Three Outlining Tips for Discovery Writers

A guest post by author Chris Sears

One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Ray Bradbury who said: “Plot is no more than footprints in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

Discovery writing is writing by the seat of your pants, also called “pantsing.” Contrast this with plotting, where you develop an outline before writing any initial drafts.

Why do we discovery write?

I’ve spoken with many writers, both young and experienced, during my time as a community organizer for National Novel Writing Month, and here’s what I’ve heard:

  1. When I discovery write, the resulting story often feels more organic and less formulaic.
  2. Discovery writing is more exciting. If I’ve outlined the story, then I feel like I’ve already written it. It is out of my system. I know what is going to happen, so writing the actual first draft is boring.
  3. I’ve never tried outlining. I’m not sure how to start.

What can go wrong?

Many wildly successful authors are discovery writers, but there are some pitfalls. Here’s what I’ve heard from speaking with other discovery writers.

  1. My first draft is a mess. I don’t even know how to start revision! A discovery writer may follow any tangent that he or she finds interesting. This means that characters may vanish or suddenly appear, the plot may take sudden, jarring turns, or perhaps there are just more subplots than the story idea can support. With discovery writing, revision is often more difficult.
  2. I’ve written 200,000 words and am not even close to finishing! Because we continue to follow these tangents, discovery writers may often have trouble reaching The End.

The purpose of the rest of this article is to give you a few tips for avoiding these pitfalls while still gaining the benefits and enjoyment from discovery writing. Here we go.

Tip #1 Write with the end in mind.

With discovery writing, it can be difficult to reach the end, especially if we don’t know what the end looks like. With this first tip, take a brief moment to visualize the ending to your story.

  • It’s great to visualize one ending, but better if you can brainstorm a few more. Often, the first idea is the most obvious, but idea #3 or #4 might be the surprising, yet inevitable one.
  • If the ending is too far away, instead visualize your next major landmark, such as a plot turn, or a moment in your story where everything changes.
  • Want to be surprised? Instead of visualizing the ending, visualize the major climactic conflict. You can decide how it is resolved once you get there.
  • As you continue to write, your vision of the end may evolve. That’s ok! Set your sights on this new point and keep going. Just make sure that each word brings you closer to the end.

Tip #2 Use the LOCK four sentence outline.

My favorite book on plotting is Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. In this book, Bell describes a LOCK system for plotting.

LOCK stands for Lead, Objective, Conflict, Knockout Ending. The full outline reads like:

My lead is a _____. Her objective is _____. She is opposed by _____ who oppose her because of _____. The ending will be a knockout when _____.

Here is an example from my recent release:

  • My lead is a super intelligent, yet socially awkward chimpanzee who loves science.
  • His objective is to find out why he exists by locating his creator or the missing pages of her lab notebook.
  • He is opposed by the mad scientist Doomsday Steve who opposes him because he wants to find the secret first and become famous.
  • The ending will be a knockout when . . . well, it will be zany, but I don’t want to spoil it.

Before you start writing, give the four sentence outline a try. Or if you’ve already started, then map your current work in progress to a LOCK and see what happens.

  • For more complex stories, such as those with multiple POV, you can use a LOCK for each character arc and subplot.
  • This is a simplification. Often characters want more than one thing and sometimes the best conflicts occur when those multiple objectives oppose one another. LOCK is not meant to limit you, but instead provide a frame as your write your story.

Tip #3 Reverse engineering your structure.

You’ve reached the end, but your first draft is a mess. This moment is both exciting and daunting. This final tip will help you mold this discovery written draft into a story with the structure you want.

Here’s how it works:

Get a bunch of index cards, a pen, your manuscript, and a really big table.

Read through your manuscript, making a card for each scene.

Place the cards in order on the big table. This is the current structure of your story.

Now, think about the structure that you would like your story to have and start moving the cards around on the table until you achieve this. You can consider the three act structure, seven point structure, try/fail cycles, scene-sequel format, or just sequencing the conflicts in order of increasing tension.

Additional tips:

* Use different colored index cards for different points of view.

* You can mark the different types of scenes with coins. I often use pennies for rising action and nickels for falling action. You could also mark scene vs. sequel or put numbers related to the desired tension level.

* You might find that you have to add cards or remove them.

* If you’re stuck, shuffle the cards and then spread them out on the table to see what jumps out at you.

There you have it! Three outlining tips for discovery writers. I hope you’ve found this helpful!

Author Bio: Chris W. Sears has been writing since 2003. His first release, Mr. Bubbles and the Mystery of the Mayan Temple, is a short pulp adventure comedy about a talking chimp who loves science. He hopes that it will make you smile.

You can find Chris on GoodreadsAmazonFacebook, Twitter, or though his website at

Mr. Bubbles and the Mystery of the Mayan Temple by Chris W. Sears

Mr. Bubbles, a chimpanzee with a million dollar brain, joins forces with the roguish explorer, Norman Grady, in a search for the missing pages of his creator’s lab notebook. But the crazed scientist, Doomsday Steve, wants the secret formula for himself.

Amazon Reviewers are saying:

“ A fast paced fun adventure as clever as it was silly.”

“A high action tale that mirrors the Indiana Jones stories with one twist: Mr. Bubbles himself. The Mr. Bubbles character is genuinely funny.”

“Could not put it down. Love Mr. Bubbles.”

Join Mr. Bubbles and friends in Mr. Bubbles and the Mystery of the Mayan Temple!