Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners

Note from Jodie: I’m pleased to welcome back bestselling author Steven James to TKZ, and am looking forward to presenting a workshop at Steven’s conference, Troubleshooting Your Novel, in Nashville on January 17.

Excerpted from Story Trumps Structure (Writer’s Digest, 2014) by Steven James

Twelve years ago I had an idea for a series of mysteries featuring a one-armed detective. I attended a seminar by a well-known novelist who taught us to carefully and meticulously outline our fiction and then stick to the outline as we crafted our stories. In some cases he would write a forty-page long, single-spaced outline and then spend his actual novel-writing time pretty much filling in the blanks.

Well, I didn’t get very far in the one-armed detective project. In fact, it went absolutely nowhere. The process of outlining seemed daunting, not a whole lot of fun, and a very artificial way to approach an art form—sort of like telling an artist to use a paint-by-numbers approach.

I realized that in my heart of hearts I’m a storyteller, not an outline-maker.

If that’s you, here are a couple of secrets I’ve picked up over the course of writing ten novels without any outlines.

I’ve found that when I tell people to stop outlining their stories, I get strange looks as if writing organically is against some sort of “rule” of writing.

Well, in that case, I invite you to the rebellion.

Discarding your outline and uncovering your story word by word might be the best thing you can do for your fiction, just as it was for me. 

Here’s how to get started.

Trust the fluidity of the process.

I love Stephen King’s analogy in his book On Writing where he compares stories to fossils that we, as storytellers, are uncovering. To plot out a story is to decide beforehand what kind of dinosaur it is, how big it should be, and so on. As King writes, “Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”

His analogy helps me to stop thinking of a story as something I create as much as it is something I uncover by asking the right questions. 

When people outline their stories, they’ll inevitably come up with ideas for scenes that they think are important to the plot, but the transitions between these scenes (in terms of the character’s motivation to move to another place or take a specific action) will often be weak. 


The impetus to move the story to the next plot point is so strong that it can end up overriding the believability of the character’s choice in that moment of the story. 

Read that last sentence again. It’s a key one. 

Stated another way, the author imposes the plot onto the clay without letting it be shaped by the essential forces of believability, causality, and context. 

You might have had this experience: you’re reading a novel and it feels like there’s an agenda to the story that isn’t dictated by the narrative events. This is a typical problem for people who outline their stories. Instead, listen to the story, and respond to where it takes you.

You can often tell that an author outlined or “plotted out” her story when you read a book and find yourself thinking things like, 

◦ “But I thought she was shy? Why would she act like that?”

◦ “I don’t get it. That doesn’t make sense. He would never say that.”

◦ “What?! I thought she was . . . ?”

◦ “Whatever happened to the . . . ? Couldn’t she use that right now?”

◦ “I don’t understand why they’re not . . . ”

This happens when an author stops asking, “What would naturally happen next?” and starts asking, “What do I need to have happen to move this story toward the climax?”

The first question grows from the story itself, the second places artificial pressure on the story to do something that might not be causally or believably connected to the story events that just happened.

As soon as your character doesn’t act in a believable way, it’ll cause readers to ask, “Why doesn’t she just . . . ?” And as soon as that happens, they’re no longer emotionally present in the story.

As you learn to feel out the direction of the story by constantly asking yourself what would naturally happen next, based on the narrative forces that shape all stories, you’ll find your characters acting in more believable and honest ways and your story will flow more smoothly, contingently, and coherently. 

Here’s one of the biggest problems with starting by writing an outline: You’ll be tempted to stick to it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be an awful lot of interesting dinosaur left to uncover. 

Follow rabbit trails.

Forget all that rubbish you’ve heard about staying on track and not following rabbit trails. 

Yes, of course you should follow them. It’s inherent to the creative process. What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that far eclipses everything you previously had in mind for your story. 

If you’re going to come up with original stories, you’ll always brainstorm more scenes and write more words than you can use. This isn’t wasted effort; it’s part of the process. Every idea is a doorway to the next.

So, where to start? Put an intriguing character in a challenging situation and see how he responds. Sometimes he’ll surprise you in how he acts, or demand a bigger part in the story.

And sometimes a random character will appear out of nowhere and vie for a part in the story.

As J.R.R. Tolkien noted one time, “A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, but there he came walking through the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir.”

For fans of The Lord of the Rings books, it’s a good thing Tolkien didn’t stick to some predetermined outline.

Where do ideas and characters like this come from? Tolkien’s contemporary and the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis, wrote, “I don’t believe anyone knows exactly how he ‘makes things up.’ Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you ‘have an idea’ could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it?”

While the exact genesis of ideas will always be, as Lewis points out, somewhat mysterious and impossible to pin down, we can tip the scales in our favor when we remember, that they often come from the questions, attentiveness, observance and responsiveness of the artist, the author, the poet, or the musician. 

Allow your characters the opportunity to flex and adapt and grow, revealing to you their quirks and inconsistencies, even as you push them to the limit to see how they respond. Then let the story shape them even while they shape the direction of the story. 

The key is responding to the story as it unfolds, being honest, keeping it believable, letting the characters act and develop naturally, and following where the trail of the story takes you. Give yourself the freedom to explore the terrain of your tale.

Without serendipitous discoveries, your story runs the risk of feeling artificial and prepackaged.


Steven James is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of ten novels. When he’s not writing, trail running or watching science fiction movies, he’s teaching storytelling around the world.

22 thoughts on “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners

  1. Wonderful post and great advice! I’ve never been able to plot. It feels too sterile to me and I love being surprised by my characters! I find that as I write, there will be key points where the characters refuse to do what I thought they would and go off in a different (usually wonderful) direction. Thanks for the post!

  2. Thank you. I can’t understand HOW a person could outline a story completely, then stick to it slavishly. To me, an outline is a road map. If I’m going to drive across country, I want an idea of how to get there. But that doesn’t mean I have to follow it. I might decide to take the scenic overlook, or pick up a hitchhiker, or there might be a road problem that forces me onto a detour. Or I may decide in the end to go to Boston instead of Tampa. So the plot is a guideline, nothing more, subject to constant revision. It’s just the first step of me getting my ideas together. It’s what gives me the courage to back out of the driveway.

    • I am by no means an outliner, but I felt the need to play the devil’s, or should I say, outliner’s advocate.

      I understand your analogy. It wasn’t flawed by any means, but I think we must remember that those who outline are not doing it to stifle their story. They are realists who love giving others those roadtrips into the imagination. They know there are going to be detours that take them off course, but that map will always get them back on track to their final destination of giving something thrilling to their readers.

      As a child, I loved roadtrips. I loved the ones where we had no destination because it was all about discovery. I also loved the ones where we had a set destination in mind, but I was just a kid with a short attention span. If my Dad went off on a goose chase on the way to Grandma’s house, I was NOT a happy passenger.

      Writers who outline are just as much storytellers as the rest of us who might prefer not to decide on a destination and just see where we end up.

      Their desire for a clear map is a sign of their passion for seeing the wonder at the other end. They just want they get there, and get their readers there too.

  3. Jodie and Steven,

    Great post. Great ideas. Great book. I enjoyed STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE and am still studying it. It sits on my stack of craft books, right up there with those written by James Scott Bell and Jodie Renner.

    I’m signed up for the January 17 conference in Nashville. I look forward to meeting (and learning from) you and Steven.

  4. I’ve tried to outline, really I have. But I always end up changing the outline to match what I’ve written. And that works out okay.

    Downside is, I write 120,000 words for an 80 to 90 thousand novel. And those words don’t always travel the same garden path. So what works for me is part Stephen King (write like the wind and wherever the wind takes you and get that first draft done) and part whatshisname, who used to edit as he wrote.

    I write three-quarters of the book like I haven’t a worry in the world, and then go back and re-write until I figure out how the book should end. Took me awhile to figure this out, but it makes writing a joy for me again.

  5. Count me in as a joyous rebel. Thanks for saying what some of us have finally discovered, and for affirming we aren’t really breaking one of the sacred, unwritten rules of writing. I knew I was not an outliner when I discovered there was a significant disparity between my synopses and the finished product. Hooray for spontaneity. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I have to write a synopsis before I write a word of the story. I learned to do this as a sales tool when I could sell to my publisher on the basis of a synopsis alone. Now it’s necessary to submit to the art department after the book is in production. But I need this plot progression to show me direction as I write the story. It doesn’t stop my story from deviating or the plot from changing or morphing as I go along. In those cases, I go back and revise the synopsis accordingly. Some of us need road maps, and I’m one of them.

  7. Welcome back to TKZ, Steven. I bought STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE a while back and am loving it, and this excerpt reminded me of why your advice is so sound. Looking forward to seeing you again in Nashville in January!

  8. I find that the more people understand what lies at the heart of a story (tension, desire, escalation, believability, causality and so on) they less they feel the need to outline, and the less they’ll also be writing “by the seat of thier pants.” Story matters most of all. Asking the right questions of the story will set both you and the narrative free.

  9. I use a very rough outline because I really do like to know how the story will end. But the beginning and middle? Magic!

  10. Outlines, outlines, boil and bubble.

    I hate them. But I use them on occasion.

    But, sometimes, a character calls my name. In an odd moment. When he or she needs help, or when he or she has just triumphed.

    Then I give chase. And you can’t outline a chase.

    • While I played the devil’s advocate in a reply to an earlier poster, I have to agree. You cannot chase an outline. Lovely little sentence.

  11. Wow! I just wrote a long post confessing to be a pantser with some tips for other pantsers. Where did that word come from? I’d say from outliners 🙂

    It’s so nice to see more writers admitting to having trouble with outlines. The people who outline can’t understand that. Unfortunately many people who “teach” young aspiring writers do so with outlining advice. Maybe we need a few courses on how to create without outlining. How to let ourselves be fluid and go down the rabbit trails.

    Thanks for a nice post!

  12. Every word of this article rings true. Including the quote from Steven King. And still…

    I want the hours of my life I spent reading TheTommyknockers returned, please. All that reading, an emotional investment, and in end, the story went exactly nowhere. I wanted to fling the book across the room.

    A little plotting never hurt anyone.

  13. LOL talk about serendipity. I know I’m a pantser, but I was sitting here with my new story and was going to make a small outline. NOT happening. So I will happily go back to the computer and let the story unfold.

  14. I needed to hear this. I am so tired of people saying, “Outline your story before you start to write.” Well, I can’t. My characters take off in unexpected directions, get into ridiculous circumstances if I’ll just leave them alone. My job is to get them out of those circumstances by the end of the story. LOL. This gives my characters the freedom to grow, to morph into who they are suppose to become in their own way and their own timing.

  15. Steve, you make an excellent case for writers to pants their way through a novel!

    I do prefer to plot, though…to have an idea of where the heck it’s headed. But I plot loosely, giving myself room to play.

  16. I’m a reader, not a writer (although I have entertained the idea). Not writing an outline is a foreign concept in my post academic life. I’m trying to wrap my brain around how a writer can write a book without first knowing the ending, or even, for mystery/thriller writers, where the twist or gotcha moment belongs? Surely there must be some base structure that is adhered to at the formation of the story?

  17. Howdy Steve and welcome back.
    I’ve always been a SOTP writer and loved the freedom to flow. I’ve never outlined more than a paragraph summary of the book, until my current work that is.

    This one’s a bit more complex, but still I find that I love the rabbit trails and parallel universes I run into, and often end up having to change the outline as I go.

    Besides half the time my Leprechauns spill beer on my outline pages and the letters get all jibbledeejibbered up anyway.

  18. This outlining has proven to be a conundrum for me. I started with a really elaborate outline (a Mrs. Grundy outline) with all sorts of multiple plotlines with intersections going hither and yon. It was more like a data-flow diagram, where you can sit in these little cars and zoom around the track making decisions at all these “decision points” along the way. The question being: Along the way to where??

    And that became a big problem—getting to where? and why? Essentially, I didn’t have much of a zippy kernel of conflict in mind when I first started writing. Now I like these nifty “what-if?” ideas that pop up all the time. It’s neat to watch them grow and change. Eventually, I will start writing when a character comes forth and takes up a kernel and tries to do something with it. As soon as that happens, a host of obstacles line up for auditions? Trouble by the bushel.

    At some point along the way, “The Editor” steps out and poses the usual questions. I see this as a continual search to uncover and expose story. Archaeology? Done that? Psychology? Done that, too. All these aspects of a decent story for readers come on stage and compete for the shape of this thing. It feels like molding clay to me, where the substance plays against the pressure of your hands. That’s how it evolves for me.

    We go on and on about pantsing and outlining, but it always seems to boil down to how the writer visualizes this stuff and what questions the writer poses. Then you start working with it. Trying stuff out. Attempting to discover what resonates and what doesn’t. Does the story have legs? All this is not to deny that story has a structure. Of course it does. And story has rules. Over time these can change a little here and there. They’re all part of an on-going story dynamic that continually reinvents itself.

    Someone (??) stated that there are really two stories involved: One for the writer and one for the reader. The work is to eliminate everything but the story for the reader. This is a really difficult lesson to internalize.

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