In Praise Of Outlines

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In a recent blog post, novelist Donna Gillespie makes an eloquent case for writing without an outline, a clarion call for writers to shed their bonds and dive into their stories. Outlining is a “soul-killing, oxygen-sucking waste of time.” Just start writing, she advises, and the story will emerge.  As Gillespie has had several novels published, she’s clearly found a method that works for her, and I never argue with what works. I do, however, take issue with any one-size-fits-all prescription. Different strokes for different folks, after all; and “what works” can change over a writer’s lifetime or on a book-by-book basis— mysteries, I’ve found, require more mapping out than literary novels.

I recommend you read her post for yourselves; there’s a lot of good advice in there, including my favorite line: “Don’t think it through; write it through.” I remind myself of that truth every time I hit a snag in the planning stages; I’ve done this long enough to have faith that by the time I get to actually writing the scene, the solution will be clear. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t plan at all, just that one shouldn’t obsess over a few holes in the outline.

For the sake of writers who haven’t found their way yet, I felt someone should make the case for outlining, because for most fiction writers, it is an extremely effective tool.

I freely concede from the outset that outlining isn’t fun. I had a student once who loved it, but he was an engineer by trade.  For most writers, and certainly for me, it’s the hardest part of the job, the headache-inducing prelude to the fun of writing and revising.

I once sold a movie option to a novel I hadn’t finished writing. That’s a long story and I won’t tell it all now, because it has to do with race and writing and that’s not my subject here. The short version is that I’d fallen out with my publisher over a racial disparity in my latest novel—I was white, the protagonist black—and withdrew the manuscript in a bit of a huff. It made for a good bit of publishing gossip, and my agent told it over lunch to a producer friend, who was curious enough to read pages that night. He liked them; the upshot was a movie deal and a flurry of activity that culminated in the dispatch of a screenwriter, sent to extract the ending of my novel so he could finish his screenplay.

We sat in my living  room, and he asked questions that I struggled to answer, because the answers didn’t exist; they hadn’t been written yet. The more probing the questions, the more uncomfortable I felt. It was like taking an exam on a subject I’d never studied but was expected to know, only more visceral than that: an  intimate discomfort, as if he were trying to extract something that wasn’t ready to be born.

That, in a heightened form, pretty much describes the sensation of outlining. Summarizing a story that has not yet been born is a painful exercise. Characters come out flat and utilitarian. Plotlines emerge naked and shivering, barely viable. An embryonic story is not a thing of beauty.Foetus_in_the_Womb_detail

And yet I do outline my books before I write them, more so now than when I was a young writer. What’s worse, I make my writing students do it too: not because it’s the only way to write, but because it’s well worth trying, for several reasons.

1. Professionals do it. Not all; I know several first-rate writers who never outline. But the vast majority of published writers I know put in a great deal of preparatory work before they begin writing their novels; and as a former literary agent and editor, I’ve known quite a few.

2, Outlining is more efficient. If you know where you’re heading, chances are you’ll spend a lot less time revising after the first draft is done.

3. There’s less chance that the writer will lose his way. A lot of novels die on the vine. Writers lose focus and impetus, and their stories end up dead on the side of the road. As a writing teacher, I see for more books lost due to lack of planning than to too much.

4. Outlining reveals major problems in one’s concept for a novel, which gives the writer a chance to address them before investing hundreds of hours in a structure that’s fundamentally unsound.

5. Writing an outline builds up a head of steam. When you spent weeks or months planning, researching and outlining a novel, it is the most tremendous relief to actually start writing it. A lot of energy has been pent up; when it’s released, it provides great impetus to the novel.

 

Outlines aren’t straightjackets. Stories grow and evolve in the telling. The book I take to the dance is very different from the book I go home with, a fact of writing that agents and editors know well. Things happen during the writing, magical things sometimes, and those get incorporated. Sometimes the story takes an unexpected detour; you never know what you’ll find. Road trips don’t always go as planned either, but as every traveler knows, it helps to have a map.

Map

What works for you? Have you tried both outlining and winging it? Does it depend on the book, do you think, or the writer?

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
This entry was posted in Craft, Outlining, Writing tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to In Praise Of Outlines

  1. Peter Pollak says:

    I find outlining essential and would like to share some of the ways I use outlining. Perhaps other writers can benefit.

    I outline both in Excel and Word. In Word, my outline consists of the narrative of the story, starting with a one-paragraph summary which I break down into chapters as I go along. But it is outlining in Excel where the fun begins.

    My spreadsheet outline columns are chapter number, chapter title, POV, pages & status. (You can add others.) I update my spreadsheet at the end of each writing session to keep track of my progress, to know where I plan to start next time and to identify what chapters need my attention. The status column is particularly helpful. Common notes include “first draft,” “needs editing,” “re-write,” “done,” et al. The end result is a document that keeps me on track and re-enforces my progress. I update the Word document less frequently, but try to keep the two consistent.

    There are many side benefits of keeping track of your progress. For example, by entering the number of pages in each chapter and totaling the pages, I begin to have a good feel for what the eventual length of the book will be.

    Finally, as you say Barbara, outlining at the beginning doesn’t cast your story in stone. It is a tool. Using it to your advantage can save you time and help make your final product better than flying by the seat of your pants.

    • Thanks, Peter—good to know how other writers work. I’m so retro I use pen and loose-leaf paper for my planning–but then, I started doing this before PC’s existed [gasp]. I also plot out each chapter and scene just before writing it. When I’m done, it’s always a pleasure to rip that planning page out of the notebook, crumple it up, and toss it somewhere in the vicinity of the garbage pail.

  2. Fantastic post, Barbara. And you hit the nail on the head when you said that, “Different strokes for different folks, after all; and “what works” can change over a writer’s lifetime or on a book-by-book basis— mysteries, I’ve found, require more mapping out than literary novels.”

    I can be an obsessive outliner. And I actually enjoy it most of the time (no doubt because of my analytical background). Before I started outlining, not much happened in my stories, and a lot of what I did write needed to be cut. And more importantly, I never finished anything.

    With an outline, I have the confidence to push on. Even when I feel like what I’ve written is terrible, I can continue because I know that the story is going somewhere. I’ve got confidence that the story’s underlying structure will work. The plot makes sense. I can fix the cruddiness factor of a first draft later.

    The amount and type of outlining I do is different for every story. Some stories I have to explore some of it as I go. Others I have outlined down to the scene and had almost nothing change by the time I hit the end. Flexibility is key.

    • [[[With an outline, I have the confidence to push on. Even when I feel like what I’ve written is terrible, I can continue because I know that the story is going somewhere. I’ve got confidence that the story’s underlying structure will work. The plot makes sense. I can fix the cruddiness factor of a first draft later.]]]

      Me too. It takes a long time to write a novel, and there are bound to be days when the writer feels a bit lost. That’s when outlines really earn their keep; they let us fake it till the feeling comes back.

  3. Tom, thanks for dropping by–always good to have visitors from across the pond, especially when they come bearing gifts. You really are a very organized and disciplined writer. I’ve never tried the Word document map feature, but it sounds like a great application and I’ll give it a shot.

    Edited to add: Yikes! Somehow I managed to erase your post while answering it. So sorry—can’t seem to get it back.

  4. Zan Marie says:

    I do a form of outlining–storyboards. They consist of brief titles for chapters I know I’ll need. That allows me to put them in chronological order, but write where ever the mood (or muse) strikes. It works for me, but others would find it either too little or too much. ; )

  5. deniz says:

    I agree with all the arguments for outlining, and it suits my list-loving nature. But it just doesn’t work for me when it comes to writing.

    I can scribble fast enough – and eagerly enough – that I can get the scenes down nearly as quickly as if I was outlining. And I don’t mind tossing out whole chunks while editing; makes me feel I’m accomplishing something at least 🙂

    But, actually, it doesn’t often happen. Or, at least, it’s happening less and less. The last three stories I drafted haven’t had any scenes that went nowhere or useless sidelines.

    I outlined a complete story once in my life, and that story still hasn’t been written. Outlining takes all the joy of discovery out of the writing, for me.

    On the other hand, having a vague idea of the ending I hope to achieve, or of the overall theme, is certainly a must.

    • Deniz, you have plenty of company. Our friend Diana Gabaldon doesn’t outline, either, and neither does Donna Gillespie, the writer whose post inspired mine. I don’t have to understand how to say, “Whatever works.”

  6. Hi Barbara,
    Folks who’d like to explore this topic further might be interested in a little initiative that Tim Hallinan took. He asked twenty-one other writers to hold forth on the subject of “plotting and pantsing” and published it as a little book entitled “Making Story”. It’s up on Amazon in a Kindle version, and I’ve just received one of print copies, soon to be released

    • Hi Leighton,

      Nice to meet you, and thanks for mentioning “Making Story,” which sounds interesting even if I wasn’t one of the 21 writers asked. (How’s that for writerly hubris?!) You yourself have written a bunch of books—what’s your method? I find it hard to understand how anyone could write a mystery without knowing upfront whodunnit and why; but I sat on a panel once with a very successful writer who said he never knew till he got to the end. Different strokes and all that.

      • Hi Barbara,
        And very nice to meet you as well!
        I outline, and I outline more and more extensively as time goes on. It’s gotten to the point, these days, where I actually do a CHAPTER Outline before I sit down to flesh-out the book. A number of my friends, successful writers all, are “pantsers” — and I love much of what they write. But they often have to throw away a book halfway in, because they’ve written themselves into a corner and don’t know how to get out of it.
        Mind you, nothing I outline is set in stone. New ideas keep occurring to me throughout the book. And that often entrails the creation of new characters. Subplots pop-up. So do details and twists that I didn’t anticipate when I began. But I always know where I’m going and where I plan to end up. So much so, that I often start with the end and work back. If that doesn’t make sense, I’m sorry. I can’t explain it. One either “gets” it, or one doesn’t.
        My very first book (unpublished) was an attempt to write without an outline — and it turned out to be a dog’s breakfast that never saw the light of day.
        In addition to outlining, I’ve also got my own techniques for revising. But that’s the subject of another post. A great writer once told me, “good books aren’t written, they’re re-written, and re-written and re-written” – and I ascribe to that.
        When you do it, though, you need a method — otherwise you can get lost in the verbiage. And your objectivity, of course, goes right out the window. (Another reason all of us need good editors.)
        I don’t know about you, but I learn something new with every book. Chaucer said it best, “The life so short, the craft so long to learn”.
        And Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no man is a master.”
        He should have said “man or woman”, but that was Hemingway.

        • I’ve also come to outline much more, though not as much in advance as you do; that would give me a migraine. I outline generally–15, 20 pages including a chronology–and then outline each chapter and scene in detail as I get to it.

          Starting with the ending makes sense to me. It’s only when you get to the end that you know where the story has to start. I wouldn’t actually write it first, though; I need the impetus of the whole novel behind me.

          Revising is a big deal with me, too, so much so that I teach a course on it. Seems we work in similar ways. I looked at your books on Amazon and have added them to my reading list–they sound like just my cup of coffee (not a tea drinker.)

          Amen on Hemingway. See my rant in the post just before this one, “Cross-Writing.” Which isn’t to say I’m not a huge admirer of his style.

  7. Barbara – those gremlins!
    Re my Jan 18 post – here it is again. Btw, I’ve made a link from my website recommending your blog.
    ‘Great post, Barbara, I use outlines for all the reasons you give.
    I write outlines for my crime/mystery/thriller novels for all the reasons Barbara states in her blog post. I find it more efficient and avoids going down cul-de-dacs. I start with:
    1. A nugget of an idea, (max. 50 words)
    2. Expand that to a one or two page summary of the novel
    3. Then write short – a line or two – scene summaries.
    As I write each scene I use a standard checklist – from whose viewpoint, purpose of scene, what happens, setting, conflicts, outcomes, hook. All short one-liners.
    For some writers, I acknowledge this approach might seem mechanistic – but do you know, it works for me and I do find the story will shift and change as I write, especially in the rewriting after the first draft (this is when I juggle scenes, delete or add new scenes, characters and group them into chapters).
    As I have my scene summaries written, I always have a starting point, a trigger to write each day – no blank pages!
    A final tip – I view and write in ‘outline view’ with the Word ‘document map’ feature turned on (you need to check or tick the box). Type your brief scene heading in level 1, the scene in body text. Hey presto, on the left of your screen are listed your scene headings only, on the right the full scene you are working on. Both detail and overview in front of you on a single screen. Great tool!
    In a future post I plan to elaborate on this approach using examples from my latest DCI Matt Proctor crime novel due out soon – and show my method of developing and keeping track of my characters.’
    All best,
    Tom

  8. krystal jane says:

    It does help to have a map. I love outlining for a lot of the reasons you listed. It helps me write faster, edit faster, stay on track, and discover plot holes before I fall into them.

    There are so not the straight jacket so many people seem to think they are. I let my story grow and change as it needs to and sometimes I’ll update the outline accordingly, most times I’ll just use what I can and move on. But I love having something to guide me, even if it’s just a couple of sentences. I love watching my story evolve and change as I move through it. It’s like knowing ahead of time if the baby you’re going to have is boy or a girl and watching it grow from baby to adult. It’s amazing and looking back at that first outline is like looking back on baby pictures and seeing how they grew and changed into an adult with their own personality and outlook on life.

    Then they move on and we go back and make another one. ^_^

  9. Rafe Steinberg says:

    Excellent post, Barbara.

    In my opinion it depends on the work.
    All my non-fiction books were written to a tight and detailed outline. I can imagine writing a novel without an outline if it concerned just a few characters in a time and place that the author knows intimately.
    But if you’re telling a story involving half a dozen major characters from five different countries and spanning five or six decades (as I am trying to do) there is no way to interweave those narratives effectively without a detailed outline.
    Of course the outline must often give way to those lucky flashes of inspiration sparked by the actual writing process. And that’s where the fun begins.

    • That’s something all the outliners among us have stressed: the freedom to let inspiration when it strikes trump the preordained outline. I’m starting to get the feeling that the two approaches aren’t as divergent as they seem: that pantsers actually do a lot of planning en route, while outliners color outside the lines.

  10. Lara Lacombe says:

    Since I’m a scientist by training, I thought I would enjoy outlining and that it would really help me write. Turns out, I just can’t make it work. I’m more of a plotting-pantster, in that I have a general idea of where I’m going to go with a scene or a story, but I don’t nail down the details too much until I actually start writing. The discovery is part of the joy for me. This is not to imply that outliners don’t have that same sense of discovery, but I am unable to capture the ‘lightning in a bottle’ when I’ve pre-determined elements of the story, even if they’re not set in stone.

    • Hi Lara, good to meet you. Do you think your feelings about outlining are connected to your genre? I can easily imagine writing a love story that follows its characters instead of determining their course. I couldn’t imagine writing a mystery like that, with all the clues and red herrings that need to be carefully planted….I’ve always been an outliner to some extent, but it’s kicked in a lot stronger since I started writing mysteries.

      • Lara Lacombe says:

        Hi Barbara,

        That’s an interesting point, and you’re probably right–if I were to attempt a mystery, I’d need to know more about the plot before writing. Maybe that’s why I don’t write mysteries… [g]

  11. Some people seem to have the impression that plotters outline their stories from start to finish before they begin writing. In my case that’s far from what happens. First, a story concept pops into my head, but I don’t start outlining until I’ve mulled the story over for a while and written several key scenes. Because like many writers I have more ideas than I’ll ever bring to fruition, it’s not until I’m fully commited to the story that I even think about outlining. I also wonder if some pantsers are wedded to a romantic notion of writing that says that talented writers don’t need aids such as outlines (or editors) and as a result they eschew outlining for fear it might attach the label ‘hack’ to their skill set?

    • Oy, I hope not. I’m happy to concede that it’s possible to write a creditable novel without an outline, because people have done it. But every sensible writer has to appreciate good editing–I don’t believe there’s much debate there. But that’s a whole other subject…

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