When Outlines Get in the Way of a Good Story

Hi all,

I’m in the throes of “outlining” my next WIP and, I must admit, I lean a bit toward the pantser method of writing when it comes to plot planning. While I do initially outline major plot points, I have found from past experience that they are organic, fluid, as my characters have a way of shaking their heads at me and moving events in a new direction once drafting is underway. I often end up with a story quite different to the one I originally proposed.

And that’s why I was so enthralled at last month’s Writer’s Digest Conference http://www.writersdigestconference.com/, when I listened to author, Steven James http://www.stevenjames.net/, speak on why story trumps structure and why, as the blurb on the back of his writing book by the same name says, “All too often, following the ‘rules’ of writing can constrict rather than inspire you”.


Yes, yes, YES!

I had found someone who understands how I write and doesn’t whack me over the knuckles for it!

One of his key arguments is that the story should arise organically out of who the characters are, the desires they have, and the obstacles/challenges they face. Believability of story can suffer if the behavior of characters is made to fit a planned plot, as it takes time to get to know our characters, and to understand what they will do in given situations.

I loved his session so much I scrambled to the conference bookstore to purchase his book, only to find it had already sold out. When I asked Steven if his book was available for purchase in Australia, he came to my rescue, giving me one of his personal (and signed) copies – thank you again, Steven!

Anyway, while I am still reading through his book (and labeling key parts with sticky flags), I thought I’d share some of my favorite points from Steven’s conference presentation:

  • Outlines can sometimes hinder answers to the question:
    What would a character actually do in a situation?
  • If you can separate theme from the story, you don’t have a good story.
  • Instead of rules, think about the movement of the story.
  • There are only tension-driven stories (not plot or character driven). The goal is to always tighten the tension. Tightening tension is not necessarily rising action.
  • Stories need to have believable action, clear character intentions, and escalating tension.
  • If you’re not surprised when writing your book, your readers won’t be surprised when reading it.
  • Step back from your characters and let them act.
  • A protagonist’s strength is measured by the strength of the obstacles they must overcome.
  • Twists should be unexpected and inevitable.
  • Write yourself into a corner to come up with the unexpected and inevitable.
  • Keep your climax fluid.

So would about you? Are you a die-hard plotter, pantser, or something in between?

Whatever process you use, happy writing,



2 thoughts on “When Outlines Get in the Way of a Good Story

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