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Outline vs Discovery?

What's your style?

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Ouch! Careful where you point that thing!

More seriously, how does theme, message or meaning play into discovery writing? I ask that as a biscuit who can't understand geometry but who does care about theme/message/meaning. How does that work into discovery writing? What is the process? Everyone I've talked to assures me the message arrives, but I just can't see how and they seem to have trouble explaining.

And for the record, I was very clear that people I know and respect write this way, so take your "ignorant and condescending" and stuff it, mmkay? I'm asking this as a legitimate question and you're not helping in the slightest, biscuit.
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This is Thunderdome, er, Mythic Scribes, Mindfire!

Two men enter, one man leaves!

Seriously, I've just never understood how message makes its way into discovery writing, though I've seen real-world examples in my friends' stories where it does. It just seems to come afterward, which fundamentally I have trouble processing. Biscuit that I am.
Seriously, I've just never understood how message makes its way into discovery writing, though I've seen real-world examples in my friends' stories where it does. It just seems to come afterward, which fundamentally I have trouble processing. Biscuit that I am.

Woah, Nebuchadnezzar. Ease up a bit.
As a fanatic of discovery writing, I have to say that I disagree with your posts in the extreme.
What do you mean by message? Forget about it. Look at it with a purely structural and plot-concerned eye.

A theme is going to make its way into stories no matter what. If a story has a plot, it has to have some kind of theme.

Discovery writing may start from writing from scratch, but the writer has an idea, and he uses his imagination to expand that idea in his writing. He writes scenes, acts, plot twists that he thinks up of, makes characters that he thinks up of, and progresses his story in a way that outliners could never. It's freedom. It allows the writer to write with no obstructions, no fixed structure. Writer's block is completely minimised. It allows for the story to be finished in quicker time.

A story is a story. How do you outline? You brainstorm. You think of new ideas to put in your plot. You cut some of them out and put some of them in. You progress your plot, just as a discovery writer progresses his story. A discovery writer merely writes instinctively, going where he wants. He thinks. And he writes.
The way you talk about discovery writing makes it seem like it's completely different from outlining, just plopping meaningless scrubble on the paper (or screen).

A discovery writer does outline in a way. But he immediately writes the ideas he gets. It's not writing without meaning or aim or purpose. The discovery writer leads the way through the unwandered and uncharted deeps, and he comes out alive at the other end with a herd of people behind him and a brand new world built.

Sure, it does have a propensity for plot holes and inconsistency, but that's where the second draft comes in. Then the third.

Every story has a message, even an unrealised story. The writer knows it. And he realises the message whilst writing. The message may not come until the second draft, but it will come all right. And that message will be incorporated thoroughly into the story if the writer wishes. (That is, if my interpretation of 'message' is the same as yours.)

That's the meaning of discovery writing. The scrapping of outlining, and just writing the idea, going with the instincts. Don't think of it as writing meaningless hogwash with no aim. That's wrong.

This is based on my experiences and what I learnt. That's my opinion, and if I deviated from the point or relayed an incorrect fact, I apologise. If you disagree with my words, ignore'em.

(I realise I referred to the discovery writer as 'he' all the time, but I found it too much of work typing he/she or anything else.)
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I've stated before that I view my stories as somewhat akin to math problems: I put variable characters into a constant setting, then calculate what they sum up to, working out their actions and reactions step by step until they reach or fail to attain their goals. In this sense, outlining is to me somewhat akin to eyeballing the answer to a geometry problem--I can't be sure everything works out logically until I "do the work" (write out the story.)* However, I still outline sometimes, especially when I'm stuck at a certain point.

* For instance, I may initially intend a character to be a positive mentor figure, and outline accordingly. However, when writing out his scenes, the most logical way for the story to continue may require that he be an enabler, unintentionally helping other people to continue in their self-destructive habits. If I switch him to this, later scenes will turn out differently as other characters begin to realize that following his advice just makes things worse. (Of course, the farther I get into the story, the less I can switch things, potentially leading to unexpected outcomes as the given variables make cliched endings impossible.)

@Nebuchadnezzar: Personally, I start with the subject I want to discuss. For instance, if I just read a story in which a benevolent alien helped the human race through mind control, and I wasn't comfortable with that story, I propose a benevolent alien whose attempts to help through mind control create more problems. My ultimate message depends on how exactly those problems are resolved, and I may not know what I want to say until I "work the problem" to its logical conclusion.
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Why? I don't find anything wrong with wanting to balance out discovery and outlining.

It just seems like most people didn't want to be bothered with really evaluating which one they use more and decided to use "neutral" as a cop-out choice instead, when it was only intended to be used by people who have a perfect balance between the two styles. Most people don't have a perfect balance of anything, so unless most Mythic Scribes members are just perfectly rounded people, the neutral option should have far fewer votes than it does. And since the overwhelming majority chose "neutral" it pretty much invalidates the poll altogether because it doesn't really give any useful information.

So yeah, I'm never adding a neutral option to a poll again. No more fence sitting.


You'd still be in risk of invalidating your data. For example, providing only "Outlining" or "Discovery" as options may alienate a large portion of your sample population.

Since I truly consider my style a balance between outlining & discovery, if the question was posed in a way that didn't represent a mixed option, I simply would not have answered.

Perhaps you were looking for another result but the one you actually received may be more accurate. Something to consider at least.
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Fiery Keeper of the Hat
I broke the idea for my novel into 4 Acts, where each act has a big thing that is supposed to happen. But I'm only focusing on developing one act at a time. That way I can know where I'm going but don't have to worry about chapter 32 when I'm nowhere near there.

So basically I write with a ten-chapter outline that's loose and broad and even has holes, followed by a box with notes for each of the remaining acts. And I'll discover how things take shape when I get there.

When I write, though, I need to know what I'm writing or it's garbage. But I can figure that out that same day I write it if I need to.
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So yeah, I'm never adding a neutral option to a poll again. No more fence sitting.

Maybe a better approach would be to have four options: Discovery, Neutral-Discovery, Neutral-Outline and Outline.
Since really no one is truly neutral, we (at least I) who voted for neutral was because I'm not only discovery or only outline, as I said before, I used both, but discovery plays the major whole as I would discard the outlined idea if the I came with something 'better' during the actual writing.

But that is my opinion though.


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Maybe a better approach would be to have four options: Discovery, Neutral-Discovery, Neutral-Outline and Outline.

That's what they usually suggest in marketing, but with better words. "Plotting" to me can be very different from plotting for you. I would make the choices something like:

"I like to outline everything. Heavy Plotter."
"I want to know where I'm going when I sit down to write. Mild Plotter."
"I like to have an idea, and then see how it plays out. Mild Discovery."
"I sit down and type and let's see where that takes me. Heavy Discovery."

That would put me at Mild Plotter.


I've experimented with both pantsing and planning, but for my current project (actually an assignment for my creative writing class) I am definitely going the planned route. My outline isn't really meticulous though, it just lists the setting, protagonists, conflicts (or "problems" as I prefer to call them), and most important plot plots. I will present my outline in Powerpoint form to the whole class tomorrow.


I start with an idea in mind - an end goal perhaps - but once I start to write the story takes me on the journey. Sometimes I find that my end goal is either altered in some form, completely thrown out, or pushed back to a later chapter. That's part of the mystery and fun with writing - for me - you just never know where you're gonna go.


On the four point system Asura Levi suggested and Devor refined, I'd say I'm a mild plotter. I struggle with both methods, if I'm honest. I struggle with direction and endings when I discovery write; I have an idea of what the message is and what the goal is, but when they ultimately takes the protagonist is generally vague or hazy, and ends up being weak and anticlimactic. So to combat that, I outline. I feel outlining gives me the opportunity to make sure I've got a destination before I set out, and allows me to include nuance - multiple threads, motivations of more than the main characters, events which are absed on more than what the main cast are trying to achieve.

So generally I start out discovery writing a project. I get the idea and just start writing, but eventually I run out of steam because I don't know where it's going and I want to go back and set up characters, motivations etc earlier in the story so when they crop up later it's not out of the blue. So after about 4,000 to 20,000 words I stop and outline. Generally I start again after a certain amount of outlining, but then stop again to go into greater depth when I realise that there's a lot of gaps I need to fill to explain why things are the way they are. In the first outlining stage, the story tends to change a huge amount, with only the core theme preserved. I tend not to know what the core theme is when I discovery write, not consciously, but I have a vague idea; it is in analysing what I've written that this comes through and I start to deliberately focus on it and build the story around it in outlining.

At the moment with my WIP I'm on the second outlining stage. This is the deep outlining bit. The first outlining stage tends to involve character outlines, overall plot in about a page and a half of notes, a few bits and bobs about the setting, and one or two characters treated in some depth. Second outlining stage, which in this case comes after writing not even 2000 words of the second attempt of the story, tends to go deeper. In this case, I'm looking at the character arc and motivation of the guy whose dead body is discovered in the first scene, the political situation in the city for the last decade, the wider political situation whereby a lot of cities have had changes in government in the last generation or two, wars, complicated alliances and so on, and the way some of my characters have been involved in or reacted to events within their own city and elsewhere across the last decade, as this will influence their actions, beliefs and ideals within the story itself, as well as the individuals they are in contact with, the opinions they hold about one another, and their actions throughout the story as a result. This is deep outlining; it explores the complexities and nuances of the situation and much of it may never come through in the story itself, but I feel I need to know it.

I do recognise that doing it this way can be time consuming and it can sap my enthusiasm for the project, but I think that for me personally, it will result in a stronger story.

We're all different, so arguing which method is better or criticising the flaws of one of the methods isn't necessarily helpful. Every outliner outlines differently; every discovery writer discovery writers differently, so picking holes in the method as if it were the same for everyone is redundant, because what's a flaw for you might not come up at all in the way someone else does it; rather it might be a flaw in your own approach to the method, not in the method itself. So let's not argue about the flaws or which is better, rather let's focus on what works for each of us.
I am 100% outliner, I find it easier to let my ideas and writing flow when I have an outline. It also prevents any future mistakes if your world is already set and your not flip flopping about between details.


I'm completely incapable of outlining anything without already having something written. I start whit the general idea of what I want, and just go from there. For instance: I had these idea to write a scene where some major characters go to a cemetery in the middle if the night. For no other reason that I wanted to write it and thought it would make for a comical scene now it's one of the most important scenes for the mane plot.

My outlining (If you could call it that) consists on making notes on things I've already written so I don't make large (seen from space) plot holes and to keep a record of all the sub plots I accidentally stumble on so I can use them latter.

Jeff Xilon

After voting (neutral) I skimmed the comments and thought I'd better refine my answer. If we were using Devor's scale from a few posts above this one I'd comfortably call myself a mild-plotter. I find I can write better when I have a general sense (even if it's just in my own head) about the path the story is going to take. It's often very loose though, and malleable. Usually, I find I start with a beginning and end in mind, and one or two ideas planned for stops along the way. Once I get writing though I often discover a handful of new stops on the journey that turn my simple path into something more interesting. I often also find that the ending isn't quite what I originally thought it would be.

That said, I see myself moving more and more toward heavy plotting. I find I can write faster and happier when I have a strong sense of what's going to happen and where I'm headed next. I'm thinking it's a lot like when I teach English to second language learners. If they have to think of what they want to say, and think of the words they need to use at the same time it's quite hard. If they know what they want to say first they can focus on getting the right words out.


New Member
Well, as GRR Martin says, if you would plot every little turn and twist in your story in advance, there would be no fun in writing. Still, I have found that I'm at my most productive when I've given a story some thought first before I start adding some more pages to it. I see it like this: I can't build a boat without a framework, but the materials I'll use for the actual skin are a mystery to me until the very last second.
By Devora's scale, I'm a mild plotter.

I really can't get started on a new project until I have an idea of where it's going. But, I also like to conserve a sense of discovery for myself as a writer. And often times, as I get to know my characters better, they start making decisions that cause the story to stray from the original idea. Both my novels ended differently from what I had originally envisioned, but it worked. Can't wait to see what happens with the third! :wink: