August 30, 2011

To Outline or Not to Outline: Is It Really a Question?

I'm finished. For days, weeks, months, I've been dreaming up this story in my head. And finally, the basics are down on paper. My story outline is finished. I can now begin writing the story itself.

Some people might argue that an outline is unnecessary, that when you want to write a story, you just put pen to paper and everything will flow from there. But I don't believe 'em. (I will concede there are those authors who abhor outlining and have still succeeded in writing a good story, but this approach doesn't seem to be recommended.)

Maybe I'm just a strange, super-organized freak of nature who loves detail and order, but I don't think so. After all, the academic writing process (which I just taught my students today, in fact!) includes good ol' outlining as a must-do. Why should a novel be any different? After all, if I want to have any idea about where I'm going with a story, the most efficient way to get there is to outline.

I will concede that a story can change from its original outline. I know that flexibility is a must; sometimes, it's actually better if Character A ends up with Character C instead of Character B, or if the team loses the game instead of winning. Developments and changes happen, but they happen for a reason.

In other words, you should write your outline and then tell yourself to have a good reason to change it. This will help you to analyze why you're writing like you are and why you're including the events you've chosen.

An outline is also helpful in keeping you focused. When you have an outline, you stay on track. You take your project more seriously. Especially if you are not yet being paid to write, and this is your attempt to get published, an outline helps you to reach that goal in a timely manner.

Regarding how detailed to be in an outline, that's really up to you. A friend of mine likes to put the bare minimum, summarizing the story in three lines/sections: beginning, middle, end. For me, more detail is always a good thing. It gets my juices flowing and helps me to write the end product more quickly.

Best-selling author Jeffery Deaver has some interesting thoughts on outlining (you can view a short 3-minute video about his outlining process here:, though he's a bit more extreme with the process than I've been! I thought my outline was long at 14 single-spaced pages...

Onward to story writing!

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