How to Discovery Write

It is day 4 of Blogtober, and today I’m going to talk about discovery writing, or “pantsing” if you prefer that term.

Normally with this topic, I would start with the spectrum between plotting and pantsing, followed with details that describe my writing style and how I relate to topic. I did that yesterday so I’m just going to assume we’re already on the same page.

For decades, I thought of myself as a pantser. I did not like outlines. Every time I wrote one, my interest in the story evaporated because I already knew how it would turn out. I’m not a big fan of spoilers.

Even now, though I use and enjoy outlines, I leave myself a lot of room to be surprised. I know where my stories are going. I have a map that will help me get there. But I’m willing to take detours if they look interesting, and I’m open to following the whims of my characters as they become increasingly bold.

Why Should I Discovery Write?

The truth is, discovery writing isn’t for everyone, just like outlining isn’t for everyone. Plotting is to pantsing in much the same way order is to chaos. The comparisons run deep.

Pantsing is about spontaneity and going with the flow. It’s about finding the story . Stephen King describes it like a paleontologist extracting fossils from the dirt. His book On Writing makes some interesting arguments against plotting your stories, some of which I only agree with in spirit.

Discovery writing is like going on vacation just to wander around the area without a schedule, letting your feet take you where they will and keeping yourself open to all possibilities. It’s about finding hole-in-the-wall restaurants and trying things you’ve never tried before. It’s about meeting people for the first time and being willing to listen to their voice and their stories.

As I described yesterday, I outline the big stuff, then I discovery write all the stuff in between, knowing that I will likely need to make several changes to my outline as I go. I seek to get the best of both worlds.

How to Discovery Write

Describing how to discovery write is a little bit like telling someone how to blink their eyes. Most of the time I just do it without thinking too much about it. However, I have a tip and a couple of tricks which will help.

The tip: read a lot. This is one of those obvious ones that is thrown at writers all the time, but I’ll go a little bit deeper. Reading a lot will familiarize your internal ear to common cadences writers use. It will also reinforce tropes and patterns that will help you naturally shape your story to something that is pleasing to other readers. The general advice is often read widely. However, for purposes of discovery writing, I recommend focusing your reading to stories within the genre you wish to write.

Now for the tricks, which I’ll break into two categories: situation and voice.

Situation deals with the circumstances the characters find themselves in. Mary Robinette Kowal talked about this on the cruise, describing try/fail cycles and the “Yes, but… / No, and…” approach.

If you’re not familiar with “Yes, but… / No, and…”, it’s a trick used in theater and improvisation in order to keep a story or sketch going. A character faces a problem. They come up with a plan to tackle the problem. Will they succeed? If you answer “Yes, but…” that means their plan is successful, but some other problem comes up. If you answer “No, and…” that means the plan failed, the original problem still exists, and now there is another problem.

Imagine a pastry chef. They’re working on a cake, and their sifter is nearly out of flour. They go to the pantry to look for more. Is there some there? Yes, but when they get it back to the kitchen, they can’t get the bag open. They reach for a knife from the cutting board to cut open the bag. Do they get it open? No, and in their attempt, the knife slips and they get a nasty slice across the palm of their hand. They still have to open the bag of flour, but now they also need to keep from bleeding into the cake.

I could have used examples from Star Wars or Die Hard, but I think this poor pastry chef demonstrated the technique pretty well. When I started writing that scene, I had no idea the chef was going to be injured. I just knew that they were going to have difficulty with a task, and the further things go off the rails, the more interesting the scene will become.

When it’s time to wrap up, you change the answer to “Yes, and…” if you’re looking for a happy ending, or “No, but…” if you’re writing a tragedy.

That technique can get you all the way through a scene. Write enough of those scenes, and you can try/fail your way all the way through a chapter, an act… the entire novel. That is one way to complete a story without using an outline.

The other trick, which you can (or perhaps should) use in tandem with the first is driven by voice. That is, create a fully realized character with dreams and ambitions, someone that is believable, then see what they do when you put them into an interesting situation.

With a single well-realized character, this will get you through action sequences. Think of Indiana Jones crawling through a dungeon. The circumstances present themselves, and since Indiana Jones is the kind of character he is, you have a good idea how he’ll resolve the situation. Bravely, poorly, and by the skin of his teeth.

Where the voice driven approach really shines is when you get two or more characters in a scene that have clear purposes that are not in alignment. That’s when you get drama and tension and dialog that all feels natural and dynamic.

Imagine a car salesman a week away from losing their mortgage, with a spouse at home that’s complaining about the bills, and a boss breathing down their neck about quotas and commissions. Now imagine a young man and woman, newlyweds, strolling onto the sales lot. They want to start a family, which means they’re going to need to get rid of his sports car and get a more affordable family vehicle. They’re just starting their lives, and every penny counts. At the same time, the new husband wants to impress his bride with something nice. The wife just wants to get something cheap and reliable, without a bunch of hassle from the sales staff.

Is the salesman the protagonist, or the husband, or the wife? It doesn’t really matter, since they all have stakes in the scene. They are all motivated and at cross purposes to one another. As long as the motivations are clear, and as long as the characters stay true to themselves throughout the scene, the tension will be felt by the reader and the scene will be compelling from beginning to end.

Parting Thoughts

Discovery writing usually means doing more work during the revisions. During the first draft, the writer is telling themselves the story, and it’s unlikely they’ll get it all in one pass. There may ideas and themes that emerge long after the writer began. That means going back and rewriting sections in the beginning to make the planting and payoff work best.

Sometimes, a character’s voice doesn’t become strong and distinct until after a writer has worked with them for a while. Again, that means going back to the beginning and adjusting places to make sure the voice is consistent and clear.

To develop a character’s voice, I will sometimes write them in something outside the story. It’s a way for me to get to know them without feeling like I’m wasting time in the novel. For one story, I wanted to get a better feel for a side character. The novel started in third person limited. To get this other character’s voice, I rewrote the story in first person, from the perspective of this secondary character.

Usually when I hear a writer talk about how much they hate editing, they’re a discovery writer. They’ve already gone through the story and they want to move on and enjoy something fresh. I used to hate editing, too. Now I see it as the place where I get to really make my story the best it can be. It’s where I get to be an artist.

If you haven’t done any discovery writing, start with some flash fiction. Decide on a character, put them in a situation, and try three try/fail cycles before they reach the end. Don’t bother with an outline. See how it feels just being fully present in the story with your protagonist. You might find it freeing, and a source for greater inspiration.

One thought on “How to Discovery Write

  1. Really good tips! I tend to write like you – plotting, followed by discovery, but I haven’t tried writing my characters in flash fiction to understand them better. Good idea!

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