Why I (usually) don’t outline, but (maybe) should

Writing advice is intensely personal, in the sense that what works well for one person may not work at all for someone else. As Chuck Wendig puts it: all writing advice is bullshit — but bullshit makes good fertilizer. The bullshit advice I hear most often is “don’t use adverbs,” followed closely by “don’t use filtering words.” Both of these rules are good in theory, but the best way to use them is to look at them, understand them, and then bury them deep underground where they can fertilize clean, clear prose judiciously littered with the odd “quickly” or “she heard.”

But the piece of advice that seems to divide writers the most is whether or not to outline. Almost everyone has a strong opinion (including, as it happens, me). Like any other advice, take anything you read with a big grain of salt, and see what works for you. If you’re just starting out, I recommend that you don’t attach yourself too hard to either the don’t-outline or do-outline camps. Try them both, to some degree or another, and see what works. Keep in mind that outlining may be good for some stories and not others, or that it may be bad for your first book and then work well after that, or vice-versa. Be flexible.

When the first drink is poured in the bar, I’ll usually proclaim to anyone who will listen that I’m a pantser by birth, choice, and reputation. (Isn’t that how everyone starts conversations in a bar?) By the time the second or third drink is rolled out, you might hear me admit, with a mild bit of drunken sulkiness, that I’ve found outlines to be useful under certain circumstances.

The main reason I ‘m a confirmed pantser is because I spent a number of years outlining without actually writing anything. I worked on several projects in that time without managing to get more than a page or two of actual prose down on paper. The problem, in hindsight, was that outlining was a way for me to focus almost exclusively on plot. I would end up using my left-brain, organize-and-categorize mode of thinking instead of a more right-brain, create-and-synthesize mode. I would spend hours trying to craft a fragile, glass-spun spiderweb of a plot that was devoid of any holes or mistakes. In addition to not being much fun, this meant that I always felt I had ‘failed’ if I had even the slightest unbelievable moment or unexplained bit of action. Since I never achieved perfection, I never started on any actual writing. I think that I had ever had managed to create a ‘perfect’ plot, it would most likely have fallen apart as soon as I tried to attach a story to it. And even more importantly, the stories I came up with were dry, character-less, and not at all fun (for me) to write.

So it wasn’t actually the outlining that was the problem for me. Instead, it was plotting, or more specifically over-plotting. Whether you use outlines or not, this is something you absolutely need to watch out for. It’s an obvious warning sign if your plotting means abandoning decent stories at the first sign that your plot isn’t going to work out exactly the way you want. (I say ‘obvious,’ though of course, it took me years to realize this myself) But even if you do get around to writing that over-plotted story, there’s a very real danger that it will end up like a Christmas turkey that has sat in the oven for too long: beautiful and golden-brown on the outside, but dry and tasteless inside.

When you’re plotting or outlining, keep in mind that the best story is not the one with the fewest plot holes. The best story is the one that sweeps up the reader and gets them moving with such speed that any holes or loose ends flash by without so much as a glance. After seeing Black Panther yesterday with our kids, my wife and I talked about how much we loved it for the rest of the afternoon and evening. It wasn’t until bedtime that I mentioned how there’s one bit that I thought was kind of silly and unbelievable. During my over-plotting years, if I had come across a scene like that in one of my stories, I would have thrown out part (or even all) of it just because it didn’t live up to my perfect-plot expectations. But as the viewer I was so caught up in the story and characters that I barely blinked.

Every time you feel as if you have a plot ‘hole,’ ask yourself: is it really worth fixing? Sometimes, of course, the answer will be yes. But if the fix is worse than the problem, leave it and move on. A good story is like sex: there’s you, and there’s them, and when it’s good, nobody really worries about the details. If you find yourself alone at your computer, trying to achieve some kind of orgasmic perfection, that’s not sex—it’s masturbation.

In more recent years, I’ve found that outlining can be helpful for me, as long as I use it properly. Stories always begin in my head as a few key scenes or arcs, and I usually flesh those out a bit before I write the first line. Outlines are a good tool for me to get those ideas down on paper so that I don’t forget them. The key for me is to not try to outline everything. It’s okay if I leave gaps or end up with parts of the story that are more vague. For one thing, I know that when I get to any particular thinly-sketched scene I’ll be immersed in the world of my story and my brain will draw out new details and ideas to flesh it out. Just as importantly, though, there’s a good chance that by the time I actually get to that part of the story it will have diverged so much that my notes aren’t helpful anyway.

The other benefit of outlining is one that my mentor Wade Albert White taught me a few years ago. He pointed out that even if you don’t like to outline before you write a first draft, it can often be helpful to outline afterward. First drafts are messy and misshapen, and it can be hard to grok everything you’ve just written so that you can massage it into something more refined. Outlining the story can help you step back and see the whole thing. Structural problems or missing threads might be much more obvious to you after you’ve outlined it. And once you have that outline, you have a good tool for shaping your story before diving into the next draft.

Experiment! Try outlining; try not-outlining. Your first couple of novels will be learning experiences. Don’t decide in advance that there’s one true way for you to write. Even years from now you’ll probably be tweaking how you do things.

from the bullshit-advice-dept

1 Comment

  1. Cindy Dorminy

    Great advice!

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