Mile 7: Outline?

To outline, or not to outline, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of an unplanned novel

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

By outlining them and so ending them

Forgive me, but that was fun to write.

Many, perhaps even most, writing experts (regardless of genre) will tell you the most critical part of any novel is the outline. They are absolutely correct.

Others, albeit a minority, will tell you that an outline is unnecessary, a constraint on creativity and the storyline, and it is better to march boldly into the unknown, chapter by unplanned chapter. They are also absolutely correct.

Whichever way you to decide to go, simply make sure it is absolutely correct for you. If an outline is not restrictive, but rather provides direction and guidance, a sense of form and comfort as you tackle your novel, and then allows you the freedom of exploring each predetermined chapter, that’s exactly what you should do.

If, instead, as I did with my first three novels — “Coyote Courage,” “Coyote Creek” and “Coyote Canyon” (I love alliteration, sometimes to a fault) — you prefer tackling each chapter as it comes and only discovering what comes next as you’re writing it, then that’s how you should approach your writing.

Perhaps you prefer to know what the final chapter will be before you begin and write your way toward it. I did this with one of my books (“Coyote Canyon”), and I found the experience exhilarating, though at times a bit restrictive.

Again, the key, as it always is when writing, is to find what works best for you. You may know the right method already, or you may need to experiment with a variety of approaches before determining which one best fits your style. Beware those who tell you there is only one to write a novel — they’re wrong.

As I said, my first three fiction Westerns were written without a net. Not only did I not have an outline, but I also did not know from chapter to chapter what was going to happen next. The process worked well, for me. And yet, with my most recent book, the fourth in the Brock Clemons series, “Battle on the Plateau,” I tried doing an outline. I wanted to test and compare the two starkly different styles and, so far, have found developing an outline to be both challenging and rewarding. It worked, at least for me, but only because I used it as a guideline and didn’t feel constrained to stick to it as it was originally written.

In the end, do what works for you, recognizing that it may change over time.

I wish you good writing, and if you have a question or something you’d like to share, send me an email at [email protected].

Thank you, enjoy and keep writing!


5 Comments on “Mile 7: Outline?

Phil Truman
July 17, 2018 at 8:26 am

Both ways have drawbacks for me. Outlining causes too much downtime, because I have to think and plan (two avoid-at-all-cost actions). Writing by the seat of my pants also has long periods of stoppage, because I’m like a Heckawee Indian, not sure where to go next. Also, I tend to dig a lot of rabbit holes.

Seems like the big guys outline (C. Johnson, Leonard, Box, L’Amour, etc.) so I tell myself I should, too. Still, I don’t. Somehow I’ve gotten the books written, but I think an outline maybe would’ve shortened the 1st draft time, and perhaps the editing costs. I tell myself these things, but like my grandsons, I don’t listen much.

Great post, Scott.

S. L. Matthews
July 17, 2018 at 8:38 am

Enjoyed the read. I admire those who work by outline…because I can’t. My characters tend to run roughshod over me when I attempt it. I find, myself, that by letting them reveal the story to me as each chapter unfolds, the words are richer than if I try to abide by a mapped outline. I do have the main 3-4 points in my head, including (usually) the ending. Those I abide by as much as possible, but an outline? Fly by the seat of my pants and let my characters take me on a journey. Many times it’s a love/hate relationship. Most times it’s a longer journey, no doubt, than following a set outline. I must double back and rewrite a lot, however it’s an adventure I wouldn’t trade in.

Ken Farmer
July 17, 2018 at 9:35 am

I am a dyed in the wool Pantser. As a trained former professional actor, I remember a quote from Michael Chekhov…Acting is constant improvisation. I’ve carried that idiom to my writing. I create my characters, give them a situation and then get the hell out of the way and let them tell the story. Just like L’Amour, many times I am surprised at how a story will turn out.

Kathy Otten
July 17, 2018 at 10:58 am

I think most pantsers, because they read so much to begin with, have an ingrained sense of story arc. They know something has to happen in the beginning to propel the characters into the story. They know subconsciously to build toward a climax and to make it hard along the way. The only problem is some pantsers wander around in the beginning until they find that thread which pushes them forward. And some have a tendency to wander off into other story lines.

A well thought out plot avoids that, and saves time in that there is less to cut, because everything has been well thought out and every scene belongs in the story. The only problem is they don’t wander around in the beginning getting to really know their character and they don’t wander off into other story lines, allowing the character to creatively guide the story.

I agree that every author has to be true to themselves. I’ve even heard of authors who write backwards from the end to the beginning. As long as you’re aware of the pros and cons of each, write the way you need to write the story.

Brent Towns
July 17, 2018 at 5:53 pm

I outline. Only because I can use it as a guide.
I’ll write out around 4 A4 pages of bullet points and then do them up into chapters before I start. Most of the time I divert away from it because another way is better. Sometimes I don’t need to. Just recently I wrote a 89,000 word Thriller. Everything changed after 20,000. From then on it was just suck it and see.
When I first started I used to break it down even further and do names, clothes, characteristics of face, build, etc. Even weapons.

Not so much now. Usually it is a few notes as I write them.


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