Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.26: Q&A on Outlining and Discovery Writing

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard

Our listeners had questions about outlining and discovery writing. Here are a few of the very best:

  • Do you outline scenes? How?
  • How do you know when to STOP outlining something?
  • How much do you have to know about your character and/or world before you start writing?
  • What do you to to diagnose and fix a structural problem with a discovery-written draft?
  • What do you do to ‘get into’ an outline that you’re struggling with.
  • Are each of your projects similar in terms of procedure?
  • What are some major indicators that a piece needs more structural work?

Soundbite moment: DAN: “I had to learn the difference between a story, and a bunch of stuff that happens.”

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered via great mastery by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Find another writer. You each write a quick outline for a story, print it, then cut your outline into strips. Now, trade piles of strips. Your missions? Re-assemble the other writer’s outline.

Thing of the week: Contracted Defense, by Piper J. Drake.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: How do you outline a scene? Not an entire book. Do you outline scenes?
A: Yes. Index cards: what’s happening, what’s the joke, what am I moving forward, who are the characters. One line: Awesome hanky-panky hwere while car explodes. If the way it happens is important during outlining, yes. How does it work, what are the beats. My outline is a list of bullet points to accomplish a goal. When I sit down to write a scene, I will write down a sequence of events.
Q: When outlining, how do you know when to stop adding to the outline?
A: When I start adding dialogue, it’s time to write the story. When I have the emotional beats to earn a climactic moment.
Q: How much do you have to know about your characters/world before you begin writing?
A: Nothing. Nada. (Implied: you discover that through the writing!)
Q: What do you do to diagnose and fix a structural problem when you have a finished, mostly discovery written draft?
A: Reverse outline. Talk to alpha, beta readers, and analyze the problems they had. Sit down with the scripts and index cards, and push it around. One problem is bad, but two problems may solve each other, if you look at it right.
Q: I taught myself to outline like Dan did, but sometimes I can’t always get into an outline like I should be able to. How did you address this, Dan?
A: Change formulas (outlining systems) and see if that helps.
Q: So far I’ve written five novels. The preparation/outlining process for each has been different by virtue of the story’s needs. As pros, do you still deal with this frustration or have you worked out a system that consistently works for you?
A: It’s different every time. We aren’t chainsaw sculptors making grizzly bears, sometimes we make cabinets and coffee tables. Every book is like a first kiss with a different person. My process has stabilized over the years, but different genres have different processes. Find out what constraints your process has, where the borders are, and then adjust within those borders and constraints.
Q: What are some major indicators that a piece needs more structure?
A: If you find yourself going off track every time you start a new scene or chapter, you may need more structure. Learn the difference between a story and a bunch of stuff that happens. If you’ve just got a bunch of stuff, your characters aren’t growing, you probably need more structure. Stuck, bored, don’t want to sit down and write? You may have a broken structure that needs fixing.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 26.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Outlining and Discovery Writing.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] All right. So, Loma asks our first question, which is, “How do you outline a scene? Not an entire book. Do you outline scenes?”
[Howard] Oh, yeah. All the time.
[Dan] Yes, I do.
[Howard] I usually use index cards. Typically, a Schlock Mercenary scene is three strips or six strips. Like a Monday through Wednesday or a Monday through Saturday. I will take an index card for each strip and I will write down what’s happening, what’s the joke, what am I moving forward, who are the characters in this? I’ll reorder them, I’ll throw away an index card because it’s stupid, and I’ll go through a dozen index cards to come up with six that I like. Then I go sit at a computer and write.
[Piper] I do not.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Piper] I don’t outline scenes. What I end up doing is usually having one line, like “Awesome hanky-panky here.” Or…
[Piper] The car explodes. Then we go from there. Shenanigans ensue. And then…
[Brandon] Awesome hanky-panky while car explodes.
[Piper] That has… Happened.
[Brandon] That’s happened.
[Dan] I’m sure that that has happened. What I find with mine is that if my outline says something like that, like “insert awesome chase scene here,” that it will suck. That’s just because of the way that I write. So if I get to the point where I need a cool chase scene or I need a cool whatever, like the scene itself, it’s not just what happens in it, but the way that it happens matters to me during the outlining phase, then I will sit down and figure out how that scene is going to go. How do I want that chase scene to work? What are they chasing each other through, what is stopping them from catching up to the people in front? Figure out what the beats of that chase scene are going to be, because then it will work better.
[Howard] Sandra and I were talking about the second Pirates of the Caribbean film where there’s the fight on the island, where they’re chasing the chest and the rolling waterwheel thing…
[Howard] I’ve watched that three times in the last 48 hours, and it is one of the most brilliantly plotted action scenes ever. I can tell it’s outlined, because people change sides over and over and over again in the fight intersects and all of it is engaging and fun. Yeah, it’s like you said, if… Oh, they have a sword fight on the island and so-and-so ends up with the chest. That’s not going to be enjoyable enough. We want something that… Something that tells the story.
[Brandon] So I’ve talked a lot about my outlining method on Writing Excuses and in my YouTube lectures. My outline is a list of bullet points to accomplish a goal. Then, when I write a chapter, I grab the bullet points. The thing is, the bullet points are goal oriented. My outline is goal oriented. So that an outline might include awesome chase scene here, in which, because I always want to have a goal, in which this is accomplished, but this character fails to help out and feels useless. Right? Like, we’ve got character moments and things like that. When I actually sit down to write the scene, I do outline the scene as a different list of bullet points which is a sequence of events. Which are kind of clues to the image in my head, they’re a notation to the scene I’ve already played out to remind me, oh, this and this and this, and occasionally snips of dialogue. So, yeah, I do outline scenes, but I do it before I write the scene that day, as opposed to doing it all in the big outline.
[Dan] That seems so weird to me.
[Brandon] Yeah, I can show you them…
[Brandon] They’re very inter…
[Piper] Yeah. See, when I’m thinking about it, and I’m going back to that one hanky-panky here. Generally, I’m out for a walk or I’m doing cardio, and I start pondering what I wanted to happen in that scene. What key things from the story need to tie in, in that scene? I like, let myself think about that first, then I sit down and I discovery write it.

[Brandon] All right. So, Sam asks, “When outlining, how do you know when to stop adding to the outline?”
[Dan] For me, it is dialogue. There are occasionally, like I said, if I need to outline a scene, in particular to know the beats of it, sometimes I will let dialogue creep in. But if I get to the point where I am adding dialogue to my outline, then I know I’m just writing the story, and it’s time to stop and just write the story.
[Piper] Good call.
[Brandon] For me, it’s when I know I have the emotional beats required to earn one climactic moment, whatever which one I’m pointing toward. I don’t need anything more than that, I just need to know what the beats are.

[Brandon] All right. Next question. Mark asks, “How much do you have to know about your characters/world before you begin writing?”
[Dan] Nothing.
[Piper] Nada.
[Dan] Technically.
[Brandon] All right.
[Piper] Yeah.
[Brandon] I thought you would say that.
[Brandon] I just wanted to throw it out there.

[Brandon] I also have one that I’m going to pitch to you guys, because we talked about this. I’ll remain quiet on this. But you guys weren’t there. This was with the Chicago group. What do you do to diagnose and fix a structural problem when you have a finished, mostly discovery written draft?
[Piper] I reverse outline. I’ll actually go through… Because I have to write a synopsis, anyway. Right? A synopsis is a tool that a lot of the marketing team is going to use to be able to understand a whole bunch about your book without having to read your book. So if I know that there’s something structurally wrong with my draft, I’ll start to create my synopsis to see if I’m missing a beat somewhere.
[Brandon] Yeah. I kind of do that as well in some of mine that I’ve discovery written.
[Piper] Besides, I hate writing a synopsis, so I might as well just do it the one time.
[Dan] Tell me the question again, because I want to make sure I get it.
[Brandon] So, pretend you’ve discovery written a story, and there’s a structural problem. How do you diagnose and fix that?
[Dan] Oh. That’s hard.
[Brandon] Yes…
[Dan] This is why I ignored the question the first time, apparently. I’ve done that. I had to do that with Hollow City. I just kind of with that one brute forced it and talked to a lot of alpha readers and beta readers and writing group, to see what problems they had. Invariably, no one in any of those groups suggested the fix that I ended up using, but what they did is they told me, “This is the problem I’m having and this is where I think it’s coming from.” Looking at kind of the Venn diagram of where all of those answers overlapped, I was able to identify, “Oh, I bet this is the problem, and I bet I could fix it by doing this other thing.” It was more complicated than that, but basically that.
[Brandon] Howard, you ever had… Have to do this?
[Howard] I have. I think I’ve related the story before. What I needed to do is I just took all the scripts… I could tell that a script wasn’t reading right. It was broken. And it already had art on it, so I’m not going to redraw it. There’s seven strips that would need to be redrawn if I made a big change. So I laid everything out on the game table… Comic, all illustrated stuff, and then some index cards, and push things around, and realized that, “Oh, I can fix this by inserting a week of comics. Oh, good.” The quote that I like, and I can’t remember who said it. But it’s a military history quote. “When you have a problem, that’s bad. When you have two problems, you might be able to make them fight and end up with zero problems.”
[Howard] So finding out that you have one problem with your story is terrifying. But if you’ve got two problems, it’s possible that they’re going to solve each other if you just look at them correctly.
[Brandon] That happens a lot. It really does.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop for the book of the week. Which is Contracted Defense. Contracted Defense. Not contracted. They didn’t… They didn’t acquire…
[Piper] They didn’t contract anything.
[Dan] Although now, that’s a good story…
[Brandon] [garbled]
[Piper] Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.
[Brandon] Got the wrong M-faces.
[Piper] So, Contracted Defense is my third book in the Safeguard series, which is through Carina press, which is a digital first press. It’s probably the end of the series. But it’s been a fun ride. The Safeguard group is a group of mercenaries, and they specialize in protecting people and doing the right thing. I’ve had a lot of fun with this series, because I’ve been introducing characters that are unusual, either because they’re rather diverse or I’ve been role switching where the female is the bodyguard and the male is the… And the hero is the person who needs protection. In Contracted Defense, in particular, I have a pair of Safeguard professionals who are trying to protect a secret, shall we say. In the protection of that secret, they have to deal with whether or not they want to be partners themselves with each other, and they have a whole lot to prove. Of course, shenanigans ensue. There’s a Corgi in the mix, and there’s a watcher in the wall.
[Dan] Cool.
[Brandon] Sounds awesome. That is out this month. Excellent.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s go to the next question, which actually Leah pitched right at Dan.
[Dan] Ho!
[Brandon] She said, “I taught myself to outline like Dan did, but sometimes I can’t always get into an outline like I should be able to. How did you address this, Dan?”
[Dan] To get into an outline?
[Brandon] Yes. That you’re having trouble getting into, I think, is the idea here.
[Dan] Um. Oh. Okay. Trying to think of a good example where I’ve had trouble getting into an outline. Okay. Hollow City, again. I… The first outline I did for this was awful. I don’t know if you remember this from writing group, Brandon, but it was abysmal.
[Brandon] The writing was great.
[Dan] The writing was good…
[Brandon] The story… We had no idea what…
[Dan] But the outline for it was really bad. So I actually… I knew the story that I wanted to tell, and I knew kind of… Like we’ve talked about, I knew what the beats were. But the outline itself was awful. So the first thing I did was I actually threw out that outlining system I was using at the time, and found a different one. Just said, “What if I plug all of this information into this new formula and see what happens?” That took a lot of tweaking and a lot of polishing to get it to where I wanted it to be. But it was… Just the idea of being able to see the same thing through a different lens or a different perspective helped me to see which parts of the outline still worked and which parts were unnecessary and which parts were just outright harmful to the story.

[Brandon] All right. Darcy says, “So far I’ve written five novels.” Good job, Darcy.
[Brandon] It was my sixth novel that sold, and it was your sixth novel.
[Dan] It was my sixth as well.
[Brandon] So…
[Howard] Did you just promise her that…
[Brandon] No.
[Howard] Okay. I was just making sure.
[Piper] Just saying that it can happen.
[Dan] Promise her that this one will not sell. Sorry, Darcy.
[Piper] Sorry, Darcy. Possibilities are out there.
[Brandon] Just saying, just saying. Six is a lucky number for Writing Excuses members. “The preparation/outlining process for each has been different by virtue of the story’s needs. As pros, do you still deal with this frustration or have you worked out a system that consistently works for you?”
[Dan] It’s different every frigging time. It drives me up the wall. Part of that is because I personally am consciously always trying to do something different with every book. A new genre, or a new style, or a new point of view or something like that. But even so, they’re hard. John Cleaver five was the 10th book I published, and it was the hardest one to write of anything that I’ve done. That’s counting the five previous ones that will never be published because they were awful.
[Howard] Writers… We are not chainsaw sculptors making grizzly bears out of logs, where every day in the morning…
[Dan] Aw. Now I’m sad.
[Howard] You pick up the chainsaw and you make a bear out of it. We are chainsaw sculptors who make grizzly bears, who also happened to sometimes make cabinets and coffee tables and de-forest continents. You get up in the morning, you don’t know which tools you’re going to need.
[Piper] Every book is like… Trying to start every book is like a first kiss with a different person. It’s like you just don’t know how it’s going to work, you hope it’s going to work, it could be awkward.
[Dan] You’ve done it before, so you know that it can work.
[Piper] Yeah, but it’s going to be different.
[Dan] You know that… Yeah.

[Brandon] I knew you guys were going to say this.
[Brandon] I will say that my process has stabilized over the years.
[Dan] Really?
[Brandon] It’s much more rare. Now, different genres will end up having a different process. But when I write a Stormlight book or an epic fantasy book, that process is working very well for me, and I only make refinements as I go along. If I sit down to write something different, then I have a different process, usually. So…
[Howard] I know, when I get up in the morning, I have a plan for what the process is going to be. But I’ve seen it break enough times that I know that today I might not be sculpting a grizzly bear with a chainsaw.
[Brandon] Yeah. Being… Which I’ve found is actually more rare, being a very natural outliner, finding out my process, filing away those tools, and working with them…
[Howard] Sticking to it…
[Brandon] Sticking to it…
[Howard] Keeps you productive.
[Brandon] Is more of an outline writer thing. Like we said, we’re all discovery writers and we’re all hybrid, but that natural outlining means that…
[Dan] I want to pursue this a little bit. Obviously, your process of writing a Stormlight book is different from writing like a Reckoners book. But your shorter stuff, like the Alloy of Law stuff, was that more or less the same as the Reckoners stuff or…
[Brandon] That was the same as Stormlight.
[Dan] Stormlight? That was the same as Stormlight, even though Stormlight is 10 times bigger?
[Brandon] Right. When I do a Stormlight book, I outline a trilogy, then I write them as one and publish them as one. So, for instance, the Wax and Wayne books, the three that I’ve done are together about the length of a Stormlight book. A Stormlight book just has all three in there. Which allows me to play a little looser with the outline. Not looser, but it means I don’t have to hit the same exact beats, because I know the big climax is at the end. So…
[Dan] So what is different then about that process and outlining say the three Reckoners books all as a chunk?
[Brandon] The three Reckoners books I wanted to feel like an action film, specifically. So I went and watched some of my favorites. Then I actually created a more Hollywood style outline. Act I, Act II, Act III. Set piece, set piece, set piece. Using some of the Hollywood formula stuff. The seven point story structure or things like this. And actually built out an outline that I could take to my agent and say, “Here is an outline. It looks like a normal person’s outline.” Right? Normal?
[Brandon] It looks like what a normal person expects on outline to look like, that every major scene is in the outline and the… Yeah. With the Stormlight books and my epic fantasy, it’s not like that. Like I said, it’s goal driven, it’s this character’s learning this thing, and here are the bullet points that push them towards that. It’s a much more flexible outline. Reckoners, I made much more rigid, just to hit some of those Hollywood beats.
[Dan] That is [inaudible]
[Howard] There is a…
[Piper] That is very cool.

[Howard] Career lifestyle element to the question here. Brandon, you have your editorial personal assistant, Peter. You can be flexible in your process up to the point at which you forced his process to break. So your process has some constraints on it. I have a colorist. I have a daily deadline that needs to be met. There’s all kinds of things I can do with process to make me productive today in order to get the words out, but ultimately, there are constraints on my process that I have to recognize. In answer to the question, find out what the constraints are on your process, figure out where the borders are, and then mess around within the borders. You might find out that you can be…
[Brandon] I have some really bizarre things because a new Stormlight book is three books wrapped in one with a short story collection in between them. Right? So book one has been done, with the revision… The writing and the revision. Book 2 is in the hands of Peter and Moshe. I just finished book 3 of the trilogy squished together, and am now revising that. Then I will go back to part one, which I will… Book one, which I will revise. Get the third draft, send to beta readers. While they are still working on part four, or part four and five, which is book 3. So, it’s very, very weird, because this is what we have to do with the 450,000 word book that people want.
[Howard] The difference between pouring a driveway and paving a freeway.
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to…
[Piper] It’s all about scale.

[Brandon] I’m going to end us here. There’s so many good questions. But… I’m going to end us with “What are some major indicators that a piece needs more structure?” Aiden asked that question. I thought it was very interesting, because this whole two months, we’ve been talking a lot about adding structure or the importance of structure. How do you identify if something’s broken in the first place?
[Piper] If you end up off-track a lot… Like, it’s one thing if you have a scene or a chapter where you have an epiphany, and maybe you want to explore that a little. That’s great. But if you’re going off-track every time you sit down to write a chapter, you may need more structure as to where you’re going.
[Dan] This was the very first thing I said, in the other podcast about outlining, and I’m going to say it again now. I had to learn the difference between a story and a bunch of stuff that happens. Often, that is what it comes down to. If a story needs more structure, it’s because there is just a bunch of stuff happening. They don’t necessarily lead from one to another, the characters are not growing organically or towards a specific goal, or character change that’s just things are happening.
[Piper] Stuff!
[Brandon] That’s really good advice.
[Howard] If I’m stuck, there’s probably a structural problem. If I’m bored, there’s probably a structural problem. The emotional bellwethers for me are super important. If I don’t want to sit down and write, I will often ask myself, “Okay. Is that because what you don’t want to sit down and write is broken, or is it because you just really want to sit down and play a videogame?”

[Brandon] All right. So we’re going to go to our homework. I have written on my guide for this episode…
[Brandon] Simply the words “Dan does something wacky weird.” Because he promised us.
[Dan] Okay. So here we go. We’re playing around with outlines. This is what you’re going to do. We’re going to force you to think outside the box. You’re going to find another writer, or someone who wants to do this with you. Each of you are going to come up with just a quick outline for a story. Point by point, however many points you want. Six or seven. Then, you’re going to cut… Print them out, cut them into strips, and then hand the other person the pile of strips. They know the beats of the story, but they don’t know what order they go in. Then you have to reorder them, turn that into a cohesive story, and write it.
[Brandon] That’s awesome. I love that.
[Piper] That sounds super fun.
[Howard] It’s our I Ching episode.
[Brandon] Ooo, don’t remind me of that one.
[Howard] Okay.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.