Outlining: Straight-jacket or Lifeline?

One of the arguments I had with my father when I was in grade-school was over the necessity of outlining when writing. He was for it, I didn’t see the need. By college I had a better understanding of the importance of having a clear organization for essays. However, what I tended to do was sketch out a very short outline, then write a quick rough draft–getting all my ideas down, then I would go back and write a new outline (now that I knew what I really wanted to say), and finally I cut and pasted the material into the right sections of this new outline.

By the time I was working on my doctorate, I had become committed to outlining, and my first outlines became more and more detailed. The work I was doing was simply too complicated–particularly once I was writing my dissertation–to wing it. This was long enough ago to be pre-desktop computer, which meant any changes required retyping the whole document, so it paid to be organized from the get go. I spent the next thirty or so years teaching, where I had the same conversations with my students that I had had with my father about the virtues of the outline-only now I was the one for it.

Needless to say, when I sat down to write the draft of my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, I outlined the plot. I literally outlined the whole story, chapter by chapter, listing under each chapter the scenes, characters involved, and the information that needed to be conveyed (clues, motivations, red-herrings, etc.) I remember being very puzzled by several members of my writing critique group, who were also writing mysteries at the time, who did not do outlines. In fact, they weren’t even sure who the murderer was, if there were going to be more than one murder, or how the murderer was going to be discovered. This seemed terribly disorganized, necessitating a good deal of rewriting once the plot elements were finally determined.

However, now that I look back at the path that first draft took before it ended up in the version that I published (with it’s new plot twists, new characters, new scenes, and deleted scenes), I am not sure I didn’t end up doing as much rewriting as the non-outliners did.

So now I have started writing Uneasy Spirits, the sequel to my first mystery, and I am confronted with the question, is an outline necessary? Can it become an obstacle to creativity or does it ensure a well-paced plot?

On the anti-outline side of the argument, having an outline can cause tunnel vision. In Maids of Misfortune, I originally had my protagonist, Annie Fuller, go undercover as a maid in the murdered man’s house about half-way through the book. My outline said I had to have all sorts of establishing scenes between Annie and the second protagonist, Nate Dawson, before she could disappear into her role as a servant. It took a number of beta readers to point out to me that this made the plot way too slow, and that I could actually rearrange my outline!

Another anti-outline argument I have heard numerous times (from non-outliner writers) is that once the whole story is plotted out in an outline, they lose interest in telling it. They get bored. They know “who done it,” so they don’t have the motivation to spend the months it will take to flesh out the story. For them, one of the prime motivations in writing is to “see what comes next,” something they feel they have lost when they have the whole novel plotted out. I confess that since I have lectured on the American Civil War about 10 times a year for 30 years (300 times!), always knowing “how it turned out,” but always trying to find new and better ways to describe what happened and why it happened, this argument has never held much weight.

Yet in favor of the anti-outlining argument, I do think that outlines have caused me to overwrite. I spent a good deal of time cutting in the last revision I did before publishing Maids of Misfortune, and a lot of it was because I had been so busy writing scenes in order to introduce the “clues” I had seeded throughout the plot outline that I lost touch with how to keep up the pacing.

On the other hand, having an outline ensures that the main plot points don’t get lost when there is a long time between the conception of the book and its actual completion. For example, I came up with the plot for Uneasy Spirits years ago (when I became discouraged by my inability to sell the first manuscript, and I thought I should move on, hoping editors might be more impressed if I had two books in hand.) I spent several weeks doing some background research for the book, developed character sketches for the main characters (victims, murderer, red herrings), and finally outlined the plot. Then I put this work away (summer was over and I was back to full time teaching).  Fast forward more than five years and the stuff that life throws at you, and I was finally ready to start on this manuscript. Without that typed outline and character sketches I would have been at square one.

A second pro-outline argument is that it helps you develop the story arc. One of the most difficult tasks for the college students I teach is to develop a thesis for their essays. They know what a topic is, and can write about a topic, but they have trouble developing an opinion about that topic. They write, “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” But they can’t tell you why something happened, or why it was important. The books that I enjoy the most–even within the narrow confines of genre writing–are the ones that tell the story about how events changed characters-for better or worse. Writing an outline that not only introduces clues and red herrings throughout the story, but also includes scenes designed to change the main characters by challenging their beliefs and patterns of behavior, ensures that my stories will have that arc (or thesis) and that it is organic to the story itself, not grafted on after the fact.

For a final pro-outline argument, it can guard against writer’s block. I read about writers block, how people stare at a blank page for hours, days, weeks, and this just has never happened to me. While I can procrastinate with the best of them, once I sit down to write, I have always had that outline in front of me, and I have always been able to write something. I know what the next scene is supposed to be about, who is in the room, what they are supposed to be talking about, and this makes it easy to start writing.

This doesn’t always mean the scene comes out the way I planned it. As most writers will tell you, writing can be a magical experience where the characters have a decided mind of their own. For example, according to my outline for Uneasy Spirits, the first chapter was supposed to be set in Annie Fuller’s boarding house (Annie is my protagonist), and it was supposed to be a scene between Annie and Miss Pinehurst (who somehow mutated from a Miss Pringle in the outline). Instead as I sat down to write, while it was set in the boarding house, a completely new character, Mrs. Crenshaw, started talking to Annie. Instead Annie and Miss Pinehurst had their meeting in the next chapter, but in a cemetery rather than in the boardinghouse. So, whether I follow my outline, or rebel against it, I seem to have something to write–hence–no writer’s block.

I guess my conclusion is that I will continue to use outlines for my novels, but try to remain flexible, so that they will carry me along, not hem me in.  But I would love to hear from all of you.

Do you outline your plot before writing, or do you just wing it? And what are your reasons for outlining or not.

2 Replies to “Outlining: Straight-jacket or Lifeline?”

  1. One of my close friends just decided he wanted to write a novel. He’s been doing short stories, and wings it on those. I wing short stories too, because there isn’t a reason to really get into drawn out plotting behind the scenes.

    But now that he’s making a novel, I’m encouraging him to outline. He’s learning, and was almost intimidated by mine…until I showed him someone who does a straitjacket style outline.

    I’m somewhere in the middle. On a scale of 1 – 10, 1 being the loosest haphazard outline, 10 being a book in and of itself, I guessed I was somewhere in a 4 or 5.

    My outlines are really just guidelines. I just jot down a few notes about what I want to happen in the scene, without dictating it. Sometimes it’s a couple lines, sometimes it’s several paragraphs.

    I change it as I go, because sometimes I realize a scene just doesn’t work as well when I’m actually fleshing it out. Or when I’m working with a detail, I’ll realize it doesn’t make as much sense, and I’ll change it, which changes the rest.

    Outlines are just to keep me on track. They certainly help with the writer’s block. If I’m getting stuck, I can just skim over the current chapter, and move on to the next.

    Count me as pro-outline

  2. I didn’t used to use an outline for anything, but recently became very pro-outline. I had a short story I had started a couple years ago that I wanted to finish for Halloween, but I couldn’t remember how I wanted it to end. Now I plan to keep more detailed outlines for all my writing.

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