Actual Writing Advice: Outlining or No?

Before I get started, please come back tomorrow for a photo prompt by Julie Schober and Wednesday for a guest blog about query letters by Holly Jennings.

I thought I’d spoken about this in a previous blog, but going through even the old blog, I didn’t see any mention of outlines. So here goes.

I think everyone outlines, but not everyone does it in the traditional way. In the music world, there are composers like Stravinsky who have to sit at the piano and play a few measures then write it down. Play a few more measures and write it down. Then there are composers like Beethoven who hear it all in their head and write it down without ever checking what they’ve written on an instrument. There are also musicians who improvise a song on the spur of the moment with their instrument without ever writing a single note. What they all have in common is knowing the form, structure and rules of music before they even start. They have an outline in their head even if it’s not written down. No matter what style they are creating in, there is a form to go with it. If they’re writing a hymn, the chord sequence is firm and has little wiggle room. A jazz piece is looser with chord progressions, but there is a definite arc the piece needs to follow, and so on.

When writers sit down, we know roughly the structure our story needs to take, or we should. We need to have a hook and inciting incident in the beginning. We need to have the main character try and fail, try and fail several times. We need a climax followed by a denouement. Some writers jot down what each chapter is going to be about from the beginning of the novel to the end. After the layout of the novel is done, they go back and do an outline of each chapter, showing what characters are in it and what’s the main problem. Some people take it even further: they do spreadsheets that allow them to track how many times each character appears, they draw arcs for each plotline to see when they resolve and track the themes. They are able to use the outlines and spreadsheets to remove extraneous characters and motifs. I think of them as composers like Stravinsky.

My brain doesn’t sort in that manner. Some would call me a “panster” and say that I wing it. But I disagree. Being a panster or winging it implies that I have no idea of where I need to take the story and am hoping on dumb luck to get me to something good in the end. I prefer to think of myself as being more of a Beethoven kind of writer but with more deleting than he probably did: I see the story in my head before it hits the paper. I’d say about sixty percent of my writing is mental. I think about the arcs, the problems, the characters, all the things that people who outline think about and write down. I imagine scenes in my head and various outcomes. Where would the character go if this or that happened? Sometimes before I even write the first chapter, I have various scenes worked out in my mind throughout the novel. Some burn and burn in my head until I finally write it out. Others never even get on the page.

So why don’t I write down my outline? I used to. I’d get about a third of the way through the book with an outline and get bored. So I’d start the book and find that what appeared to be clearly cut and dry in the outline, was not what the characters should or would do at all. The story would be completely changed by the time I reached the third chapter and that lovely outline would be scrapped. It seemed when I outlined, I spent much more time concerned about tying everything up with a bow rather than character interactions.

Some people would say the time spent outlining was still valuable. They may be right. But to me it was a waste of time because I could not get to know the characters at all by saying they will do A, B and C and poof story done. My solution to the problem was to start imagining character backgrounds, but those quickly turned into full-fledged stories. I have a trilogy about a character named Gwen that I would love to finish, but I’m going to have to write several backstories for the world before I can even restart the first book in the trilogy again. And all those backstories are going to be novel length. I’d try to shorten it and just outline it, but I know the world would be richer if I know how all the other characters played out.

So maybe I’m not like Beethoven at all. Maybe I’m an over meticulous Stravinsky who fills out the outlines so much that they are fully realized stories. Honestly, I enjoy finding out what really happens to a character and what she thinks about. New events crop up that would’ve never occurred to me in an outline. The backstory of Gwen’s world is vastly different now from when the concept was conceived a decade ago. Many themes are still the same and the main idea of the world is the same, but the way the family has interacted with the rest of the world has had a bigger impact. And some characters who were supposed to play only a minor part, have taken the forefront.

I think people who outline have an edge on me because I think they see their stories more clearly and can save time by cutting out chapters in an outline before writing out the long chapter. But I love my process, and in the often grueling pursuit of being published, I find I hang onto the things that bring me the most enjoyment rather than precision.

6 thoughts on “Actual Writing Advice: Outlining or No?

  1. I’m a mental outliner as well, Melinda. The most I will do is write a general sketch (like a synopsis) of a story before I write it, so I don’t lose the idea, and the main events. That is kind of like an outline. However, I haven’t written much of any length. The story I am working on now is longer, so far, but was meant to be a short story, so the length happened by accident because the story evolved more than I thought it would. I think when I have a planned novel in mind I may outline or at least write more of a detailed synopsis. Thank you for the info on outlining.

    • I hope I said something useful :)

      I just started a story like you that I thought was going to be a short story. Now that I have a clearer picture of the main character and her struggle, I wonder if it’ll be longer. I know the fruit for this story wasn’t ripe enough when I started it, but the idea of it as been tugging at me for awhile now. I’ve also been wanting to write another cyborg story, so I decided to barge right in and hope for the best. This probably is more like winging it, but I do know where it will end.

  2. Shorter subjects I usually crank out without much preplanning. But when I am working on novel length projects, I outline heavily in usually three forms. I do a lot of prethinking on the story so I usually have the ending, beginning and a couple of chokepoints (usually in that order) before I start anything. I then do a general outline with a few sentences for each chapter to denote characters and action.

    The second step is optional, if I have lots of characters, I outline each character in a spreadsheet, noting their character arc events downward in a column. I then adjust the rows to build a timeline of events and character interactions to ensure I am not forgetting or overloading on a substory. This gets updated in the general outline. My current WIP is a single character narrative with a fixed historical outline, so that bit is taken care of for me.

    The third step is in flux for me right now. In the past I would do a heavy outline at this point, detailing all the action and important bits of conversation. I can almost consider these 0.5 drafts. As Melinda notes, this is subject to change as earlier chapters are fleshed out. This is sort of the problem I ran into on my last wip as I kept wanting to go back and fill in more earlier details to account for what I was outlining. I am not sure if this was an issue with my discipline, but I was afraid the cascade of changes that was building would derail the narrative, so I would stop and update the earlier material, and thus got into a bad cycle of back and forth…..So moving forward I am going to try a hybrid. I have four chapters of my current project highly outlined. I will finalize the first two chapters and then extend the outline a few chapters so i never get too far ahead of myself, but can plan some foreshadowing and small subplots. Over the next month or two I will see how it goes.

    • I hate to tell you this, but I do several rewrites of my beginnings. By the time I hit the end of a story, I’ve gone back to earlier spots several times to change them to fit a new reaction for the characters in a later part of the story. That was one of the reasons I had such a hard time finishing my most recent novel: I realized my pacing was too rushed and had to go back to about midway of the first half and make a major change. I kept telling myself I could save some of the chapters, but they all ended up being deleted–about 15000 words at least.

      I heard a story in a class about a writer who writes her first draft without going back ever. When she gets to the end, she deletes the whole thing and starts over. It sounds really painful to me, but I think that’s her way of outlining.

  3. Sorry I’m a little late coming in on this discussion.

    I am a complete and total pantser when it comes to writing. I get an idea and just roll with it. Sometimes I’ll jot down a note or two about a scene that needs to happen a certain way later on in the book just so I don’t forget. Besides that, I work without an outline. Most of the time, I have no idea where the story is going, but the characters always seem to lead me to their own conclusions. I tried planning before but felt the story didn’t unfold naturally. The characters kept straining against the pre-designed plotlines. So I eventually gave up and just let them do whatever they wanted.

    On occasion I’ll plan stuff, but only in my head. The fantasy book I’m working on right now I can see being a series. In fact, I can see four books in total. But I haven’t outlined besides the general themes and ideas for each book, which are all in my noggin. The benefit is I can figure out how long it’s going to take me to finish the book much easier than when I have no idea where the story is going. But again, I’ve left the outline in my mind pretty open so there’s lots of wiggle room for the characters.

    Funny enough, in everyday life, I’m the opposite. I always have a “to do” list and plan out the day first thing in the morning. I guess writing is just where I let my hair down, so to speak.

    I don’t think there’s any one right way when it comes to writing. It’s whatever works for you. For example, I need to have more than one story on the go at a time. It helps me combat writer’s block. I have a few writer friends who have to work nonstop on Project A and can’t switch to Project B until Project A is edited, proofed, and submitted. We each have a madness to our methods, though we all have methods and madness in common.