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Flashlight Method of Writing

Extreme pantsers, look away! This won’t interest you if you’re not into outlining. I’m here to talk about outlining, flashlight outlining to be precise.

It is okay if you love to ‘pants it’ and don’t want to sit down to plan your story. However, starting to write your story with nothing more than a single idea can leave even you, the owner of the story, in a completely dark area, lost, before you embark on a great story-telling adventure.

It’s not that you can’t conjure great stories pantsing it (there have been a lot of best-selling novels created this way), but it is easy to get off track and get lost in your own story.

If you don’t want to waste time writing this way and want a method that kind of guides you while still giving you the liberty to be as creative as you can be, you have to outline. And… maybe, just maybe, flashlight outlining could just help you do that.

flashlight method of writing

What Is Outlining?

Outlining is the stage or process before writing that helps you figure out your story’s characters, plot, chapter headings, scenes, et cetera. During this stage, you sit down and come up with a detailed sketch of what happens in each chapter of your novel.

What you basically do—during this stage—is make sure that you don’t have to navigate through a dark area when you start writing. It’s like you’re Turing on a bright light to illuminate your story and make the terrain clear for you to know exactly where the story is going.

This way, it’s unlikely that you—the writer—are going to get lost since you always know what to write.

It isn’t all merry, and I must tell you’re going to discover one or two flaws: it’s either you’re going to realize that it’s a bit forced, or it doesn’t really feel that special (because you have to follow methods that others before you have already used).

If you get too creative along the way, you have to change a huge chunk of the outline and if you’re too lazy to do that, then you’re forced to throw out any new idea and follow the outline—even if it becomes hard to do that.

Wait… am I picking apart my own topic? Hmm… well, just giving you the cons before I load the benefits.

Flashlight Writing

In the last section, I did find a couple of shortcomings of outlining—and, I’m sure, that was sweet music to a pantser’s ear.

Well, not everything I said applies to flashlight writing.

Flashlight outlining is very different from other methods of outlining because you don’t outline to the end of the story—not even to the end of the chapter.

A woman and a child read a book while using a flashlight.
A woman and a child read a book while using a flashlight.

Just as the name suggests, this method works like a flashlight: it provides great illumination to the part of the story that’s near, and there’s a small amount of light for other parts that are farther from the point where the story is currently at.

When you use the flashlight method of outlining, you let yourself discover the story gradually and still plan along the way. You’re still a pantser in some way, but you do enough planning to prevent yourself from writing in the dark.

How Flashlight Outlining Works?

So, instead of looking at your story as a whole, you break it into chapters and try to summarize those chapters individually.

how flashlight outlining works
How the flashlight method works.

You then write some notes of what you want to happen in each of these chapters—you decide which characters are going to be in the chapter, the setting, the scenes, etc.

For some pantsers, this method comes naturally and they don’t even know it’s an actual method of outlining. The flashlight method of outlining works for both moderate plotters and pantsers but if you’re on the extreme ends of the two, this is probably not a good method to outline your novels.

Pros of the Flashlight Method of Writing

Here are some of the advantages of using the flashlight method of outlining a novel.

  1. It helps you shape your story more consciously than if you completely pants it.
  2. You don’t have to write the outline of the whole outline beforehand, so you can easily change the story as you go.
  3. Increases creativity. Since you don’t feel trapped—as is the case with a lot of other outlining methods—you are free to throw in new ideas as you outline more chapters. 

Cons of the Flashlight Method of Writing

  1. It does not provide all the time-saving advantages of other outline methods since you have to go back to the drawing board each time you start a new chapter.
  2. It isn’t as effective as other outlining methods when it comes to dealing with writer’s block. One of the reasons for this is because you have to constantly think of what happens in the next chapter.

Flashlight vs. the Snowflake Method

The snowflake method is probably the most famous method of outlining. The snowflake method is a type of outlining that uses an expanding form of plotting. It’s similar to the formation of a snowflake in the sense that it starts with the simplest form of the story and then grows into a fully-fledged story. That’s the basic idea: you start small and slowly build the outline, and it eventually turns into a novel.

You start by writing one sentence about your novel, then you expand it into a paragraph, and then a page until you have a whole novel.

How does the flashlight method fare against the snowflake method?

For liberal pantsers, the flashlight method works magic; It helps them outline only as much as they can and helps them navigate immediate chapters and scenes. This way, they avoid writing in the dark; therefore, they are not at risk of falling off the plot cliff.

Basically, it helps them feel like they are in control (which is the case, right?).

You don’t have to plot the whole novel before you start. You only need to write down a few notes that will take you from the current scenes to a few more scenes or into the next chapter of the novel. For example, you could be into your first chapter and you have an idea of what your main character is going to do in a few opening scenes, all you have to do is outline those scenes. Once they pan out, you can start worrying about a few more scenes.

You stay on track, you have the flexibility to change stuff, and you don’t feel trapped in a rigid outline.

Awesome!

For buttoned-down plotters though, the flashlight method of outlining won’t suffice. Of course, you know what’s coming in advance, but you also know that there’s a bridge missing up ahead. That’s not going to work, at all!

You’ll need something that helps you build the whole thing, something like the snowflake method. This method was inspired by the Koch Snowflake, which is built up iteratively, in a succession of additive stages. First, there’s an equilateral triangle, then an equilateral triangle is added to each side of this triangle.

You get the idea, the process is a bit more intricate but the end goal is the snowflake which, in this case, is the full story or novel. For conservative plotters, the snowflake method is the best as they expand the premise to something comprehensive and tangible before they start writing.

Other Ways of Outlining a Novel

There are a lot of ways that you can use to outline your novel. For brevity’s sake, I’ll only give you three alternatives to the flashlight method.

Just know that some of these methods can also be used together with the flashlight method.

1. Scene map

A scene map is similar to flashlight outlining. And… a scene map has a self-explanatory name:  you map out the scenes in the novel. You either summarize the events in each scene, then you write or you jot down a thoroughly explained list of events in each scene while you write the first draft.

A group of writers uses sticky notes to create a scene map.
A group of writers uses sticky notes to create a scene map.

You either use your corkboards in scrivener or simply use sticky notes; whether on your wall or desktop.

Scene maps can help you write a bunch of extra scenes that can either be added to your noble or be left out but used as part of your story’s timeline.

Sticky notes (whether real or virtual) usually come in a variety of colors. It helps to map your scenes using these different colors, it’s not just to make the scenes ‘colorful,’ but it helps you differentiate the scenes.

2. The Skeletal Outline

This type of outline involves coming up with vital limbs of the story (i.e., narrative points) that best aid the flow of that story.

The skeletal outline gives you a naked structure of your story and can be used to reshape your story for maximum impact.

the skeletal outline
An illustration of how skeleton outlining works.

The skeleton includes the following:

Exposition

This is the part that introduces the story and its main character(s). Where does the story take place? Who are the characters?

Inciting Incident

What sets the story on fire?

Rising Action

This is the part of the plot where a series of events in the story builds towards the point filled with the greatest tension.

Climax

The juiciest part of the story, this part is where the action is packed.

Falling action

This is the part that comes after the end of the climax. In this part, you can include what the characters are doing after the story’s most dramatic scenes have happened.

Resolution

The story has to be resolved or worked out. This is the ‘happily ever after’ part.

3. Use Outlining Software

scrivener overview

I’m sure you’ve heard of software programs like Scrivener—which, I think, is the best in its category. There are several other popular programs for writers, and they are effective when it comes to organizing your novel even before you get to the actual writing. You can use ordinary, or should I say traditional writing software like Word or Excel for your outline.

Summary

An outline shouldn’t feel like a cage that traps your creativity and ingenuity, you also don’t have to feel trapped into outlining. Writing is about what works for you, not what works for most people.

Give flashlight writing a try, if it works for you, great! If it doesn’t work, try another way.

Flashlight writing plus the other four methods that I mentioned in this post aren’t the only outlining methods you can use; in fact, there are so many that your favorite writer probably knows less than 1/10 of them.

Writing is a field filled with genius and rebels and you don’t expect anyone to accept rules set in stone, do you? Exactly!

That is why you need to experiment with a lot of methods throughout your creative writing process.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.