s worth.
Photo by little-sky.