Starting Out · Writing

The Writer’s Road Map: Outlines

Today’s subject is outlines. While researching for this post, I have discovered that there’s a pretty fierce division among writers regarding whether or not you should use an outline while writing. Both sides insist that theirs is the best method. One side has even given themselves what they assume is a catchy name (although it kind of makes me cringe): “Pantsers,” as in write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. I know, it’s awful. Anyway, their stance is in direct opposition to Plotters or Planners, who rely on prep-work like outlines in order to begin their novel.

I’m here to tell you that they are both wrong. *crowd goes wild* *people start punching each other* *someone flips a table*

To start, let’s be clear about what a novel outline is. It’s basically a road map that helps the writer navigate the plot of the book before they begin writing, so that WHILE writing, they know where to go next. The samples I found online (Google “novel outline sample” and you can see for yourself) are VERY specific:

  • Chapter One
    • Introduce main characters, Fred and Wilma
      • scene in kitchen
        • they discuss UFOs
        • dinosaur dish washer breaks
  • Chapter Two
    • Fred and Wilma get abducted by a UFO while in their weird foot-pedal car thing
      • this is very mind-blowing, as they are cavemen

And etc.

To Plotters, having everything spelled out in such detail is a comfort when facing the blank page. They always know what is coming next. They’ve figured out the entire book and just need to write it. To a Pantser, an outline such as the above is stifling, because (as I’m sure you’ve figured out), Pantsing (ughhhh let’s just call it Discovery Writing from now on, okay?) is: sit down with story idea. Write. See what happens. Worry about everything else later. What is terrifying for the Plotter is freeing for the Discovery Writer (much better). They allow the story to develop organically, and get to experience some nice, unexpected plot points that may enrich the whole book.

There are cons for both, of course: the Plotter can become too rigid and refuse to embrace new plot ideas even when they are necessary. The Discovery Writer can oftentimes face writer’s block, and may end up with a steaming mess that makes very little sense and goes nowhere.

I’ve tried both methods. Both left me unable to finish my first novel. Rigid outlines sucked all the fun out of it, and Discovery Writing was too wishy-washy and left me with random scenes to try to piece together instead of a BOOK. However, through plenty of trial and error I have found a middle path that embraces Plotting while also allowing for the freedom of Discovery Writing. It’s called…Do Both Things, Sort Of.

I do plenty of prep-work before I sit down to write my Shitty First Draft. I read for research, I logic out my plot. And yes, I do a basic outline. BASIC. The difference between my outline and the outline about Fred and Wilma above is that my outlines look something like this:

  • Judy Jetson is a space-age girl with an obsession for older, simpler times.
  • Somehow she finds some sort of device that will allow her to travel back in time in her flying car (or maybe it’s an accident? Weather messing with controls?)
  • She ends up in caveman times. Crash lands and hits weird foot-pedal car thing.
  • Meets Fred and Wilma.

My outlines aren’t broken down into chapters or scenes. Instead, I use them to work out the major plot points: where do I begin, where do I end, and how do I get from here to there? I figure enough of the plot out that I feel comfortable starting the first draft. Then, when I begin writing, I can have fun and do the whole “discovery” thing, because as long as I know generally where I need to go (Major Plot Point A to Major Plot Point B), I can mess around and try a bunch of things and see what sticks. I can fix any problems and decide on which direction each scene needs to take when I revise.

Whether you’re a new writer who hasn’t decided which “camp” to belong to, or a writer who is dedicated to either Discovery Writing or Plotting and have just now realized that your chosen method isn’t working, try mine. If Plotting is like having a road map, and Discovery Writing is like going on a random drive to see where you end up, the patent-pending Do Both Things, Sort Of method is like looking at the map beforehand, finding more or less which road you’d like to take, and then seeing what interesting things pop up along the way (Giant Ball of Yarn! Creepy hitchhiker with a hook for a hand!). You have your road-map in case you get lost, but you don’t have to stick to it.





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