Do You Outline Your Novel? Should You?

It cannot be repeated often enough that there is no single right way to write a novel (or to compose a symphony or design a house). All these artistic endeavors require certain elements (plot, characters, tension rising to a climax, or motif and variations, harmony, contrast, or foundation, walls, plumbing, etc.) They vary in the point in the creative process at which those crucial elements must be in place, of course. Within those parameters, there’s a great deal of flexibility that allows for individual differences. What matters is not when a writer nails down the turning points, but that they are present and in balance with the rest of the book when it ends on the editor’s desk.

Many writers attempt their first novels by the “seat-of-the-pants” method, that is, writing whatever pops into their heads. Sometimes they end up with dead ends (disguised as “writer’s block”) and don’t finish the work. Other times, they do finish, only to discover (either through their own perceptions or feedback from others) that the book has significant problems. So they write another draft and go through the same process until either the story works or they become so frustrated they give up, or they refuse to accept further critiques and self-publish it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a spontaneous approach to the first draft. A good deal of the pleasure of writing is in discovery, in not knowing what will come next as the adventure unfolds. This is how children play. It does require a separate editorial, self-critical phase, at least for most of us. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just part of the process. If you want to “pants” your first draft, you accept that you’re going to have to revise. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Some writers loathe revision. I happen to love it.

At some point, it occurs to many of us that if we maybe thought about what was going to happen in our novel and how we were going to portray it, that we might save ourselves a bit of revision time. We might even jot down a few notes, reminding ourselves that this is just a tentative sketch and that nothing is carved in granite. We may and most certainly do change our minds when we discover that the actual story has diverged significantly from our strategy. I’ve been known to rework my notes, negotiating the borderlands between spontaneous writing and ill-thought-out plan.

Some writers never go any farther with outlining. They decide it’s not working for them, whereas it is actually not working period. Outlines help because they are a place where problems with story elements can be worked out in a relatively short time and wordage. They reduce the number of dead ends, plot holes, and inconsistencies in motivation. But in order to realize the benefits of outlining (or planning, if you’re allergic to the word outline), they require concentrated and creative problem-solving.

Outlining—proper, thoughtful outlining–is exhausting. For one thing, it’s concentrated. A typical outline is 5 to 10 single-spaced pages, maybe 2000-5000 words, summarizing a work that will be 100,000 words when completed. That’s an immense amount of thought crammed into very few pages. For another thing, the actual writing of a story can generate its own positive-energy loops. You get excited by an idea that pops up, or a character takes on a life of her own and runs away with the story, or some lovely phrase or bit of dialog strikes you as so wonderful, it makes your heart sing. These moments are precious and also rare enough in actual writing. I’d venture that they are nonexistent in outlining.

So outlining is energy-draining and tedious. Why then do some writers swear by it? For one thing, as I mentioned above, when done properly it saves time. For a new writer, struggling to learn the craft and working on spec, this may not seem like such a big advantage. For a writer trying to earn a living, it can make the difference between completing one book every three years and managing two or three per year. Most established writers who are able to sell “on proposal” have no choice. Editors (and agents) expect synopses (which are not exactly the same as outlines, but are interchangeable for this discussion) and sample chapters.

Outlines, like pitches and queries, are also the occasion of dread in the minds of writers because they require a different skill set than actual story writing. Pitches and queries are marketing tools. Outlines are blueprints, not novels themselves. When I myself have to write one, I go around muttering, “If I could have told the story in 10 pages, I wouldn’t have to write 500! Growl-growl-growl!” I have to patiently re-remind myself that I wasn’t born knowing how to do this, that I do it infrequently enough to lose whatever facility I gain each time, and that I cannot do it quickly or casually. For every element I write down, I will most likely need to get up, pace, take the dog for a walk, mull it over in a bubble bath, and then come back with a deeper insight into what the story needs.

I think of composing the outline as layering the story, but with filo dough, not bricks and mortar. I start with whatever grabs me—an idea, a character, a situation, some bizarre twist of events, or sometimes even just an emotional tone. Then I play around with Would it work this way? How can I jack up the risks? What terrible thing will result if this other thing does not happen (and then that’s what I put in, of course)? I almost always realize that this won’t work and that won’t work, or I need another character to put sand in the gears, or the danger just isn’t grave enough to justify all the hoopla.

This leads me to what may be the most valuable gift of careful outlining: it gives me a chance to set the stakes, to “build in” escalating drama, and to plan out how I’m going to parallel the hero’s emotional journey with her outer adventures. In other words, to shape the overall dramatic story arc so I will know where I am and what needs to be going on at every stage. Some writers like to use terms like plot point, midpoint empowerment, climax, etc. I like to draw flow charts and diagrams. It doesn’t matter what jargon describes the strategy; what’s important is that I have one.

For all my enthusiasm for outlines, gained over three decades of exploring all the ways to do it wrong, I also appreciate the importance of spontaneous writing. I don’t approach novels in this way, but I think my creative spirit would be the poorer if I did not have some way of following my own lighthearted inclinations through a story. This is one reason why I continue to write short fiction. For me, it provides a playground where I don’t have to think about structure or rules, I can just flow with whatever wacky notions come to me. Daydreaming is like this, only even less structured. I’ve never written fanfic, but I know many professional authors who (still) do, and I suspect it fills much the same function. So in the end, the question of whether or not to outline is not either/or, but finding the balance between “pantsing” and “micro-managing” that keeps our inner children joyful and allows us to put forth our best work.

The painting is Schreibender Knabe by Albert Anker, c. 1908.

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About Deborah J. Ross

I began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with Jaydium and Northlight, (and the omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels), and short stories in Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy and Star Wars: Tales from Jabba's Palace. Now under my birth name, Ross, I have written an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. My collection Azkhantian Tales, includes four short stories set in that world. Book View Cafe also offers my nonfiction Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life and a number of my stand-alone short stories.
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12 Responses to Do You Outline Your Novel? Should You?

  1. Cara M says:

    I just experienced my first novel-writing from an outline this year. I had been trying just to start the story – over and over again. I couldn’t get the right POV. I couldn’t really feel safe going into it, because I didn’t know where it was going.

    So I tried outlining it. I wrote an outline. It drifted off at the end into a confused muddle. I gave up in a huff. But I was so drawn to some of the awesome ideas I had for that story that I came back. I outlined again. I realized that the villain should be the one responsible for the hero’s tragic past. I stared at it, and then realized why had had done it, what he had done. The threads started to weave together. It made sense. It was enough.

    I shut the outline, and started writing. More problems occurred while I was writing, but I had a framework. As I was writing I kept a ‘synopsis’ file, where I covered some of the things that had been said and connected them to some things that might happen. And when I reached a sketchy place, I reoutlined.

    The one issue that the outlining didn’t solve is the length. It’s coming in about 40k too long. I hope that as I get more practice outlining I’ll be able to judge how much outline = how much text.

    Outlining is like a safety net. I can pants myself into a story, but I need an outline to drag myself out.

    • Framework, yes that’s exactly it. Working through stuff like what the role of the villain is before things get too “set in concrete” on paper.

      I continue to tinker with outlines as I write, sometimes even tearing them up in mid-book. But they do help me with some sense of where I’m going.

  2. I never outline. The act of writing it down seems to be important, and if I use it up on the outline the actual work may never come into being. I have taken to making notes at the end of the ms, sort of pushing the entire mass of ideas ahead of me as the novel progresses. Things like “remember to have her trip over the long skirt” and “sister to murder him? Get weapon into luggage before they leave”.

    • Yes, that’s another aspect of outlining: the cost in creative energy/enthusiasm. I knew one writer whose career was ended when yeye’s agent asked for proposal/synopsis after p/s. Yeye never got a break and never got to write any of them. That’s more the agent’s fault than the writer’s and it was a long time ago, when conventional wisdom was somewhat different. Now, I’d hope any writer in that position would tell the agent to shove it and then finish what comes from the heart.

  3. Me, I have to outline. If I don’t, the novel stalls or sprawls. I even have to outline short stories (though those outlines usually exist only in my head). I have to know exactly where the story is going, or I can’t build the road. But I =like= outlining. The first draft–oi!

  4. Mary says:

    I started outlining on short stories long before I was up to tackling novels; I found that it was a lot easier to have a stack of half-finished outlines lying about than a (much larger) stack of half-finished stories. So I insisted that they cough up the ending before I wrote them.

    As for exhausting, I find them easier than the first draft. (When not regarding them as a very rough first draft.) It’s like going down into Terry Pratchett’s Valley Full Of Clouds, and blazing a trail. Later, you go back to the beginning and actually build a trail, with proper slopes and stairs and things for the reader to walk more easily on that on the first path. Sometimes, to be sure, you have to re-route the path because what looked feasible while marching along over the litter of dead leaves turns out not to be practical, and sometimes you cut out things not as interesting as they look, or go into a side excursion because you missed this beautiful sight. But still, having the trail blazed means that there is a route.

  5. I can’t outline. I’ve actually tried a number of different ones for my current project because I was having a lot of problems with the story, enough problems that I was willing to try anything. So I went from different type to different type, thinking that maybe I just didn’t have the right type for me, even using a pantser friendly one. Instead, I discovered that I can’t connect my creative process to an outline at all. My creative process needs to be able to throw paint at the wall for the first draft to figure out the story and go all over the place to get there. An outline kills that step for me.

  6. I was one of those kids who used to write the outline for the paper for English class after I’d finished the paper, so it goes without saying that I’m not big on outlines. I never outline short stories. With longer work, I write my way into the story first, and then create a sort-of outline — a general map of what’s going on.

    I’m in the process of a very extensive revision right now and am using the first draft as an outline. That’s my natural method.

    I do, however, make lots of notes and keep files full of deleted scenes that provide background to the story.

    • Mary says:

      At which point I am reminded of a person who was actually under the impression that you have to write an outline like for an English class for a story to outline it. . . .

      If anyone who believes that is reading, please note that the “sort-of outline” is more typical than the English class outline. (As in, whenever we get down to brass tacks, writers have never admitted in my earshot that they write an English-class style one.)

      • What a frightening thought! If I had to write an English-class-style outline, I’d be so stressed at trying to remember the outline form and all those damn rules that I wouldn’t be able to come up with the story!

      • Good god, I would never do such a thing. At the very minimum “outline” should be a loose and baggy word, with many things inside. I know of writers who have a musical theme for each work; they just put the cd in on Repeat as they write. This could be an outline.