Having written stories for National Novel Writing Month and after recently judging an eBook competition, I have become increasingly curious about what separates a good, interesting, and fluid story from the pack. From my own experience, I am aware that most of it has to do with planning, or outlining, to some extent. Pantsing, or writing without any planning, is a great way to come up with ideas for writing practice, but it won't get most writers past that point. This is because one single story is not based off of one single idea. A story takes insightful character development, intriguing scenes, plots and subplots, themes and emotions, and so on. The list can be overwhelming but it is a crucial step to break out of the slush pile of sub par writing.
Of the many stories that I have read for this competition, only one of them managed to break out beyond the author's initial idea. In this case, the author's initial idea involved a setting. What would human life be like while rebuilding a post apocalyptic world? From there, she developed what can, for simplicity's sake, be called a thesis. This thesis gave her a point of view, societal rules, characters, and several stakes-raising challenges intertwined seamlessly throughout the length of the story. What would life be like for a soldier-in-training, daughter to the highest ranking officer, who must constantly prove her abilities, defend herself and her honor, and hide her forbidden love from a rule-laden world which sees her only as another teenage girl?
While reading her story, it was obvious that the author began with a strong thesis in mind and outlined her story from there. Though I'm not against pantsing a story to initially get started or to break past bouts of writer's block, it was obvious that the other authors chose this approach and failed to develop well-rounded stories. Though they each had several characters and some even tried to bring in a few subplots and changes in scenery, all of them read like the poorly planned stories they were, lacking development and intrigue.
Steve King may be able to publish several books by pantsing, but for most writers, planning is essential to developing a story beyond its initial idea. Here are a few warning signs to help you decide if you need to develop more of an outline:
- You have several characters who could easily be forgotten
Characters have families, friends, co-workers, mentors, etc. Each one is important even if they only exist in one paragraph. How are your characters connected? How do their actions affect those around them? Can some characters easily be combined or forgotten? That's not a good thing. If your sub characters have no edge, make them stand out. Put them in danger, give them secrets, make their role as "best friend" more than a tool to tell us how the main character is feeling. And avoid throwing them in anywhere from the middle to end of your story (unless their late entrance is crucial to your plot). Their significance should at least be subtly evident from the moment they enter the story, if not before.
- You suddenly switch point of views.
It is ok to switch point of views throughout a story, but a pattern should be developed early on. If you suddenly feel that a major part of your story is missing because one character's voice is silent, then that part should be woven throughout the overall story. Otherwise, it reads as though you were pantsing through some writer's block and decided to give another character a voice. If the point of view changes in a story, it needs to have significant reason to do so from the start.
- Your character-driven story is little more than an over-developed character sketch.
Even character-driven stories need to have a strong plot that enables the characters to grow. A lot of authors do not like to outline and many successful stories have been written without one. But most likely, if you're reading this (very long) article, your story lacks the strength that an outline might provide. Keep your over-grown character, but go back and build an outline that includes some obstacles, settings, goals, and relationships from the very start and weave in your character sketch throughout.
- Your settings are one dimensional.
Settings are multifaceted creations with both visual and emotional elements. An overall "feel" for the setting should be inherent as soon as a setting is introduced. But that doesn't mean that you can't build on your setting as you build your story. Both the emotional and visual settings can change and grow as the plot thickens and the dangers increase. Unless you have a specific reason to hold back, both elements should be apparent throughout the scene.
- Your turning points turn into summaries.
Again, writing is in the details (and pacing, as in this example). One of the stories I read was building up to the "big reveal" where one of the main characters had to tell his girlfriend that he was actually an alien. This should have been a huge moment for them as a couple, but the author basically summarized it in all of two paragraphs before carrying them off to bed. Make a list of what points you feel are important to your characters and your story. Then go back and see if you did them justice. Any book on writing will tell you: Show. Don't tell.
- Your idea is unoriginal in every way.
This may seem obvious, but many writers get so wrapped up in their words, that they forget to make their stories significant. If you are writing a timeless tale, make sure there is something that sets it apart from the competition and make that something important throughout your story. It could be a taboo committed by the main character, an unexpected setting, or a natural disaster. Even genre fiction needs to stand out from the pact.
I'll be the first to admit that I do not enjoy outlining. I have difficulty seeing the end of a story when it has yet to be written. But, experience has shown me that pantsing makes it no less clear and all the more difficult to obtain. Where pantsing may seem freeing at first, it eventually has your hands grasping at straws. With an outline prepared, your time won't be wasted asking What happens next? Instead, you'll actually have time to devote towards incorporating those beautiful details that bring life and reality to your characters and their stories. If you find that you cannot complete your outline, then perhaps that particular story is not ready to be written.
For more advice on outlining, refer to the articles linked below.