Wednesday, July 24, 2013

When you outgrow your outline

When writing - whether it be a short story or an epic novel or series - do you outline or not?

Do you surrender yourself to the creative process, letting your mind take you wherever it desires, even if you get lost? Or do you like to take at least a general road map - a picture of how to get from Point A to Point B (or Z)?

I think I'm somewhere in between. Maybe you are, too. When I began my urban fantasy work I started with what I considered a detailed outline: chapters numbered and labeled, with a short synopsis of what I hoped to accomplish in each one. I created a different character list and summary, adding backstory, motivations, problems and character solutions for each person in my story. Hell, I even named their horses.

But now that I'm entering double-digits in my writing (this is a big deal to me, considering how long it took me to get here!!), I find myself going far beyond the confines of my little outline. As I've written according to my own rules, other events and motivations have taken shape in this story - things I never imagined possible in the world I created. And I'm happy about that. To think of the adventures, complications, miscommunications, snark, humor, tension and other fun my readers would have missed out on had I simply stuck to the outline!

So, to outline or not to outline.

There seem to be two distinct groups on this issue, one on each side of the argument.

At Daily Writing Tips, this is made clear, along with the pros and cons of creating and adhering to an outline. Some of the highlights of the pro-outline argument:

  • you won't get lost 
  • writing with a sense of flow 
  • knowing if the story is good or not 
  • freedom to stray if a better way presents itself 

Now, some of the anti-outline arguments:

  • it spoils all the fun 
  • the story idea wasn't as good as you thought 
  • doesn't fit with your writing style 

I'm sure you can guess what I'm going to say here, and it's what everyone else says, too: there is no right and wrong in writing. It just IS. So if you like to plan ahead and feel secure in your outline, go for it. If you like for your process to be completely free of restraints and welcome the infinite possibilities associated with free-styling it, you should do that.

Or if you're like me, having a little structure to start might help you determine if your plot baby has legs, if it has enough of the right stuff to become a great story or novel, or if you're going to run into a word-block after chapter five. I think outlining is helpful for those things: conceptualizing your book and getting ideas on the page starts those creative juices working. So when you open your doc or page, you don't just stare at it, wondering if you should just do some laundry. For me, writing the outline energized me and excited me. I had a beginning, a middle and an end and I couldn't wait to get started.

But recognize it's okay to stray from the outline. I certainly have - and thank goodness. And if your inner control freak is yanking on her (or his) hair and munching on pencils, add to your outline, even if it's after the fact. I've done that, too. Even though it's cheating a bit.

They're my rules, after all, so it's okay if I break them.

Happy writing! 

Tell me what YOU do - outline or no outline?


  1. I outline like there is no tomorrow. Everything you said about back stories and the path I expect my story to go. Though I have learned not to be too detailed with it because characters have a way of doing things that weren't planned.

    I just know point A,B,C and D; what happens on the way there just sort of comes.

    1. Sabreena - I like your method - lose and go-with-the-flow. I think it's best to expect our characters will wander off, so that when it happens we don't get worried. They always find their way back! :)

  2. I outline on note cards. Then I sit on the floor and play with them till I get the order of events and emotional milestones just right.

    1. Notecards - I like it! It has a visual, tangible element that I sometimes lack with organizing my story. Great idea!