OUTLINING (Why the Hate?)
When I mention (either in person, or on the blog) that I outline, people react violently as if it is wrong to want/need to plan out a story. There’s almost an elitist attitude toward creative writing without a plan, as if it is some badge of honor or mark of genius to just sit down and start writing and hope that the story will come to you as you write. However, I think a lot of this anxiety over the outline comes from the image above. Outlining, as you can see from an outline that I found online, requires much forethought and planning. Inside this particular outline, you have topics, subtopics, and even nested subtopics. If you look at this outline, however, you could write this paper. The thesis (main idea of the paper is clearly listed and each topic relates back to this one idea. You would only need to go and research those individual topics to craft a paragraph (or chapter) on each of those subjects, right?
Boring! This is what makes academic papers so hated by so many students because they don’t see the need for this highly stylized way of writing. They don’t understand the conventions behind the academic essay nor do they see the need for creating an outline that helps you to write in this formal way. They hate it and, by extension, they dislike the process of outline. This is too much trouble. Why in the world would anyone put themselves through this willingly?
The reason is simple: It gives a concrete roadmap as to where the paper is going. You, or I, with enough research could write this paper. We know what we need and we know where to put it. Now that the outline is done, we simply just need to find out what we don’t know about the subject (the research) and then start drafting it.
CREATIVE WRITING 101
So, do you need to outline like this for a story? No, of course not–an outline can be as simple (or complex) as you need it to be for your own purposes. For me, I use a slightly modified version of this outline:
This has the bare minimum that I need to tell my story. I need to know the setting (where and when the story is taking place), the major characters and any minor characters that I’ve thought up. I need to know what the main character’s problem is and why it is so important to them. I need to know the three main scenes that happen in the story (beginning, middle, and end)–I used to use five scenes and I would structure it like a Shakespearian play, but I discovered that it was making my stories too long for many markets and it wasn’t really adding a whole lot to the story–that’s why I’ve gone back to just the essentials. I also need to know the outcome of the story (how does it end). I’ve also added one thing: the Theme (why does this story matter, or what am I trying to impart to the reader). Now, I’m not trying to give a moral to the story, but I do want to have the character discover some “truth” about themselves, life, or others at the conclusion of a story and knowing what a possible theme could be at the beginning helps me to do this. Outlines don’t inhibit creativity; rather, they provide a sense of knowing one’s destination and the steps needed to get there.
AN IMAGINARY TRIP TO FLORIDA
So, right now, I could go jump in my car and go to Florida. I know that Florida is south and east of me and I know which direction southeast is from where I sit as I’m typing these letters. I would only need to get on the highway, keep going in a southeasterly direction, and eventually I would make it to Florida.
But in real life that’s not what I would do, nor most of us, if we’re truthful. We would open up Google Maps or Apple Map or some other mapping application on our phones (or other navigational aid, or, if you’re old school, a physical map) and we’d plan out our trip and use the app or navigational aid to help us navigate the highway system.
So, how is this any different from outlining a story? To quote Yoda: “No, no different, only different in your mind.” Just like I could get to Florida by heading in a general southeasterly direction, I could write a story by just jumping in without outlining, but there would be so many wrong turns, dead-ends, and general confusion, that I wouldn’t be having any fun and I would most likely abandon the project before I finished (or to continue the metaphor, turned around and went back home in frustration).
SAVING THE STORY, ONE OUTLINE (STORY MAP) AT A TIME
Now I’m a great proponent in finding the process that works for you as an individual. No two writers are going to write in the same way, using the exact same process. I’m also a great proponent for the idea of “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” If what works for you is to jump write in without an outline, and you’re a successful writer (aka making a living at it), then don’t try to change it.
However, I’m also a proponent of tinkering and adjusting something that’s broken until I get it to work (longtime readers of the blog know of my almost year long quest to find the solution to my wi-fi issues back in 2014-2015–read the posts from that year for more info). If you find yourself not as successful as you’d like to be as a writer, or you are abandoning story after story, or that you can’t your stories to match the vision in your head (like what was happening to me about a year ago when I wrote the original blog entry “The Outline’s the Thing (to Catch a Story)”), outlining should be a technique that you should at least try in order to see if it might work for you. My process was broken because I need to outline. Just jumping in only results in frustration for me.
In conclusion, writing is such an individual process that the only way to know what works for you is to try it. The advice to just dive right in and not to worry about outlines, while well meaning, isn’t really helpful or useful advice unless that’s what works for you. If it doesn’t, it’s like telling a drowning man, “hey, just suck it up and keep struggling, you might just learn how to swim eventually,” whereas the process of outlining could be the “life-preserver” that the drowning man can use to keep himself afloat.
P.S. In case you think I’m the only one who thinks this way, I’d encourage you to take a moment to enjoy some of these quotes by other writers who “think” the same way I do:
I force myself to outline, but not too closely, so I guess I plot by the seat of my pants? My natural instinct is to dive right in, but I know I’ll get stuck. I like to stick with the architect vs. gardener metaphor. I guess I’m a gardener who plants tomatoes. I have the sticks in the ground and let the vines grow along those parameters.
I am a big outliner. For my adult book, ‘The Visibles,’ I did not outline, and it took me two years to write because I just didn’t outline, and I had no path.
I am a writer who works from an outline. What I generally do when I build an outline is I find focal, important scenes, and I build them in my head and I don’t write them yet, but I build towards them.
–Brandon Sanderson (one of my personal favorite authors at the moment)
If you take a few days to write an outline, you’re just making up scenes that you think will work, that you think will be interesting. But as you write it, other ideas occur – better ideas that have to do with what you’re writing.
I have a number of writers I work with regularly. I write an outline for a book. The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish.
and probably the most telling of all:
I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.
–J. K. Rowling