Why I replaced outlining with a Product Backlog for my fiction

Tile letter spelling out the phrase, “Writing Lab”.
Tile letter spelling out the phrase, “Writing Lab”.

In school, I was taught a mechanistic method of writing. You probably learned the same method: Predict all the points you want to cover. Organize those points into a comprehensive, detailed outline. Refine the outline until you’re sure you’ve covered everything. Only then do you write the first draft.

The strategy works well for academic writing. It helped me write the first draft of my Master’s thesis on a Key West road trip. I had a plan and all I had to do was stick to it. It’s easy to nail down most of the details for non-fiction in advance and few surprises arise.

That mechanical, predictive method fails when I write fiction. In fiction, new ideas emerge a lot more often. Character behaviors, plot ideas, even setting details that I didn’t foresee wreck my plans. I have to rethink my outline, knowing full well that I’ll go off the rails almost as soon as I start writing again. All that wasted time frustrates me so much that I’ll abandon a story.

On the flip side, writing fiction without an outline doesn’t work, either! I’ve learned that I can’t write a coherent narrative that way. When emergent ideas contradict what I’ve already written, it’s difficult to see how to adjust. Without a vision for the ending I’m driving toward, I don’t know how to align new ideas.

Writing from a detailed outline is a lot like “waterfall” software development. You predict what you’ll build up front and hope your prediction was right. Most of the time, you discover that your requirements were incomplete at best. Often, they’re totally wrong.

In software development, the Waterfall process has given way to a framework called Scrum. In Scrum, you don’t try to predict all the requirements in advance. Instead, you identify a Product Goal — a broad description of the outcome you hope to achieve. From that goal emerges a list of what you need to do to reach that goal. That list is called the Product Backlog. Items near the top of the list are better understood and take less effort to complete than items deeper in the list. Items toward the bottom are vague and lack detail because we aren’t sure when — or if — we’re going to work on them. We regularly review the list and update it as new information and requirements emerge.

The Product Backlog also makes a great alternative to a detailed outline for writing fiction. I plan the early parts of the story in detail. I sketch the later parts in broad strokes. When an emergent idea changes the direction of my story, I can adapt those broad strokes without much effort. When an emergent idea suggests changes to what I’ve already written, I add items to the Product Backlog. That way, I don’t forget them, and I can plan how and when I’ll make those changes.

As I make progress on the story, I continually revisit my plan. Vague plot ideas come into focus as they come closer. I break down broad strokes into smaller pieces — chapters and scenes. I flesh out the details when those details are less likely to change. I do that in a practice called Product Backlog Refinement — but that’s a subject for a future article.

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