When I write, I often start with just a basic idea of the setting, some characters, and the beginning of the plot, and let it run free for a while before the story congeals into something more solid. It’s often the case that I don’t have a strong plan for the end of a story or book until halfway through. There’s a lot to love about writing this way. Characters and events have more room to surprise you. Dialogue in particular is easier to write when you let it go, because even if you have an idea of what will be said in the conversation, how it’s said is something you can let the characters handle for themselves.
What I’m starting to find, though, is that this freeform approach is terrible for plotting a long work. Or heck, sometimes even a short work. Plots work best with structure. Anything I’ve ever written to completion has either benefited from a rough draft of a plot already in existence, come together via serendipity, or meandered unsatisfyingly to the end. When I did NaNoWriMo a year ago, The Affix worked out largely because I was forced to keep going, and that had a wonderful focusing effect. One Woke Up was developed from an earlier attempt at a novella, and many of its plot points and characters were already established. My most successful work has fallen into these two patterns: Freeform worked out on its own, or it had a strong guiding hand from a previous effort.
Since I was in elementary school, I’ve always hated outlines. They’re vicious, unforgiving shackles that bind your writing and limit your thinking. In college I discovered they were useful for the very first time when writing more complex essays—and it helped that it was now the computer age, and an outline was easier to alter in a word processor than on paper. How outlining ever became a legitimate process on paper I have no idea, but in a format where the document is more plastic, it works. For essays.
In spite of my dislike for formal outlines, I’ve come to the conclusion recently that I definitely need some techniques in my toolbox for working out plots in advance. I hear the term “outline” thrown around a lot, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I know many authors only like to come up with a loose structure, nothing resembling a formal outline, but I’m not sure what that structure would look like, exactly, or what level of detail works best as the book is being fleshed out. If I could manage to learn this, I could bring more ideas to fruition.
On the flip side of this, though, I enjoy reading dialogue that pops because it’s free to roam, and really wish I’d see more of the same. There are times I think I’ve done really well with dialogue, and other spots where I’m less sure, but my very best can always stand to get better. This makes me wonder if there might be a way to use improv techniques to sharpen my dialogue, and if the same can’t be extrapolated to characterization, plot, and settings as well.
To put it more succinctly, it’d be interesting to practice dialogue writing as a game where you just have a basic scene and two or three characters you weren’t expecting, and you run with it. I kind of think it would be fun to get involved with a group that practices this way. If there isn’t such a group, there probably should be.
Planning and free rein both have a place in any good writer’s toolbox. I hear a lot of people saying they write one way or the other, but for me the only reason I’m mostly a freeform writer is that I lack familiarity with better planning techniques. This needs to change. Working from one side of the fence alone isn’t good enough.