Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Outline or No Outline: That is the Question!

Okay, you're all ready to tell your story. You know your characters' lives inside out; past, present, and future. All your locations have been thoroughly researched and you know them like the back of your hand. All of your events have been planned with split second precision. You sit down and place your hands on the keyboard. Your gaze moves slowly up to the blank screen. You take a breath, and place your fingers on the keys. The...? No, erase. He...? No, erase. She...? Or...? You've got a big problem.

This kind of problem doesn't just occur when you are beginning a writing project. It can also occur at any point, or even at the end. That's when you have to make a decision. You need to decide if you want to draw up an outline first and then begin to write your story, or just wing it. Believe it or not, there are advantages to both.

Personally, when I'm writing a short story, it is easier for me to just write 'off the cuff', so to speak. I get an idea in my head for the story and I just sit down and write it. When I'm finished, there may or may not be a lot of editing involved, but the story is pretty much done. There are points where I may run into a snag, but all in all, with a little time, I can work my way through. Now, when it comes to a novel length project, that's a whole other ballgame.

Novel length works can become quite complex, depending on genre. Character interaction is extensive, and adding numerous sub-plots is quite common. Even in this case, however, there are conflicting opinions.

I have spoken with writers who wouldn't go anywhere near their keyboard without a completed outline in hand. Then again, there are others who told me that they prefer to write their novel in novel form vs. writing their novel in outline form first, then putting in a few filler words to complete it. There was a real bitterness there, and I sensed a great animosity toward the whole outlining process, so I decided to try to find out why.

I had never used the process myself, so I was unfamiliar with an outline style. I put the word out in a couple of writers' communities that I belong to that I was looking for outline styles, and you wouldn't believe the varying responses that I received. Some abhor the idea of putting their plot down in III.C.1.a. form; but others? Wow. I was astounded by how much time and effort went into their 'pre-writing' process.

Their formats included various sections like 'brief intro', which should run approximately 500 words, then 'major crisis point', also to be approximately 500 words, add various 'minor crisis points', these to be approximately 250 words. Then, you have your character descriptions, and these should include every character in the story, however minor their role. These descriptions should include the character's background, role in the story, who they interact with and why, and..., etc., etc. These descriptions should also run about 500 words each. There were other categories, which included chapter by chapter breakdowns, and so on, and before you know it, you've got approximately 50 to 60 pages worth of outline. Now, they sit down to write.

Others responded with a much looser format. A paragraph describing how the story begins, the major event or crisis point, and a basic description of how the story ends. There were character descriptions, but they didn't have to be encyclopedia length. Once they drafted a rough overall sketch of their story, they were on their way.

Then, you have those who feel they may as well have their hands tied behind their backs as draft an outline. They feel as if they will be locked in to what the outline says, as if once it's written, it takes on a life of its own. There can't be any flexibility, or change in plot line or characters, and if they end up not liking the story anymore, there's no option but to finish it per the outline and then move on to another. Strange, but true.

So. What do you do? Well, let me tell you how I approached this dilemma. I still don't attempt an outline with my short stories because so far, I haven't found breaking them down into that much detail necessary as of yet. But with a novel I'm writing, the time had come for a big decision.

Now, I have already completed one that I could probably categorize as a 'novella' length project. Writing it was a lengthy process, but I wrote it from start to finish with just a few notes. But my second? That's a whole different thing. Before I began, I knew how I wanted the story to begin, had the middle pretty well worked out in my head, and I certainly know how I want it to end. But to get there? Whoa. So many characters, all necessary. So many interactions, all necessary. So many sub-plots, all necessary. All necessary components to pull this thing together. I wrote the intro and five hefty chapters and... Yeah. And, what? I got so overwhelmed with the complexity of it all, I thought to myself, try an outline.

I compromised though, and combined the complicated type with the simple type and my format runs somewhere in between. Not so involved that I am actually writing the story in outline form, but then again, no so loose that I am totally lost every time I finish writing a paragraph. And what was the result? I'm back on track with it and on my way to completion. At times, there are changes here and there, but that's okay. My outline forgives me.

So you see, the outlining process is like anything else. Too much of anything can be a bad thing; everything in moderation. If you decide not to outline, relax, create, and go with the flow. If you decide to outline, relax, create, and go with the flow. The process of telling your tale should not be a stressful one, so whatever road you take to get from start to finish, try to ride right down the middle. Makes for a really pleasureable trip.


  1. Great topic. You know, I've had this same discussion with a friend of mine who does a lot of what I consider to be elaborate planning -- and I hardly plan at all. I fall into that category of writers known as "pantsers" -- meaning I tend to fly by the seat of my pants, delighting as the story reveals itself to me. For someone like me, a very detailed plan or outline is out of the question because there is a certain robbery there of the element of surprise that I enjoy experiencing as I write. I also don't believe in editing much. Grammar correction, yes -- but changing the writing, or even the sentences tends to throw my greater scheme out of whack. I like to keep my writing In Whack when possible.
    But I do have friends who have huge notebooks stuffed with notes, detailed biographies of characters, dates, places both real and contrived, how many times baby Harvey hiccuped at some minor supporting character's third birthday party...etc...
    I could not live that way, much less get any writing done.

    What a great discussion.

  2. I agree totally, Melonie. Depending on the size of your project, a few notes would probably help some writers. Then again, I do believe it is possible to sit down and write an epic just making it up as you go along. Does it sound like I'm on both sides of the fence? Absolutely. But writing with a rigid set of notes and refusing to vary is not creating. You can sort of tell when something's been written that way too. I think the story, or whatever it is, comes across as very cold and mechanical. It doesn't infuse any emotion into the reader and I'm sure most readers will agree. If what I'm reading doesn't make me feel anything, I'm done with the writer.

    Whatever works for each individual, I say, but let's all remember, we write, not only for ourselves. We write for the reader too. Let our creativity flow and be free.

    Thanks for stopping by, Melonie, and your comments are greatly appreciated. Joyce

  3. Hi Joyce,

    This is a great topic. I as a fantasy writer, who likes my stories to fall under action/adventure, horror, romance and etc...I usually don't do any outlines at all, comparing to other writers. I agree with Melonie, I just sit and write in one paragraph what my tale is going to be about and I write away. You would be amazed how my story changes into what my muse feels the direction the tale should take. Now when it comes to my novels I jot down notes. They usually fall into one piece of paper or two. Now when writing fantasy as a writer I must invented items and their purposes. weird names and etc. I usually write the basics. The main characters names and description and the part they play, and a few items. The rest of it depends on my creative muse which flows freely. I may not write Crime fiction but as writers we have in common that with our work we try to keep it engaging, mysterious and have our readers wanting to read on. ;-) I enjoyed this and I'm looking forward to more of your blogs.

  4. That's so true when it comes to fantasy, that basic notes, at least, are needed. There's no 'John' or 'Mary' or 'Main Street' or 'Joe's Bar and Grill'. The characters, locations, and sometimes even the events are way out of the 'ordinary'.

    Some topics pertain pretty much to horror or crime, but there are also a lot of areas that would apply to any genre. I'm going to try to cover genre-specific and general aspects as well.

    Thanks so much for coming by, Carmen, and I'm grateful for your comments. Joyce