8 Reasons to Outline

A lot of writers seem convinced of a ton of myths about writing, something I assume experience would teach otherwise, but hey, its a funny ol’ world.

One of those myths is that the writer has no need for outlining. Various influential writers don’t outline, and some are really vocal about sneering down at the process. Stephen King attacks outlining in his book on writing, On Writing, for instance. That’s great for him, but his endings almost always come out of nowhere and character threads are routinely developed at length only to fizzle out or get lost in the weeds somewhere. The reason for this is that he didn’t know where he was going until he got there.

So here they are, in no particular order, ten reasons to outline.

1. It’s not just about the journey. Some people like to wander aimlessly around. This only works in real life. Because books are shorter than real life, they operate on the principle of important detail. The reader assumes the author is giving them relevant detail, not the ramblings of your crazy Uncle Howie with dementia. Unless the detail comes into play later in the story somehow, they’re not important. Cut them. The same is true for characters. If you spend a large amount of time developing a character, that character and his/her knowledge better come back into play somehow. Nobody wants to invest time and emotion into a character you suddenly realize on page 250 is a purposeless extra whose destiny was nothing more than to become another no-name victim of the rampaging vampire (I’m looking at you, Salem’s Lot).

2. It helps you figure out what you’re saying. I’m assuming we’ve all had to deal with that ancient rite of passage, assembling store-bought furniture. You buy the thing and haul it’s 900 pounds inside, open the box and discover instructions written in what appears to be a foreign language, like engineer or Klingon. You venture out into the great unknown, piling parts and staring listlessly at the instructions as if by your very will alone you will force them to reveal their secrets and start making sense. (Or at the very least, change miraculously from gobbledygook to English). This process is hard enough when you’re following the instructions. That’s writing with an outline. Imagine trying to do the same thing, only without an outline. Imagine you turn up your lip at the idea of instructions in favor of figuring it out yourself. When your bookcase ends up looking like a contraption for hoisting alien spawn out of the incubator from moon-base 57, you will not look back on the last six hours as time well spent. Outlining will help you figure out what you’re trying to say and save you those 59,000 words you wasted going in the wrong direction.

3. Outlining isn’t scary. It just seems like it. Most writers freeze in terror at the word “outline.” This is in large part due to the vile treatment which outlines receive in English classes. Everyone’s been abused by this product of Satan, with its Roman numerals and upper and lower case letters. Nobody’s asking you to do that. It can be as simple as a paragraph for each chapter, or as lengthy as a detailed summary of each scene, character point, and event. It all depends on what works for you. What doesn’t work is rambling. Claiming “I’ll just figure it out as I go” doesn’t respect you as a writer, your time, or anybody else. Are you in this thing to feel literary and swoon at the sweet caress of the Muse, pining and lamenting (and drinking and getting syphilis) at Her fickle departure, or is it to Write Some Books? Do you just want to feel real writerly, or actually write some prose?

4. Outlining won’t ruin your creativity. Seriously, it won’t. Nor will it sneak up behind you and elbow Inspiration hard in the ribs. A lot of writers fear an outline will kill their interest in the project (“I feel like I’ve already written it”) or cage them in some way, limiting the horizons of the work. Neither is true. This is why you keep your outline a summary, not draft one. You’re not writing the book here, you’re just laying down a rough sketch of the terrain. I’ve written four novels so far. Every single one of them I had some sort of outline for. Trust me, things will occur to you in the process of writing the draft. There is creativity all through the process of writing a book. A new character or scene or bit of detail will suggest itself. Except where without an outline you might just write it out of impulsivity and go nine miles in the wrong direction, now you have something to gauge the helpfulness of the idea against. It might be off-theme, or take you too far afield from  your purpose. Or it could be a great idea. Having an outline increases the odds that your idea will fit, and typically, they will enhance the whole story. I’ve written novels where whole characters decided they needed to push in. And including them was the most beneficial thing for the story I could have done. Yay brain and the human subconscious.

5. Everybody outlines. Really, I’m not kidding. Do you want to write TV shows or movies? Video games or Broadway plays? Guess what, usually you have to write a pitch or treatment first. This is known as “breaking” the story. You break it down to its parts so you can strip out the nonsense and streamline the narrative. If you want an agent or publisher to acquire your book or story? They’re going to want a synopsis or query letter, which is basically the same thing. If you’re submitting a story electronically, you’re still going to have to summarize your book on the e-form submission. The only people who don’t have to ever worry about writing an outline are those who self-publish. And you know what, it shows. There are some very good things being self-published these days, but that doesn’t change the fact that at least 90% of it is utter trash. So if you’re self-publishing (like me), outlining and being as professional as possible is more likely to set you apart from the pack.

6. You forget stuff. Let’s say you hate outlining. You’re working on a novel, and you’ve refused to do any preparatory work. Let’s further say that for some reason the Fates have seen fit to reward this self-destructive behavior with blessings and sweet-meats. The stars have aligned, you sacrificed all those goats to the great Muse Queen of the Netherworld (which totally paid off), and your brain is a whirlwind of ideas. You know where you’re going with the story, and everything is clicking. But then you hit a wall, and stop writing for a week or two. Now you come back fresh, but then you realize that all those brilliant things you were planning to do never got written down, and now they’ve evaporated from your head like a big . . . evaporate-y thing. You re-read it, but the hints and story threads you were laying down now seem strange and cold, confusing and distant. Tough luck, buckeroo. It’s impossible to hold every last thread and arc in your head when dealing with long fiction on the best of days. But when you outline, you can read through it again when you pick back up and go, “Oh, that’s where I was going and why that needs to be there,” or think, “That’s why the howler monkey starts chewing on that dude’s face.”

7. Because the pay-off is more important than the set up. The pay-off is the resolution of a previous story thread or character arc at the end of a narrative. Go watch Batman Begins. There’s about eight or nine of them, one after another. Pay-offs always poll high in the telemarketer survey of readers. It gives them a sense of completion, that they trusted  you for good reason and you were going somewhere with the story. You weren’t just an endless regress of teases without any real resolution (like Lost). The reader wants to know that you have a plan. They don’t want to know what the plan is until the end, but they want to know you have one. Saying you have one when you don’t (like Battlestar Galactica or Lost) is a sure-fire way to get bricks thrown through your front window. Everybody on the street will let their dogs do their business on your front lawn. And you will deserve it. Sure, sometimes payoffs will come without outlining, but by the time they do, you might have two-thirds of a draft of a novel only to realize it needs a massive overhaul to get them to work properly.

8. Writing isn’t a mystical experience. It’s just work, a different kind of work. Only you’re not in a cubicle and every work day is pants-optional. So many writers kill their own productivity by convincing themselves of downright silly things. I have to wait on the Muse or inspiration to write. I can’t plan things out, because Art Is Ethereal And Artsy and Le-Sigh. *swoon* Nope, it’s just work. Inspiration is usually the boost that gets you started, but only stapling your designer jeans and/or pajama bottoms to the chair and writing every day will you finish something. Your Muse waits on you, you don’t wait on it. If you train your Muse to only show up when she feels like it, you’ll never get things done. If, however, you stand outside her door banging on pots and pans, yelling at the top of your lungs until she drags herself down and starts to work, she’ll start turning up more regularly.

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