An Argument for Outlining

I am a firm believer in the importance of having an outline before you sit down to write. It doesn’t have to be detailed outline– it might only be a page or two.  You just need to know where you’re going and, to some degree, how you are going to get there…or what happened to author Sandra Scoppettone could happen to you:

In the course of writing today (yes, I did) I inadvertently
discovered that I have two different men involved with the same two
women who are trying to get the money everyone is after.  It has to be
one man or the other.  Pages and pages must be rewritten.  Whole
chapters.  Nightmare.

Did this happen because I took off so much
time?  Or am I losing it?  I understand forgetting the color of a
character’s eyes, but this is crazy.  And with one man I’m not sure I
even did the set-up with the women.  I think these three just happen.
The reason I don’t know this is because I couldn’t go on with this

Tomorrow I’m going to have to trace backwards and find out.  And then I’ll have to write new scenes, rewrite others completely.

"How Did This Happen?" is the headline of Sandra’s post. No offense to Sandra, but I can answer that question in two words: No outline.

That doesn’t mean that if you have an outline that the writing of your book is going to go smoothly. You could still find yourself having to go back and rewrite everything…but not because you’ve inadvertently duplicated a character. Outlines give you a path and a direction for your story, although that doesn’t mean you have follow it.

But at least the path is there.

I think of my outlines as "living outlines," since I’m constantly revising them as I write my books.  Why? Because I am always deviating from my outlines and going in new directions, so I have to replot my story to take into account these new events and discoveries.  I usually end up finishing the outline about a week or two before I finish my books.

I’ve read so many books that were clearly made up as the author went along…and I find them a lot less satisfying that a tightly plotted, tightly-written, confident narrative.

15 thoughts on “An Argument for Outlining”

  1. Yeah, but would she have found the same gems had she outlined? My problem with outlining, and I’m not a published author so feel free to ignore me completely, is that it compresses the creative process. When normally, you spend months crafting the progression to the end, you instead spend a few days doing it.
    Writing with just a faint notion of where the story ends (or none at all) allows you to discover twists and turns, character traits and hell, entire characters, that you otherwise would have left out.
    Now, that being said, I’ve outlined half of everything I’ve written. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t, but I think that espousing a pro-outline perspective to someone in the middle of a small creative crisis isn’t the proper response. Outlines work for some people, and don’t for others. Certainly there are situations in which outlines improve work, but there are also situations in which, people who are against outlines would argue, they actually hurt the work.
    My two cents.

  2. I storyboard, rather than outline, which is to say i write the highlights/intentions of every chapter on a 4×4 post-it and pin it on a corkboard. i do it for every chapter i imagine before starting work, and as i work and new ideas come, i simply add more post-it. You can color code post-it for a particular characters point of view, or scenes of sex and violence. The great part of storyboarding is that you can take in the whole novel in one visual sweet. and it’s fun to move the post-its around. i think of it as playtime with my life.

  3. Sandra running into creative trouble…and Lee recommending an outline as a solution…is nothing new on this blog. Lee also clearly respects Sandra and she respects him, so no harm done. Every time this issue comes up here I learn something valuable about writing (like Robert Ferrigno’s comment).

  4. I like having only a vague idea of where I’m going. I tend to find that if I know too clearly what’s going to happen, it becomes grinding and dull; all the best scenes I’ve ever written were made up on the spur of the moment. It helps to regularly re-read what you’ve already done, though.

  5. If I don’t have an outline, I can’t write. Period. I write nonfiction, so perhaps the question about uncovering gems doesn’t apply there. I didn’t outline for several years, but I learned to depend on it after having to restructure manuscript after manuscript when I was done which I hated with the heat of a 1,000 suns. Thus I now outline–I know the topic sentence of every single paragraph I am going to write before I start.

  6. I never know where my stories are going. I create characters with distinctive traits, put them into an initial dilemma, and let them duke it out. My characters go on strike if I try to tell them what to do. I am constantly amazed by their choices and I like the spontaneity that outlines tend to stifle.
    I’m not sure that my technique would work with mysteries, where the crime and the circumstances around it and the detective’s investigation of it require a much tighter control of the story.
    But each to his own here. I get paralyzed if I try to write from an outline or synopsis; other writers are blocked if they don’t know exactly where the story is going. On this subject we need to listen to our own muse.

  7. My outlines are finished about two weeks before the book is done, same as Lee, but I don’t think we work the same. I leapfrog through a manuscript: Plot, write; plot, write; plot, write. Add caffeine. Repeat.
    I may have a feeling for the ending, but the specifics don’t become clear until at least 2/3 through.

  8. I think mysteries and thrillers probably lend themselves to outlines more than some other genres. I find that my outline (and I always have one) starts out brief and loose and gets longer and tighter as I write. I also update the outline as I write so if I need to go back and change something, I know exactly where to go. And, yes, my outline is usually complete just shortly before the actual manuscript.

  9. Oh boy, here we go again…
    I think this partly depends on where you are in your career. Like me, you probably got your first contract based on a full manscript that you spent years perfecting so you didn’t have to outline. But once you’re in the publishing loop, chances are your publisher is going to demand an outline before they hand you any more money Unless you have a track record of success, your publisher doesn’t know if you can actually produce the book you claim you will, so essentially they are placing a bet that you can. Many want to see an outline as insurance. So I usually advise those just starting out to get used to doing outlines.
    That said, I know a lot of experienced writers who “outline” very loosely just to go to contract and they have an unspoken agreement with their editors that the book that is turned in might bear little resemblance. But you have to earn this position of trust, I think.
    I used to outline because it was in my contracts. After eight books, my editor trusts me to hand in a detailed “concept” and we go from there.
    But I’m like Robert Ferrigno: My sister and I used color-coded Post-It notes on which we write key scenes. Yellow is plot from protag’s POV, other colors are used if we switch POVs. We use purple Post-Its for backstory that isn’t on page but we need to keep track of in our heads. We sometimes add other colors to differentiate between what we call “action” chapters and “personal” chapters, so we can tell at a glance if things are pacing out well.
    The Post-Its work great because you can move the sequence of scenes around as needed.
    I can tell ya, I have read some crime books lately that could have damn well used an outline. That said, outlining can be death for some writers. There are many paths to the truth, grasshopper.

  10. What? Outlining “compresses the creative process?” Outlining is ITSELF a creative process. Because you’re not just outlining plot. You’re outlining characters. Motivations. Dreams. Goals. You have to make all the same creative decisions. You just work from the structure and build out from there, rather than building haphazardly, never knowing where you’re going.
    Having written long pieces both ways, I can tell you with absolute certainty the pieces I outlined first are far better than the ones where I just threw myself in and started writing. That goes for both fiction and non-fiction.
    Outline, outline, outline. You’ll never regret it. And I enjoyed it. I’m never going back. I’m done experimenting with trying to get around it. I’m now outlining a work I’ve already written because I know I need to rework it, and don’t want to make the same mistake I did when I started. Outline. 😉

  11. When I write whodunits (doesn’t that make me sound like I’ve actually published something?), I always use an outline consisting of the characters (descriptions/motives), the key clue(s), and other general ideas (e.g. plot twists) that I’ve been wanting to put on paper. The outline allows me to use red herrings, clues and foreshadowing so that the reader can solve the mystery in traditional Ellery Queen style.
    When I am writing a suspenseful story, I usually outline the characters, setting, plot ideas and ending. This is because the stories are more focused on building suspense through character development than anything else, and I want those characters to have some freedom of movement. Rex Stout was a firm believer than the characters tell the story by themselves, and the author is simply there to transcribe everything.
    It’s interesting to read some of the other feedback on the subject. I guess there is always a method to our madness!

  12. Hi PJ,
    Conversely to what you said, my publisher accepted an outline where the first half was outlined quite roughly, and then I simply stopped and declared I wouldn’t know what happened next until I got there. They were fine with that. They might be unusually nice, of course…
    Hi Lisa. I think there’s more than one kind of creative process. I never outline characters in the way you describe; they wouldn’t come to life in my head if I did, they’d just be statistics. With me, if I can write them so they come to life in one scene, I can keep using them indefinitely because I’ve seen them in action. Sounds like you prefer being more organised…

  13. How Did This Happen? was meant to be ironic because, in a way, I thought it was funny. I obviously didn’t make that clear.
    This is what I wrote on Fungible Convictions where it was said that I conflated the lives of characters:
    “What I did was to put two men with the same two women to do the same thing. When I went back to see how to fix it it turned out to be quite simple. I put one of the men with some other people. Not a big deal. So I had to rewrite. Rewriting is not a problem for me. I actually thought what I’d done was more to do with memory than anything else. And I guess I didn’t make it clear that I basically thought it was funny. If you don’t know my sense of humor how could you know?
    I don’t outline. I’d rather be dead. If I’d outlined this I don’t think the situation would’ve happened but I don’t think anything would’ve happened.”
    I’ve published 19 books without outlining. No matter how many books I write I’ll never outline because for me it takes all the fun out of writing. But as others have said, whatever works for you is what you should do.


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