Outline or not to outline has been a preverbal dilemma for ages. Well, perhaps not for ages, but for a very long time. Even experienced writers have their preferences; some swear by it. It is said that John Irving, takes at least a year to outline his novels before he even starts to write the story. Kimberla Lawson-Roby outlines but only after she is well into the writing. Stephen King wings it—the story’s vision in his head. He believes outlining makes the story feel artificial. Although it is indeed a personal preference, I will attempt to explain the pros and cons of both.
Outlining obviously allows you to organize your thoughts. You can plainly see where you are going. If the plot is veering off a cliff, you’d at least like to know early on. Half way through the novel you don’t have to wonder if John died of Parkinson’s or cancer; if you thoroughly organize you will know. Organizing allows you to see the progression of the story. Depending on how detailed the outline is you can see if your progression is at an even pace. Is it moving too fast? Is it completely stagnant for three or four chapters? Often in our head we get caught up in the writing. We like the sound of our thoughts, the elegant, lofty word choices. In our mind it all sounds so nice. But with an outline you can see if every one of those 20 scenes in one chapter is actually moving the story along. Remember, when writing, every word should be purposeful, deliberate and not just a way to flex our literary muscles. Save that for your personal journal.
With my second novel, Thursday’s Child, which I am currently editing, I purchased banner paper, hung it on a wall and outlined the entire book that way. It allowed me to see different scenes and jump from chapter to chapter in a glance. Many times I looked at one scene and literally switch it with another to make the story move a little more smoothly. It was easier to see what did and didn’t work and the places where conflict was building or where scenes were falling flat.
The outline itself is work, which, I believe is one of the reasons that many authors shy away from creating one. It takes planning and thought, brainstorming and correction. But to have a tangible plan takes at least that aspect out of the work beforehand and lets you concentrate on writing the story, delving into the creative part of the process which is what most of us enjoy the most anyway. An outline is like having a map for your trip so that you can see the route you are taking and make adjustments before you write it out. It can definitely save on the rewriting.
When I wrote my first novel I did not outline—initially. I allowed the winds of inspiration to take me where they willed. After the first draft, I pulled out index cards and commence to doing a chapter by chapter outline, because the story was getting away from me. This is especially helpful if you have several sub-plots.
Winging it. There’s an entire patch of purist who would not dream of tampering with inspiration by confining their masterpiece to an outline. The vision for the work is in their head. And I get it. There is a certain rush you get from simply going at it, allowing the characters and story to take on a life of their own. Not know if Weston should die or be kept alive, allowing the story to dictate his outcome. Writers who attempt this should do so because they feel that their writing would seem less authentic if confined to an outline and not because they’re too lazy to take the time to create a plan.
Writing without an outline takes extreme focus and drive because when you get to those moments where you run out of story and are saying, now what you have to push past it until you know what.
Whatever your preference you don’t have to be totally committed to doing it one way. An outline doesn’t have to be scene by scene or even chapter by chapter. It can be a simple, lose guide that gives you broad direction and room to create. And you can always outline all or just some of it. Remember; you can switch up, even if you are half way through your writing. I won’t tell if you won’t.