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To Outline Or Not To Outline?

3018 Views 54 Replies 40 Participants Last post by  Cheryl Douglas
I was once avid on not outlining.  I believed in plopping myself down and just letting the muses take my fingers where they would.  Then, I decided I'll give this outlining a shot after reading 2k to 10k Words by Rachel Aaron. 

I sat down and I began to outline.  Immediately I began to see some of the flaws in the flow of a story I was about write.  I found some things that I was stuck on.  I found things that were boring and filler.  I found issues that trapped me in the story.  I found hour long pauses as I couldn't figure out what would happen or what is going to happen in the story.  All of these things are where I usually open a new blank document and begin to write again.  Or that I stop writing for the day and go to sleep on it.  Instead, with no thoughts on prose or writing and just on development I was able to work my through all of those issues.  Then I sat down and in eight days produced sixty four thousand words.

I know many of you out there don't outline a thing and that's fine as well, to each their own.  But, I'd love to hear your thoughts on outlining.  Yay or Nay! 

Right now I'm stuck on an outline and I'm procrastinating until the muse comes and tells me what the heck is going to happen. 
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Yay! I outline, big time. When I sit down to write, I want to already know where things are going and what needs to be said, that way all I have to do is figure out how best to say it. Pantsers insist that outlining is too limiting. I disagree, as my finished product usually comes out a bit different than the original outline. I like to think of the outlining process like planning a road trip. I want to drive from California to New York, and along the way there are places I know I'd like to see. So I plan out a route. But I can always take a side trip, as long as it doesn't delay my arrival at my final destination too much.
I've tried but it never works.  I stick to it for about one scene and then my characters go off in their own directions.  I thought there was something wrong with me until I saw this cool interview by Stephen King on the subject.  Now I'm really okay with it.  :)
I don't outline.  When the story is well underway (usually at about 30,000 words plus) then I'll map it out (mainly for the sake of continuity).

At the outset, though, I just have an idea and know where I plan to go and what should be the final destination.

Whenever I do try to work with an outline, I find it hamstrings me, slows me dow, gets me mired in details... ugh.  No more.
This is a completely individual thing. Some authors swear by outlining and plotting, others swear by sitting in front of the computer with no direction and just letting the muse take over.

Personally, the idea of sitting down to write without a detailed outline gives me the hives. I would never get anything done, because I'd keep going off on tangents and would have to throw away tens of thousands of words that had nothing to do with the story. That is if I ever got any writing done at all, because quite frnakly I think I'd be completely paralyzed with fear if I ever tried it.

I wrote my first manuscript without plotting it and yeah, let's just say that it will never see the light of day. EVER. I'm a confirmed plotter now.
It really depends on the writer. A lot of writers get stuck and bored when they outline because they feel like the story has already been told and they have no room for creativity. I get stuck and bored when I don't outline because I have no idea where to take the story. I work best when I separate out the process of getting ideas from the process of writing. My muse is always loudest before I start actually putting words down. :)
It may sound strange, but with me it depends on the genre. My sci-fi WIP I felt like I had to outline because I had to build the world and that meant knowing what the repercussions would be to the physical surroundings if certain events happened. Still ended up pulling a bunch of stuff out of my butt on the fly, but I think the outline helped. My historic WIP, I didn't outline. I just knew the setting, picked a couple characters, gave them a mission, someone to oppose them, and knew where I wanted it to end (which changed) and set them free to do whatever they'd do.
I've tried writing an "outline" and it never worked for me.  I now consider my first draft to be my outline, and that works pretty well.  I have a very clear picture of what is happening and how it ends, but how the characters get there I won't know till it happens.
I always start with notes. Sometimes a story is complex enough for me to organize those notes and turn them into a rough outline, but I consider outlining an option, not a necessity. So far, even when I've started a novel with an outline in place, I've never stuck to it.
ellecasey said:
I've tried but it never works. I stick to it for about one scene and then my characters go off in their own directions. I thought there was something wrong with me until I saw this cool interview by Stephen King on the subject. Now I'm really okay with it. :)
Same here. I tried it. It simply doesn't work for me. And the funny thing is that I "throw away" relatively little work as some people talk about. I sometimes move scenes around in the course of editing, but very little gets deleted. And yet just today I got a review commenting that I don't "dally".

What works is individual. Yes, maybe if I COULD outline, my writing would go faster (I wish) but what works for me works. I do think that maybe outliners are FASTER writers. I am doing well to do 2,000 words a day and frequently it's closer to 1,000 but over the course of a year since I write every day that is pretty decent output. At least, I'm happy enough with it.
Here is a great book written by a former pantser Outlining Your Novel Map Your Way To Success by K. M. Weiland.

Yes, I contributed to a Q&A on how I outline, but it's Kim's book.

I find (like the OP) that an outline points out flaws, helps with flow, and allows me to write much faster.
To outline or not depends a lot on the genre. A character-driven piece may not require as much planning as a murder mystery.
ellecasey said:
I've tried but it never works. I stick to it for about one scene and then my characters go off in their own directions. I thought there was something wrong with me until I saw this cool interview by Stephen King on the subject. Now I'm really okay with it. :)
If you look up the "Snowflake Method", that guy actually recommends doing extensive character biographies before you even get to the outline. It culminates in doing a multi-page "story" from each character's point of view. Who they are, what they want, what they learn, etc. The idea is that it reduces rewrites later on.

I started my novel (not the one in my signature) writing by the seat of my pants, but later tried out that method and wrote an outline for the rest of the story. I'm glad that I did; I think I'm going to end up with a better novel because of it.
Outline all the way. Just because you write an outline doesn't mean you have to stick to it. It also helps you figure out how one character's decision affects the action later on.

I must admit that I am totally OCD, and I know what my characters are wearing, eating, drinking and thinking before I even get started. This is probably why my muse and I are no longer on speaking terms.
There isn't just one way to outline, but many. Just because one form didn't work for you another might.
I have this amazing App on my iPad that lets me do the roughest of rough outlines -- which is mostly character, synopsis, setting and all of that is just for a smooth character arc (make sure so&so eyes' stay blue and what not since I might mention it at 10k words but by 100k I may have forgotten).  In all seriousness, having tried everything from Storyist to Scrivener, it's seriously an incredible invention since I can keep all the important details at a finger swipe away but I can write mainly in Pages.

However, with that said, I never outline full books.  Like ElleCasey said, my characters rarely let me "do what I want with them" ... so while I could spend days outline the "perfect" book as I conceived it, it's not really going to look like that when I'm done writing -- so, why bother?  For me, it's not really worth it.  
LisaGraceBooks said:
There isn't just one way to outline, but many. Just because one form didn't work for you another might.
Why? Why fix something that isn't broke?

If there is anything that makes me shudder and want to run in the other direction it is those (horrible) character sheets and the whole "Snowflake Method". I am baffled at people who do this sort of thing without being threatened either with a gun or an 'F' in a class. :D
I admit to doing a wikipedia-type synopsis of where I think each book in a series will go, but even then afterwards, my finished project usually doesn't even resemble that summary.  It gives me a jumping off point or a direction to point in.  I'd say they're usually about a paragraph long.  About as long as a TV episode summary on wikipedia.  Sometimes halfway through the book I'll look at it again and either revise it to move forward more or dump it entirely and just run with the characters.  But always, the characters are in charge.  I try to force my ideas or situations on them and it never works out.  And they surprise me every day I write with the things they come up with, so that makes it more fun for me than the other way around.  I may have just admitted to hearing voices in my head.
Why? Why fix something that isn't broke?
Exactly. I am writing as we speak and have just recently (as of yesterday) met two delightful men that I never knew would be created. I enjoy writing from the seat of my pants. If I had to follow an outline I'd be bored. Different personalities. Now, since I have a series, I do write down one word reminders so I keep things I need to keep. i.e. "ring". I know what they mean, no one else would. And, since I write historical fiction, I do have to research what I start writing about, or I will sometimes stop and think, let's check out what was happening during this time, etc...but that's all, folks.
I never outlined when I was younger and I always had problems with writer's block. Once I started outlining I never got stuck and these days I don't end up writing myself into corners. Sometimes I write what is exactly in the outline and sometimes I add in extra plot threads and characters. either way, when there is a problem the outline is the map that keeps me from getting lost and frustrated with the story. I always outline when writing anything longer than 20,000 words. Life is a whole lot easier and productive now.
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