Please welcome Steven James, the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels. He serves as a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest Magazine, hosts the biweekly podcast The Story Blender, and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “[a] master storyteller at the peak of his game.”
Steven’s groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules won a Storytelling World award as one of the best resources for storytellers in 2015. When he’s not working on his next novel, Steven teaches Novel Writing Intensive retreats across the country with New York Times Bestselling author Robert Dugoni.
There are dozens of plot, structure, and outlining books out there, but almost no one teaches organic writing—and yet some of the most popular authors in the world write organically (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Lee Child, to name a few). I believe people can write better, more original, and more twist-filled stories by abandoning their outlines and trusting the narrative forces of believability, causality, and escalation.
How to Abandon Your Outline to Improve Your Story
On February 2, 2014, The Sunday Times related an interview with J.K. Rowling in which she admitted that she wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment.
“That’s how it was conceived, really,” she said. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron . . . It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.”
When she clung to her preconceived plot idea it didn’t lead her toward, but away from, credibility.
This is a common problem when we outline.
But are there ways to move past that? To jettison an outline and respond to the story as it develops?
Here’s how to get started.
Focus on story, not plot.
At the heart of a story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. So, at its core, a story isn’t primarily about what a character does, but what he pursues.
This pursuit, driven by desire, escalates as the character faces mounting setbacks on the way to a
Plot is the byproduct of pursuit, not its precursor.
As Ray Bradbury noted, “Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through.”
So, focus on the actions that your character takes in pursuit of his unmet desire. Let every choice in every scene be shaped by that pursuit, not by your preconception of what should happen to get “to the next plot point.”
Let context guide you.
Make sure that the character is sufficiently motivated to go to that next scene.
Often, when working from an outline, the choices the character makes end up being dictated not within the context of the scene—what makes sense in that moment—but from an authorial preconception of where things should go.
What is on his mind? What would his most reasonable next step be? Are you letting his choice grow from context or pretext—what he would do, or what I want him to have done?
So how do you get all that context in your mind?
Read through the book from the beginning.
There have been times when I’ve spent the first ten hours of my writing day reviewing/editing my manuscript before I start writing the next scene.
Always opt for believability.
Outliners tend to have grand ideas of where the story should go, but gaps in logic emerge as the characters do inexplicable things in order to set up that memorable climax.
Everything is leading somewhere, but things don’t always make sense along the way.
One of the most important questions you can ask is, “What would this character naturally do in this situation?”
Then have him do it.
Every one of his choices must make sense to him, and also, to your readers when it occurs.
Include more twists.
I still remember the day nearly a decade ago when I realized that I needed to change the killer in my novel The Knight. I’d been working on the book for a year and that whole time I thought I knew who the villain was.
But then two days before my deadline, I just couldn’t get the end to work. Only when I stepped back and looked at the story from a more objective perspective did I realize that if I kept that person as the killer it would seem like it was coming too far out of nowhere, but if I added more clues, things would be too predictable. The only solution was rewriting the book—which took another couple of months.
But it was worth it.
And no fans who’ve written to me so far have guessed the killer’s identity.
Twists must be both unexpected and inevitable. In other words, they must make sense, but also be a surprise. Try to end your scene in a way that no one will guess, but that everyone will nod after reading it—“Yes, I didn’t see that coming, but that’s the way it should end. Nice.”
Fulfill your promises.
Identify the promises—both overt and implied—and make sure you pay them all off.
If you draw attention to something, either by specificity (detail) or by magnitude (word count), it better matter, or readers are going to feel like they invested time and emotional energy into something “and it didn’t go anywhere.”
Okay, so how do you know if you’re on the right track?
Get out of the way.
J.K. Rowling admitted that her personal reasons got in the way of her story’s credibility.
Don’t let that happen to you. Set those assumptions, preconceptions, and storyboard ideas aside. Don’t ask “What should happen next?” Ask, “What would happen next if I got out of the way?”
Then do it.
That’s where your true story will be found.
What happens when you get out of the way? Does the story lead you in unexpected ways? Have you abandoned an outline?