Why Outlining Won’t Murder Your Story

That smile? That’s because he has a map. And a fabulous moustache.

After several years away, I am returning to hardcore outlining.

I got away from it for a while. Mostly just to try something new. I hadn’t tried to seriously write something long without one since my first writing days, and while those stories turned out to be little more than half-intelligible brain droppings smeared across a page, that might have been due more to my inexperience than the method itself.

It wasn’t.

When I write without a meaningful outline, yes, I get ideas. But there’s no framework for them to hang on, and too often they’re like fireworks: burning bright and pretty to look at, but not much damn use. And there’s a lot of them, so it takes time to sort through the mess.

So I went back to outlining and, man, what a fucking difference.

I finished the final outline for my novel the other day. It’s not a scene-for-scene layout, but it’s pretty close. It’s got every meaningful moment and every decision made by every character that influences the ending laid out.

I hear a lot from the anti-outline brigade about how outlining kills the story. They feel that outlining too tightly, as I have done, kills any sense of creativity and spontaneity. Besides, if the outline is done, why bother writing it? You already know what happens.

First of all, it’s a disservice to your creative mind to assume it’s as fragile as an anaemic butterfly. Creativity is tough, and good ideas always survive. If you story dies at the first sneeze of questioning, maybe it wasn’t strong enough to carry a whole book on its own in the first place.

Secondly, outlining is not writing. It’s not even pretending to write. It’s preparation.

Or, to look at it another way: an outline is to writing what a recipe is to cooking. A recipe is a damn useful thing, especially when you’re making something complicated. Having a good one can keep you from making huge, time-wasting mistakes. But no one would ever suggest that you could satisfy your hunger by writing a recipe for blitzes.

Now, sometimes you just want to jump in without an outline and write for the hell of it. And I still do that. But now that’s part of the prep work, too. I stack all that shit with the outline as I write it, or use them as test-drives for characters or locations or ideas. But when I sit down to do the heavy writing, I’ll have my trusty outline by my side. And the writing will go much smoother and more quickly for it.

As always, your mileage may vary. But if you’ve never tried outlining for fear of crippling some creative organ, put that fear aside as the bullshit it is and give it a go. You might just find the new thing you love.

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7 thoughts on “Why Outlining Won’t Murder Your Story

  1. My sister and I were just talking about this last night. I keep an outline on Evernote so I know what scene to write next, what needs to happen, etc. Helps keep track of character arcs as well.

  2. Love this blog! I am in the process of outlining my first novel and I love the recipe analogy. It’s so true! I was talking about the debate on outlining with my husband tonight at dinner and likened it to building a house without a blueprint. Anyhow, thanks for your insight! Do you have any particular outline forms or recommendations that you are using? I’m doing the Snowflake method right now and throwing in some other info that I have researched as well.

    • Currently, I’m using the outliner function in Scrivener. It’s a big table/spreadsheet deal that you can edit to suit your needs. I currently have five columns: Scene Title, What Happens, Who’s There, Questions Raised, and Notes. I might do a post that focuses more on this format later, but that’s the basics.

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