Impromptu vs. Outlining

What kind of writer are you? Do you write going from scene to scene, making it up as you go and not really knowing what happens next? Or are you the type of writer who plans everything out?

I like to call my style of writing “impromptu”. I don’t know how legit of a name that is, but it is what I like to use. Basically, I dive into all my stories knowing very little about where they are going. Yes, I have images and scenes in my head I want to implement into the story, but oftentimes they are the epic scenes of the climax, near the end of the story.

For example, most people are familiar with the story The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. If you know the storyline, imagine sitting down to begin those books with only a few things decided. You have developed the idea of The One Ring, the Dark Lord, and your world in general. You have hobbits, dwarves, elves, orcs, men, and have even cooked up some of Middles Earth’s history in your mind. Knowing you want to start the book in the Shire with one of your main characters, Frodo, you sit down and begin writing. You might have epic mental images of a fight underground with a massive beast of fire (The Mines of Moria, The Balrog), and of a vast swamp full of dead people (The Dead Marshes), but you really have no guidelines or plan. It’s all just scenes with no names. You have no idea how you are going to get there.

As you write, you create new and unexpected characters and throw them into the fray. Your imagination is the limit as you invent your story. It goes where it wills and in retrospect you realize you unconciously took one road out of hundreds. The story, as you write it, could go this way or that way, and ultimately you choose a path and dozens more paths open up. The story grows and grows. Slowly, everything starts falling into place and the skeleton begins to fill out, forming a solid body of work. Before your eyes lays an evolution of literature that had no plan, no sense of direction until it finally evolved to encompass all those grand images you began with.

I start my stories with just a few images and scenes to inspire me. The hard part is creating the scenes in-between that connect the dots and to do it in a way that makes sense. However, impromptu writing is a sure recipe for breeding writer’s block. When you make up everything as you go you will find that some days you just don’t know how to direct your story. Your characters begin to scream back at you “this is stupid! Turn us around and start over!”

What do you think? How do you approach stories? Which style do you think is best? Personally, I love the evolution of impromptu writing but know an outlined story is worth the time it takes to make one. Maybe someday I will actually outline a story before I write it. For now, the story I am editing continues to evolve, just as it has since the first day.



Filed under Thoughts on Writing, What I am Doing

9 responses to “Impromptu vs. Outlining

  1. Joe

    I’ve taken a similar approach to you with any story I’ve written! I’ve found that ideas never really take good form until they’ve found their way to paper. I can have an idea in my head, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense after I’ve written it. I definitely process my thoughts by writing, so I love to just sit down and write and see what happens.

    I usually start out with a few general ideas/scenes/themes in my head, but they change as the story progresses. I love being in control of the story, but the fun part is watching it develop, even when I don’t know exactly how it’ll happen.

  2. I used to be card-carrying seat-of-the-pants writer. Now, I go back and forth between outlining and pantsing it. I like to outline until I just can’t outline anymore and have to start writing. Some parts of the story I can only figure out by writing them. When I get stuck on the writing, I head back to outlining and character profiling. Seems to work pretty well for me. It’s the best of both worlds for me.

    • Sometimes I have very specific ideas about part of the story and I outline those first. Although that’s usually if I’ve been kicking an idea around in my head for awhile and have a lot of mental notes. Even with an outline though, I let myself explore other possibilities. I love being surprised by my writing. I don’t think I could do it if I just followed an outline from start to finish.

    • I agree, Sonia. A little of both worlds is probably the strongest approach. It’s good to have a general plan but not smother the creative flow of impromptu writing. Plans can be changed, reversed, or erased. Write with a plan, but don’t let the plan write for you. =)

      Thanks for the comments!

  3. I agreecompletely. It’s good to have some ideas and a basic outline that you stick to, but planning the whole story beforehand too often results in a narrative that resembles a string of beads rather than a smooth ribbon, if you know what I mean.

    There’s a writer in my country who got very popular recently. He’s giving the public all they want (mostly pessimism and sexual violence), but for readers who can actually appreciate a story it’s easy to see he makes a plan and sticks to it no matter what.
    The result is very inconsistent character behaviour for one thing, because they go after the script rather than their psychology, and some motifs that get really obnoxious after a while. But if you don’t let the story flow naturally, that’s what happens, since every element was thought out separately.

    Sorry about the long comment, got a little carried away.

  4. I didn’t use an outline when I wrote my first book. It was more exciting to just dive in with the ideas I had and start writing. I know other writers don’t agree because it could get messy, but it worked for me. I just always made sure not stray from the story and things just worked out in the end.

    But with the book I’m about to write, I created an outline. I only ended up with one because I was still working on the other book when I started getting ideas for the next one. Since I didn’t have time to write the second one yet, I just jotted down random notes of what I wanted the story to be about and basically ended up with an outline. Funny how that works.

    So I guess in the end, it all depends.

  5. I’m definitely an impromptu writer as well. I get flashes of scenes and dialogue, poetry and songs from my story’s world at odd moments almost like my subconscious is processing the text and dolling it out when it’s ready. The strings to join those disparate parts are not always forthcoming, but they eventually find a connection and the flavor of the scenes ring true.

    If I have writers’ block or if a character gets stubborn and refuses to move, I find dressing them up in silly ridiculous ways and dropping them in a crowd gives them an incentive. Yellow tutu + Times Square +30 yr. old male main character = get me outta here! I need to get somewhere now!

    I’ve tried outlines but it feels like I’m tracing someone’s art when I go to write=>dead and static.

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