When Outlines Kill Your Darling


Ever have an outline eat your character?

Outlines are a saving grace sometimes. They can help a writer keep on target and focused. When I write by the seat of my pants (fondly known as being a “panster”), I often have to trim back content and dig my way out of unexpected plot problems.

When outlining, though, it can grow organically – it takes on a life of its own and it can feel like it is writing itself. I’m used to this with main characters when pantsing especially, but not so much while outlining.

In any case, my outline did this to me and the result slaughtered one of my main characters (MCs). Oh, the MC doesn’t die. Nope, nothing with that much closure. Instead, the page-and-a-half bio and viewpoint reference I wrote up for one of my MCs is now completely useless. Who that character was is now dead. Some stranger is standing where the MC once stood, looking familiar but alien. Sad and irritating, right?

When writing fiction by outline, when this happens it is easy to get frustrated and start whacking away at the outline to force it to fit the beloved MC you had in mind. But the thing to realize, I believe, is that this is a mistake.

This writing problem is ultimately a blessing in disguise. Imagine going through the writing process and finding out halfway through a 120k-word novel that your plot problem is bad enough to need even a partial re-write, much less a total overhaul as mine would have.

If I was pantsing, I would still have had to murder my beloved MC in spirit if not in deed to fix the problem, but it would have made a lot more work, wasted time, and for me it would be emotionally draining to have to let go of the character I worked so hard on. Well, significantly more emotionally draining than it already was.

So if you are an outliner rather than a pantser and you find you had to kill your darling in a manner of speaking, count your blessings. In the end, it is a great opportunity to make your story that much better, from the very beginning, and outlining just saved you days or weeks of work as a nice bonus.





3 thoughts on “When Outlines Kill Your Darling

  1. wflannig says:

    I consider myself a “pantser”, though I have made short outlines in the past. I can’t say I’ve written anything long enough for a MC to contradict itself. I’m a fan of writing vignettes because they’re short enough to keep me focused, but interesting enough to carry some weight.

  2. Shannon says:

    It’s the writer’s version of, “if you meet the Buddha by the side of the road, kill him!”

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