Authors have different approaches to shaping their stories. Some people, often referred to as “seat-of-the-pants” or “SOP” writers (a term that, to put it mildly, I am not a fan of), don’t outline or try to plot out the book beforehand. Other authors meticulously outline each scene and then, in a certain sense, fill-in-the blanks as they flesh out their outline and form it into a story.
I do not outline my stories. I do not “plot them out.” My stories are so complex that even now, after they are written, I can’t imagine trying to outline them.
But neither do I write by the “seat of my pants.” (I find this phrase derogatory. If the writing community is going to refer to those who write their stories organically as “seat-of-the-pants” writers, I think they should refer to outliners as “plot-handcuffed” writers.)
The ingredients of a story shape the direction of the narrative. For example, every story worth telling is about a character, whom readers empathize with or want to succeed, who faces a struggle and either overcomes it or is overcome by it. As an organic writer, I’m constantly asking myself what should naturally happen next and how can I escalate the tension and then resolve it in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable, and satisfies the reader.
Additionally, genre constraints help define the direction of a story. In crime dramas, I know that I will need a villain that is bigger-than-life, the case must become personal to the detective, there will be a final confrontation between good and evil, and so on. As I write I remind myself of these and let them keep my writing on track.
Over the years I’ve noticed that those who write organically often have stories that are strongest in believability, since these writers (myself included) are constantly asking, “What would naturally come next?” However, sometimes they write themselves into a corner and the climaxes sometimes aren’t as satisfying.
Outliners often have great climaxes, but characters will act in inexplicable ways on their journey toward the climax. You’ll find gaps in logic, people will do things that don’t really make sense, but are necessary to reach that climax that the writer has decided to build toward.
In my view, outliners need to listen to the story more and be more willing to discard their outlines; organic writers need to remain focused on escalating their story to reach that unforgettable, exciting, satisfying climax.
I believe that outlining a story is one of the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make, but writing by the “seat-of-your-pants” comes in a close second. Write organically instead. Pay attention to the story, meet genre conventions, ask the questions I mentioned above as you work on your novel, and then exceed reader expectations by going the extra mile and giving them an ending they could never guess, but ends up being the inevitable and most believable ending of all.