When To Trash The Outline

If you’ve read any of the previous issues of The Writer’s Everything, you’ll know that I am an avid plotter. I’ve tried plotting for one NaNoWriMo and pantsing for the next one. Can you guess which of the two found me reaching my word count goal and having a halfway decent story?

Yes, I’ll defend plotting to the day I die. However, even I am willing to admit that there come times when it’s necessary to either go off-script following a tangent or just trash the whole outline.

In fact, I believe this is the exact skill needed to bridge the two camps of writers, the pantsers and the plotters. The biggest complaint of pantsers is that outlines keep you from being able to discover the real story. If you’re stuck following a stringent roadmap, you can’t change direction when you discover a better, perhaps even outstandingly so, direction.

What we all need to realize is that this isn’t the case. Even plotters should understand that sometimes they will need to throw the outline into a metal garbage can and have a nice little bonfire.

But of course, we’ve put so much time and effort into our outlines. We front-loaded all of the hard work, answering countless questions and solving countless riddles ahead of time so that we could just sit down and write a well-developed story in one go.

So how do we take that dreaded step of going off-script? How do we know when it’s time to ignore all of our hard work and follow a hunch instead?

The short answer is that it all depends on you, your process, and your skill level. If you can, for example, throw away a complex and expertly crafted ending and weave together an even better one on the fly, then by all means make it happen. If attempting to do so would leave you with months of trying to piece together the tattered remains of your manuscript, on the other hand, it would no doubt be better to leave it the way it is.

Now, the long answer. In this article, we’re going to look at four reasons why you might choose to trash the outline and see where the wind takes you.

Adding Depth To The World

Sometimes we have the opportunity to add depth and intricacy to our stories. This can happen with novels that take place in real-life settings or those that take place in fantasy or sci-fi settings.

For example, the first draft of my upcoming sequel to Chronicles of the Infected: Those They Betrayed featured a character who would go out hunting with a crossbow every week.

Why? Because I thought it would be bad-ass to have a character with a crossbow in my story. Then my beta reader came along and asked me what the populations of animals would be like thirty years from now? Would they have lost their habitats? Would they be overhunted? What kinds of restrictions would the world of my story have on hunting?

Needless to say, that, along with several other comments from multiple awesome beta readers, allowed me to discover the potential depth of the story world I had created.

If you have the opportunity to add depth and layers to the world of your story, you should absolutely do it. That is also true if you come to discover more about the real-world settings your story takes place in. And that is even true when it means that you now have to come up with a different weapon for your bad-ass character to wield during the apocalypse, perhaps a much louder weapon that draws more attention and adds more urgency to her plight.

Discovering Your Characters

In the same way that it’s possible to come to discover more about the setting of your story for the betterment of your world-building, it’s also possible during the writing of a novel to discover aspects of your characters that you never would have thought of when writing the outline.

Perhaps you planned on your character being the brave, self-sacrificing type, but when it comes right down to it, he’s felt more like a pushover for the last hundred and fifty pages than a hero. At a point like that, you may have to reanalyze either your plot or your character and make some major changes to either…or even both.

Sometimes there are problems in the story that you never realized would come up until you started writing the first draft word by word. How did your main character (MC) get through the locked door if he doesn’t know how to pick locks? In that case, you might have to go back to the beginning and make sure you reference his lock-picking ability or go back a chapter or two and give him a hammer with which to bust out a window.

When The Plot Demands It

Of course, changes to the setting and changes to the characters can both demand a change to the story. Sometimes, though, the story itself demands the change.

It’s hard to differentiate these occasions, but let’s just use theme as an example.

If the theme of your story has to do with coping with death, then maybe you’ll realize by the midpoint that the story would be better served if you had the character’s husband die rather than have her car get in a fender bender.

If the theme of your story has to do with greed and ambition, then perhaps you might reconsider your inciting incident, choosing to present your character with the opportunity to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company rather than receive a mysterious two-hundred-year-old letter that was addressed to him.

As I said, it’s difficult to differentiate between characters and settings affecting and altering the plot of your story and plot itself altering the plot. They often inform each other, having a cumulative effect on your story, and that should more often than not be the case.

A Retroactive Stroke of Genius

Here we are. I chose to save the best for last. The reason that this one is the best is because it’s hands down the most enjoyable reason to change the outline of your story.

That reason is that you had an epic, amazing idea, and you want to add it to your story retroactively.

Trust me, it happens. As writers, we’re natural-born creatives, and we can’t help but continue to ponder the ideas of our stories long after the ink of the outline has dried.

Say you have a story about a medieval knight who is attempting to gather all of the lords under his rule. Originally, you might have thought that this would require a lot of talking, or maybe a lot of fighting.

But as you were writing the first draft, you had the idea. What if there was a legendary sword, say, for example, Excalibur, and if the knight was to find this sword, it would grant absolute legitimacy to his claim for the throne? Now you have something a little more interesting than debates, or even the tired sword fight that leads to mutual respect.

Then you have another idea. What if someone steals the sword? Now how will the king maintain his kingdom? What happens when the thief arrives with an army, brandishing the sword for all to see?

Of course, not all ideas have to have major effects on the plot, either. What if you had a sci-fi heist film where the antihero gets cornered. He could fight his way out. That would certainly be a reasonable enough course of action. But then you have the idea of a gun that shoots special “walk through walls” bubbles. Your character shoots under the guard’s feet. The guard falls to the floor below him. Then the character shoots the wall in front of him and makes it to safety.

There could be any number of reasons why you might choose to toss the outline and start writing in a different direction. The most important reason, though, should be the same one that applies to any change you choose to make. It should have a benefit, major or minor, to the story you’re writing.

By the time you’ve implemented your changes, you want your story to be all the better for it, and shine like the cut and polished gem it’s become, rather than the muddy hunk of rock that it was as an outline.

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