There are as many ways to write a story as there are grains of sand on a beach.
OK, so it isn’t really a famous quote, but it actually happens to be not far from the truth. If you put twenty authors in a room and ask them about the process for creating fiction, you will likely get at least ten different answers, not to mention half a dozen heated arguments. Each author learns to create in their own fashion, and trying to holistically copy another person's process is very similar to wearing another person's clothes - if you’re very lucky, the clothes may fit, but then you are left asking yourself how you look in a peach taffeta dress or leather pants.
All that being said, there are certainly “schools” that most authors fall into in terms of their style of creation. And, if you are still undecided about your personal process, or worse yet having trouble with your own process, it might be worth investigating some of the other options.
The three major divergences in workflow center around the following concepts: “Beats” vs “Outline” vs. “Discovery.” Almost certainly at least one of these will sound familiar to you, but it is probably worth investigating all three to figure out how your personal workflow works best.
(Note: all quotes come from the excellent book on self-publishing “Write Publish Repeat” by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant unless otherwise noted.)
To Outline or Not To Outline?
If you can remember all the way back to your high school English class, you are sure to have very fond memories of learning the science of outlining. You remember, don’t you? Taking a paper or story, ripping out its core concepts, and putting them in an arcane looking list with lots of capital Letters, and Roman Numerals, then lower case letters, and so on, ad infinitum. Outlining. One of the many skills 99% of the world is taught in High School that will never, ever be used again in Real Life.
As writers, however, we potentially fall within the 1% that can use the skill.
You would certainly not be the first to utilize the outlining method. Jim Butcher (who has sold about a bazillion books) outlines not only every chapter but every single scene of his books. Identifying characters, conflict and resolution on dozens of index chads sound sketchy to some, but the dude is selling some books, so he obviously is on to something here.
The “outline” concept works as follows: you basically write down every core concept of your story. You note your characters, your plotline, your twists and turns. You then break the entire thing down into bite-sized pieces. You know that Chapter One introduces your core characters, Chapter Two involves your inciting incident, etc. You sketch the entire thing out until you have the structure of the whole story jotted down. You can do this at a pretty high level (describe every chapter), or get completely granular (write down characters, conflict, and resolution for every single scene in your masterpiece.)
You then sit down with your outline and use it as a roadmap - every single thing that is going to happen has been noted already, so all that is required is that you fill in the crunchy bits - descriptions, dialog, etc. It makes for a very structured and regimented way to write a book.
However, it also leaves almost no room for improvisation. Any trails that go haring off into the wilderness will need to be noted, then dumped into your “Ideas” document. (You are keeping one, right?) Those concepts can be explored in a different work and at a later time. You are following a blueprint for the creation of your story, and edifices built without blueprints can look mighty strange indeed.
The Beats Go On
However, a less structured way of creating fiction is using the method known as “beats”. Story Beats are described in "Write, Publish, Repeat" as “an outline without being an outline. They’re sort of like CliffsNotes, written in advance, by someone who is barely paying attention. The reason I say that last is because story beats, for us, are merely a starting point. The beats are the plotting part of our mid-range writing style, but the story always, always grows beyond the beats”
Continuing, the authors say this: “The process looks like this: Working together, we come up with a vague idea for a story…. after we have our basic idea, Sean will write story beats. He breaks them down by chapter, and we always decide in advance how long the book should be, so we therefore know how long the chapters should be. In the case of Unicorn Western, Sean gave me 12 short paragraphs that I was supposed to grow into chapters of 2,000 to 2,500 words each.”
In the case of another project, the authors were even less definitive: “This also varies by project. For instance, here are three chapters’ worth of beats for the pilot of our sitcom Everybody Gets Divorced:
Scene 3: Alex and Andrea’s proposal plan explained.
Scene 4: Alex and Andrea’s proposal plan executed.
Scene 5: Alex and Andrea’s proposal plan horribly backﬁres.
Neither of us had any idea whatsoever what Alex and Andrea’s plan would be. We only knew who Alex and Andrea were (smart, friendly, mischievous twins whose best intentions always collapsed into something horrible) and what the plan had to accomplish (a suitably “romantic enough” way for our hero, Archer, to propose to his girlfriend, Hannah). The rest had to come from the blue, during the first draft."
“Beats” create a middle ground for creation. You have a broad idea of where your story will go, but you are still allowing for creative energy to operate within your story. You are more or less free to follow where characters and storylines lead you, as long as you are able to rejoin the overall structure of your tale.
You more or less know where you are going with Beats. You may just not be totally sure how you will get there.
The Joy (and Pain) of Discovery
No less a personage than the Grand Master of Horror himself, Stephen King, has come out strongly against plotting whatsoever. In his seminal book On Writing (which if you haven’t read, should be the very next thing you read after this), King stated that plotting was “clumsy and anathema to creation.”
Mr. King uses a method known as “discovery” or “pantsing” as it is known in the industry. (As in “flying by the seat of your pants.”) “Pantsers” start off with a character and a setting. They then let the characters tell the story. They probably have no idea in the morning when they begin writing where their characters will be by the time they finish writing later that day. The entire story is a voyage of discovery, for the author as well as the reader.
While the creative freedom of discovery is unparalleled, the amount of work involved is considerable;e. A Discovery author will write an entire novel having no clue what is going to happen next, or even how the story will wind up. However, once the story is completed, there is an amazing amount of clean-up work to be done - so much so that you might wind up rewriting the entire story multiple times.
In short, you may have just created a novel-length Outline.
However, it must be stated that for many writers (myself included) outlining simply does nothing to get the creative juices flowing. Writing my first novel literally began with a single character in a single scene, and was written from there. I discovered characters and plot points as I went. I freely admit that I ended up rewriting the novel multiple times. But the source of the characters, conflicts, and resolutions came from telling the story itself. I literally would have spent more time staring at a blank page attempting to create an outline than I spent just writing the whole thing.
A more structured and disciplined author, using Beats or Outlines, can probably create an entire work in a fraction of the time it takes a Discovery writer to do so.
Deciding Who Takes The Wheel
How do you determine your preferred method of writing? Simple. Attempt all three styles, and see which “feels” the best.
If you can’t stand not knowing what your characters will do next, Discovery writing is probably not for you.
If structuring out every single incident and location before you begin telling your story feels stilted and binding, Outlining may not be your thing.
If either extreme seems too, well, extreme, write down some story beats for the highlights of your story, and then write to connect the dots.
Knowing which method works best for you will help you tremendously. Writing in the wrong style will almost certainly feel uncomfortable. And working organically, using a method that grows naturally from your personality, will be the method that brings you back to the writer’s chair over and over again.
And, at the end of the day, creation is what is most important. The tools you use are not nearly as important as the fulfillment of producing finished work. Find out what horse will get you to the finish line, climb aboard, and don’t look back.