To Outline, or Not To Outline

Judging by the panels I’ve sat on at conventions this summer, it seems that a lot of authors have the question, “Should I outline my story, or just start writing?”


The short answer is that if you’re spending much time wondering this, you’re wasting time you could be using to actually work on your story. The bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter; you should do what works for you. And be flexible and ready and willing to change your style if you need to.


Now, undoubtedly this confusion comes from eager authors who want to sit down and write, but they’ve been told by creative writing teachers that they must outline their stories first. With all due respect to Wilda Walker, the high school teacher who inspired me to write – and who insisted on outlines before the first word of story was put to paper – that’s just plain nonsense. Some people just don’t work that way.


About 10 years ago I enrolled in a college-level class on writing the novel. It was taught by mystery author Carolyn Wheat, who introduced me to the term “free-pager.” An outliner, obviously, is someone who outlines his story before ever writing the first sentence. A free-pager is somebody who just sits down and writes.


At the time, I was pretty much a pure free-pager. That’s why the first draft of Shara was about 150,000 words long. The free-pager runs the risk of not seeing where his story actually begins, and/or of not really knowing his characters going into the story. Shara didn’t really begin until about page 100 of that first draft. I was using those 100 pages to get to know Shara and the other characters. Unfortunately, it was editors who had to point that out to me once I’d begun submitting the book to publishers.


For my graduate thesis I wrote a new novel. Jim Davis is a laid-back kinda guy, and another mystery author, but he insisted on an outline before he would look at any of my actual manuscript for Amara’s Prayer. I wrote the outline, but it was very sparse and I didn’t stick to it 100 percent. That was okay with him, though; the purpose of the outline was to show that I knew roughly where and how the book would end.


The problem I’ve found with detailed outlines is that I lose interest in actually writing the story. Why bother? I’ve already written what happens. I have a young adult mystery novel that I think would be pretty good, but I wrote a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline for it, then put it away. I know the book isn’t finished, but I can’t seem to get over the mental block of thinking it is done because I’ve already written an abbreviated version of the entire story.


What I’ve found works best for me is to develop a map of signposts. The book starts with Event A. Event B will happen next, but the exact details of how the characters will move from Event A to Event B usually aren’t clear to me. I simply sit down and write the story. Of course, this will only work if you really, really, really know your characters; their motives for moving from Event A to Event B have to be believable and consistent with who they are. These days, I do extensive character sketching so I don’t have to learn who my characters are in superfluous pages of the book.


A lot of times, as in the case of Ulrik, I’ll begin writing with my signposts, then come up with ideas for a chapter or two or three ahead of where I am, so I’ll scribble some notes about that. Outlining? Not really. But it works for me.


Will it work for you? Maybe. Maybe not. The important thing is that you quit worrying about it and simply do something. You think you should outline? Then do it. Free-paging sounds like the way to go? Then do that. Something in between? Fine. If you start outlining and find yourself itching to write the story, do it. If you start writing and feel like you’re lost because you don’t know where your characters are going, then stop writing and develop an outline.


I promise you that sitting around wondering whether you should outline or begin writing isn’t going to get the story on paper. Pick a method you think will work and get busy.

0 responses to “To Outline, or Not To Outline”

  1. Good advice. I work just the opposite though. I actually write a treatment of the story first, revision it so it has a solid story structure, and then write out a detailed story from the treatment. I find it helps me to keep the same voice throughout and work without having to ever stop and think to hard. I think there’s a writing method for almost every writer.

    • I think there’s a writing method for almost every writer.
      Exactly! Some people, though, seem to get so bogged down in “doing it right” that they never get anything done. The only “method” all writers have in common is that they write.
      Hey, it was good seeing you at FenCon. I can’t remember if I told you that already. I hope we meet up again sometime soon.

      • It was good seeing you as well. Sorry I didn’t take more time to talk. I was only able to go that Saturday and already had a lot going on. I’ll be at the next Conestoga. Hopefully we can meet up there and talk writing for a bit.

  2. Excellent post, sir!
    In the past, I was strictly a “free-pager,” but nowadays I find I can eliminate a lot of fluff before I ever get started simply by writing a rough outline.
    Thanks for the email, by the way, I plan to get back with you on that, but JEEZ! you really packed that thing with information. I’m still sorting through lots of it! Thanks for your help…

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