Why your story deviates from your outline

Hello everyone, and happy Sunday!
I saw this post on tumblr and I thought it would be interesting for my fellow author friends to check out. It’s about why the outline of a story and the story itself tend to differ.

The post is below, but I have also added the link to the original article, if you’re interested.


Outlining is a great way to frame your ideas before taking the plunge into a new story, but it’s important that you don’t get too attached to your outline. A lot can change during the writing process, and you might be surprised by the direction your characters will go and how the story might evolve because of it. I’ve said this a lot on this blog, and I got to thinking lately, why is this?Why is it that we can outline in great detail and still feel like we have no control over what happens when we actually start writing? So I thought about it, and here’s what I decided.

1. Your head’s too full in the outline phase. 

Writing releases us from having to think about something, whether it’s our own personal emotions or our stories. You might have a detailed outline, but until you’ve written that first scene, you won’t stop thinking about it. You’ll imagine your flawless execution, you’ll imagine it playing out in your head, and you’ll even imagine some lines of dialogue. But until you remove this scene from your imagination and make it into something real, it’s taking up prime real estate in the area of your brain where you brainstorm.

If you haven’t released any of your story from your imagination, then you’re having to creatively think about every scene all at once. It’s harder to visualize a climax when you’re trying to visualize opening scenes, character introductions or arguments and major plot events all at the same time. No matter how much you plan out that climax, your imagination can’t truly visualize it into something close to reality until you remove all that extra stuff. Because once you’ve written all that “extra stuff,” your imagination doesn’t need to reflect on it anymore. And it can focus on the climax.

On the contrary, suppose you can visualize your climax in detail before you’ve written your story. You might be able to play out that crucial scene in your mind like a movie, but do you have any emotional attachment to it? It’d be like watching the last 20 minutes of a movie and only understanding it because you read a summary of the movie beforehand. Without experiencing the first ¾ of the movie, you’re unable to emotionally connect to it. And when your imagination is focusing all its energy on brainstorming your climax, it’s unable to focus on all those scenes leading up to the climax.

It’s all about give and take. You can’t possible visualize your entire story in detail from beginning to end. Your climax might not be fully realized until you write the first half of the story. Because then you’ll have freed up space in your brain to think critically about it.

2. Your characters have other ideas in mind. 


As writers, we like to say that our characters act of their own accord, making their own decisions and sometimes ruining the things we had planned for them. Most people hear us talk like this and think we’re being pretentious, but it’s a sensation I have felt on many occasions so I know it’s real.

If you’ve never been in a dangerous situation before, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll respond when your back’s against the wall. In this way, it’s hard to predict how you’ll actually write something when the moment comes to actually write it. It has nothing to do with your characters taking over, but more to do with your actual words not matching what you visualized. The best way to explain this is with an example, so let me share one.

You have a scene where a character is in hiding, and he needs to jump out and attack the enemy. Great. You sit down to write it, and you have him crouched in his spot, assessing the scene before he jumps out. To add some suspense, you write that his heart is pounding. And then perhaps your own heart starts to pound as your imagination tries to visualize it. You notice that your breaths might pick up a bit, so you add that in. Before you know it, your character is exhibiting signs of fear. You didn’t exactly put that in your outline, did you? Of course not, because describing how a character feels in the moment is not important info in an outline. Now that your character is nervous and perhaps terrified, you have to find a way to convince him to jump out of that hiding spot; otherwise it won’t be believable. So you try adding another paragraph where he attempts to calm himself down and remember why he has to do this. Perhaps you succeed, or perhaps you find yourself unable to write a convincing argument. If he jumps out of this hiding spot and fails, what are the consequences? Would it be better to hold back a little longer and think through a Plan B just in case? Maybe the reward isn’t big enough to warrant such a risk, especially when his fear is so great.

Before you know it, the character has retreated, to think more deeply on the problem and hopefully come up with a better plan. It seems like they just took over your story, but instead what has happened is this: Often times, we don’t think about our character’s complex emotions and reactions during the outline phase. We just write that they do something. And it isn’t until we have to describe our character’s actions in detail that we realize that the words we’re actually writing don’t mesh well with what our outline intended.

This same phenomenon might occur during scenes of dialogue as well. You plan for a tense, dramatic argument, but the dialogue you end up writing isn’t quite making it there. Maybe Character A is meant to make a big accusation that really erupts the fight, but you’re having trouble getting to that point in the conversation. The words you’re typing don’t seem angry, and in trying to make them angry, it comes off as insincere and forced. So you come to the conclusion that your characters aren’t as angry as you thought, and instead they have a calm, sensitive conversation where they share their feelings. Again, it feels like they took over, but it’s more that your execution didn’t align with your plan, and you had to change the mood of the scene to make it believable.

3. Ideas aren’t the same as words. 

An outline doesn’t force us to think about how we will word things. If it did, it wouldn’t be an outline – it’d just be the story. And because words are what create the story, you can’t possible know for sure how something will play out until you begin to create the words.

  • Emotions might be more intense than you realized, to the point where they don’t support the actions you had planned.
  • Dialogue might come across as more or less offensive than you intended, and the character it’s directed at needs to respond in kind.
  • As you write a character thinking through a plan they’re about to execute, you might realize flaws in the plan that you didn’t consider during your outline, and to follow through with that plan anyway might make your character look stupid or thoughtless.

Sometimes you’ll execute an outline exactly as it’s written, and more power to you if you’re able to do that. But there are really two stages of story execution – the visualization and the reality. Visualization is your outline, and while it can help you achieve the reality stage faster, you can’t rely on the two to be completely the same. Because visualization is based on ideas, while reality is based on words. Words are more detailed, which results in more complexity. In putting your ideas into words, you discover flaws in your earlier logic. Ignoring that logic might mean your outline stays intact, but what does it do to your story?

Ultimately, these are my opinions about how this whole process works, and it may or may not apply to you. But when your story starts to deviate from the outline, try to just go with it and see what happens. As detailed as your outline might be, your story still has the potential to surprise you when you least expect it.



Check out the original post HERE!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s