Surprise: Going in a Different Direction

Back in 2013, I learned I was very definitely not an outliner. Here’s how.

I was participating in NaNoWriMo, writing Every Other Monday is Murder, the first Laurel Highland novel. I had character sheets. I had setting descriptions. And I had a beautiful, shiny outline. I mean, this thing was complete, right now to the scene-by-scene detail, with plot points notated. It felt like I had nailed the story structure and plot. Yay me, right?

I sailed through the first draft. This is because of the outline, I thought. It made my conviction that I was a “pantser” waver. I was rocking this outline thing.

But a funny thing happened. I finished the first draft. Because I don’t have a publisher-imposed deadline, I had the luxury of letting it sit for a while. And when I went back to it, the story felt limp. “What’s wrong here?” I muttered. I loved my characters. I still wanted to tell the story. But the spark was missing. Then, I had a conversation with my protagonist (yes, I talk to completely fictional people, lots of writers do it). And it went something like this:

Me: I really don’t know what’s wrong here. It felt so right when I drafted it.

Him: You’ve got the wrong killer, that’s why.

Me: No way. It’s here in the outline. See?

Him: It totally didn’t happen that way. You got it wrong. Trust me.

Me: Not possible. I followed the outline to the letter. That can’t be the case.

Him: Look, lady. I’m the cop. I’m telling you, you’ve got it wrong. It didn’t happen that way.

<long pause as I think>

Me: Crap. You’re right.

Him: Told you.

And that’s when I learned that I’m not a plotter, at least not a strict plotter. By laying out such a detailed map, I’d eliminated the element of surprise. I’m such a rule-follower, that once I had the outline, that was The Way It Had to Be. But I don’t write that way. I’m more organic. More, “hm, this is interesting, let’s see where it goes.”

I ripped out probably 75% of the first draft and rewrote it in a more organic style, no outline. Lo and behold, the story sizzled. I even got a comment from my editor: “Whoa. Didn’t see that coming.”


Something similar happened as I was drafting my latest project, Fallen (which I think is going to be titled Fallen from Grace eventually, but I digress). It started as a novella, but a trusted reader said, “Too predictable.” So when I expanded it, I threw out a lot of the original material and starting playing “what if?” my favorite writerly game. Except, when it came time to reveal the killer, nobody wanted to be cast in that role.

Me: Come on, guys. You’re all I’ve got. One of you had to kill her.

Them: Nope, not us. We hated her, but we didn’t kill her.

Me: You’ve got to be kidding me.

And then, off in the corner, I heard snickering. “She doesn’t even know I’m here,” a voice said. It was my killer, someone I hadn’t even noticed before. Again, rip apart the draft and go back to introduce the new guy. But as I did it, it felt right.

I’m pretty sure it was American poet Robert Frost who said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” If that’s true, man, my readers should eventually be stunned.

Because even I didn’t see that coming – and I wrote it.

Readers: What’s your most memorable “didn’t see that coming” moment?

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

6 thoughts on “Surprise: Going in a Different Direction”

  1. Mary, can you see me jumping with my hand raised and shouting, “Me too, me too!” I too am a pantser. I generally know the inciting incident and the killer. I do outline each chapter – bullet points – for what I want the chapter to accomplish – sometimes, I even follow the outline. Two nights ago I was on the third draft edit of my manuscript. I got to a scene and the palm of my hand came up to smack my forehead. Someone I never suspected was the killer. I’d framed an innocent man in my first two drafts. Yikes. My bad guy laughed, Guffawed actually, slapped his knee and said, “Dang, nearly gotcha!”


  2. Mary, I had that exact same thing happen in a recent manuscript: none of my suspects were right, and there, in the corner, was this character I’d barely noticed. Wowza! That’s a nice surprise.

    I also recently turned in a synopsis to my publisher: 1300+ words, my longest synopsis to date. It only took me 2/3 of the actual manuscript writing until I could backtrack into the synopsis!


  3. I can so relate! I usually have to write the whole draft, and sometimes way beyond the beginning and end, before I find the story within. Then it’s back to the drawing board. I love conversations with characters and the way elusive characters try to hide from us!


  4. Glad to know I’m not alone. Kait, I can usually only outline a couple chapters in advance. Diane, I’d be the same: I have to get to the end of the manuscript before I could write the synopsis. And yes, character conversations are fun – maddening sometimes, but fun. 🙂


  5. Love this. In my first book, I had the whole thing planned out and I wrote this one character who was supposed to be a kindly, supportive, helper type person and simply refused to come out that way. Changed the whole book! ps: I just taught that Robert Frost piece last week. 🙂


  6. I love your voice. I love that you talk to voices in your head, err, characters. Great post! So I should just keep writing? 🙂


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