I spent over a decade struggling to finish a story. When I did, it seemed near impossible to rescue my story from all the plot holes I had accidentally written. And still, I was convinced all I had to do was write my way out.
Fast forward ten years.
Today, I’ve worked as an editorial intern, developmental editor, and story coach for three different publishing companies, and I’ve taught creative writing/film at the high school level. And you know what I’ve learned throughout all this experience?
Story Plans–or Outlines–can SAVE YOU.
But here’s the trick:
You need to understand what type of planner/outliner you are, without judging yourself or comparing yourself to other writers.
To do this, I encourage writers to evaluate where they fall on what I like to call the OUTLINE SPECTRUM: a value spectrum that can help you asses the type of writer you are on a scale from pantser to plotter–aligned with the value you, as the writer, cherish in the writing process.
Taking the time to assess your writing wants and needs prior to drafting your manuscript could save you a lot of headaches (and discouraged feelings) along the way.
Here’s how it works.
Pantsers (writers who like to fly off the seat of their pants) often value darkness–in other words, these writers don’t like to know what plot points and characters are ahead of them. They value freedom found in the not-knowing, and take great joy in being surprised as they write. These types of writers, therefore, commonly dodge story plans or outlines instead of cherish them–but that doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from any story plan.
On the direct opposite, we have Plotters (writers who like a detailed outline before diving onto their manuscript). These writers value brightness–or clarity in where they are going with their story. They don’t like surprises and often cave to resistance or procrastination if they don’t know exactly what they need to write next. Characters and plot points need to be fully fleshed out if they’re going to finish their draft, and story plans can serve as their best friends from beginning to end.
Then there are the middlemen–the Plantsers. These writers present a splendid hybrid of the two extremes. They value a flashlight in the dark, or a story plan that allows them to see far enough into the unknowns that they know the direction to take, but not so much that they’ve unraveled all the mysteries awaiting them in their plot. These types of writers greatly value a story plan, but they’re better off with a foolscap than a chapter-by-chapter analysis. Also, they don’t want to spend too much time filling in details that seem irrelevant to them, like complete character breakdowns, since they haven’t yet had the opportunity to get to know their characters or the little details that will make their story special. They do want to know the major scenes structuring their story’s spine, which is why tackling a Pixar Pitch or Foolscap can be life-saving.
The big takeaway
The Outline Spectrum doesn’t destine “bad” story preparations from “smart” preparation. Instead, it’s an opportunity to know how you work best, which will likely support (if not salvage) your creativity and fun in the writing process.
Seth Godin once wrote that “if you’re lost, go faster” because “going faster increases the chance that you find a landmark and become unlost.” He also noted that going faster can look like going slower in the short run because you have to take some time to read a map and “get your bearings” before going forward again.
That’s what I want all writers to learn! Understanding and valuing how you work, write, and grow will only set you up for success. There’s nothing wrong about differentiated assignments or different takes on planning. It is essential that whoever works with you, including yourself, understands how to differentiate your writing assignments with respect, and always without judgement.
The Outline Spectrum cherishes self-awareness. Knowing who you are as a writer can empower your growth by teaching you when you like to dig deep into the details (plot, characters, setting, etc.) and when you need to back off. As a Story Plan mentor, I specialize in helping you discover the kind of planner you are, and then we decide on the depth of planning you’ll tackle before greeting your manuscript.
If you’re interested in learning more about building a Story Plan with a mentor, check out my Story Plan service, where I can help you draft a plan from logline to foolscap (or beyond).
And as always, please don’t hesitate to email me with questions at abigailkperry [AT] gmail [DOT] com. I’m also happy to schedule a 20-minute consultation call to discuss your questions and how we could work together.
Thank you for sharing your stories with the world, and happy writing!