For those who aren’t familiar, these are two distinct approaches to writing fiction. Though the methodologies are fundamentally different, they’re also really just two ends of the same spectrum – how much of a story you figure out before you write it. Outliners plan it from start to finish first, while a discovery writer leaves most of the details for the writing itself.
An outliner may plot out only the major narrative twists and turns along the way or describe each scene in detail, but however much detail is in that outline, the blueprint of the book is laid out, the structure of the story defined. Though you’ll always uncover new aspects to a story when you write it.
But a discovery writer needs a starting point too. It’s not possible to write without having an idea of the story before you get going. So it can’t be all one or the other. Rather it’s a matter of degree. How much do you know about the story before starting on that first draft? It may be only the barest premise, or it may be a good general idea of the shape of the story, but it’s like a little outline.
At the same time, they are drastically different approaches – because with outlining the creative process of crafting a story takes place in the planning stage, while with discovery, it’s in the writing phase. And that difference has consequences.
Drawing a detailed blueprint first can be a big help, but it also makes it that much harder to make changes later when they need to be made, because that much of the story has already been locked down. Discovery writing may be more uncertain – it’s often likened to flying by the seat of one’s pants – but it also offers a lot more flexibility. So, do you plot out the entire journey on a chart before you take off? Or do you just grab your maps and take to the skies, ready to follow the course that feels right once you’re in the air?
A discovery draft gives you the opportunity to see the characters in their environment – the way they talk and how they interact with others. And you can suddenly find new ways of looking at them and their story that you’d never get while outlining. It makes the writing both more work and more fun.
More work not only because you have to learn what you’re doing while you’re doing it, but because you’ll make mistakes and a lot of changes along the way, tossing scenes or chapters or characters that weren’t working and finding something new to take their place. Until you have the right story.
It’s more fun, because it’s akin to playing with a set of (insert name brand here) building blocks. You put things together in different combinations and take them apart again as you see what works best. It’s a longer, messier process, but by the time you’ve finished, you’ve acquired an experiential understanding of how it all fits together. And I find that to be a big help when it comes to the next phase – rewriting.