Outlining and Plotting versus Organic Writing

I’ve written each book and story a little differently – let alone chapters and scenes within each of them – so I don’t come down firmly on one side or the other in the debate of which is preferable – plotting (and outlining) versus a more free organic mode of storytelling.

I will say that it has been easier for me to start with a blank page and create a scene, visualizing it as it unfolds, than it typically has been when I have already imagined a scene and try to transcribe it.  In the latter case, it seems like when I know too much, it becomes harder to get it down correctly.  These scenes typically receive the most work during the revision process to smooth their edges and bring them more visually alive.

The Winter Fade series was imagined as a character-study that began with an idea for the second book – rather than the first.  I could imagine the main character, Imoen Doyle’s, longing and loneliness, her feeling of separation from all she had once known.  But I was curious what brought her to that point.  So when I began writing, I started with Winter Fade and wrote that story almost purely organically.  In other words, the first chapter simply evolved in the way that it did – although I knew she would become a vampire, I didn’t know what would befall her on that first night.

The following chapters were informed mainly by a wish to introduce characters to Imoen and the reader, to show perspectives and choices that others had made and that she could choose as well to follow – or not.  The character of Seth wasn’t planned.  I had a vague idea in mind for Isabel but she turned out to be quite different as characters often do.  The same goes for Darya.  Several chapters simply began with an opening line and a curiosity what else might befall Imoen or what she might learn.

This isn’t to say that this style of writing is purely on-the-fly.  As the story evolves I tend to gain a better picture for where it’s going and “pick up” fragments of scenes that I know will occur later.  So I begin “writing toward” those scenes.  I take a disciplined approach even when writing organically – I’m aware of pace and that I want a mid-book crisis point as well as an ending crisis.  The mid-book crisis is typically a point where the character shifts her way of thinking, and leads toward the road for the final crisis.  I often become aware of small scenes or set-pieces that I know will occur later, and will jot down portions of such scenes as they occur to me where they will be used many chapters away.  Chapter 16 of Winter Fade was the first scene that I very much visualized before writing, although it turned out differently than I originally envisioned when I reached that point and actually wrote it.  Nevertheless, Winter Fade shows a steady progression toward its resolution, with pieces falling into place as each character emerges and Imoen gets to know them, and with the choices she makes.

Firefly Kiss had many more pre-planned scenes – notably chapters 4 through 8, chapters 17-19, and chapters 23 and 26.  The rest of it emerged with the story.  Snowflake Promise was more dependent upon plot, as the first half was to have a certain pacing and some character shifts as it led toward the mid-book crisis.  I had a decent idea of perhaps about half of what occurred in the first half – at least as far as some set-piece scenes went.  The final crisis emerged while writing the rest of the story.

Glowstar was written very organically.  I had a very vague idea of Alannah and Eamon and what they were, and trusted to the story to uncover it.  Which I think it did.  I had a list of possible character names, and as characters emerged in the writing I chose one to fit them.  None of the characters were pre-visualized, and I only had a general idea for the ending when I began the story.

For the stories, Isabel was also written purely organically.  All I knew when it began was that it was set in 1924 in Los Angeles.  The story appeared with the opening scene which wasn’t planned.  But you always have to start with a first line, and sometimes that first line is the key that unlocks a story.  Darya was written almost entirely organically, again with an idea for the setting (1940s Soviet Union) and a first line that unlocked the door to the story.  I had no idea where it would go, but I like what I discovered with it.  Katharine involved the most planning because Katharine’s backstory had already been mentioned in brief during Winter Fade.

When I’m writing a book, as I start to understand where the story seems to be going and gain a glimpse at future pieces of scenes, I will usually jot down about where I think they may occur – however many chapters ahead.  There have been times where perhaps half of the next eight chapters have a pre-planned scene piece indicated for them.  I don’t really consider this outlining since I never pre-plot or pre-outline a book, and even during the course of writing a book I only jot down a few things to ensure the pacing and story arc happen as they should – as well as word-count.  Although Glowstar was written almost entirely organically, I planned on an 85,000 word count and came within a few hundred words of it – both in first draft and in final revised copy.

Whether a writer chooses to plot and outline versus employ a more organic approach, or even a mixture of methods will really depend upon what the writer is most comfortable with and which makes the best story come out.  There are some very good authors who utilize outlining – Kelley Armstrong comes to mind, and J.K. Rowling apparently also did some outlining for at least later books.  Outlining benefits a writer by providing a structure for the story and ensures pacing and plot elements occur at times when they’re needed.  Organic writing can lead to meandering if the writer doesn’t gain a sense of where things are going, and if the story itself isn’t emerging in a very natural way.

One further thing I’ll mention – I do considerable research prior to beginning a book or story.  While I may not be certain of more than the situation and types of creatures I intend to write about – I am very certain of my setting and time.  Isabel is the shortest of the three stories in Becomings – but I spent time researching Los Angeles in 1924, as well as fashions, music and record players, traffic lights (amber was more common later when the “slow” signal was added), landmarks, and weather and moon cycles.  Darya also received a lot of research.  Offhand references to ballets and symphonies actually took place.  I researched the Queen Mary and its use during that time period, as well as immigration requirements of the time.  Katharine had the most research of the three stories, where I read two separate books on Camp Douglas, watched a DVD of the camp’s history, and took copious notes to use to bring the camp to life once more.  I also researched Chicago of that era and the locales portrayed, including a certain Shakespeare play at one playhouse.  All of the books receive research, and I construct timelines as I write the stories and books to gain a sense of the overall storyline.

Only a fraction of the research makes it into the writing.  Research helps me visualize a setting and place it in time, but only nuances are needed for me to show it to a reader.  A few brushstrokes in the right places bring the setting to life.  Too many and the story would sink beneath the weight of the setting itself.

3 thoughts on “Outlining and Plotting versus Organic Writing

  1. Ah, the eternal pull between the methods of plotting, and winging it (known by some as the ‘pantzer’ method, as in ‘flying by the seat of your…’).

    You seem very insightful in terms of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and how using each different approach can help a different times.

    I also like your approach to research, and sharing this with a light touch in your storytelling.

  2. Pingback: Write With Feeling | Matthew Lee Adams

  3. What an insightful post! I am definitely a plotter –not in great detail but I need to have a plan if I don’t want to get stuck in the ms. I like the idea of organic writing –never heard it put that way– but for anything longer than flash, I would definitely get stuck without a plan.

    Sounds like you’ve got your method figured out and it works well for you. Great post, really enjoyed it!

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