Outlines—I used to think: “take ‘em or leave ‘em.” Maybe some people need them, but I’ve got a good handle on my story, so I’ll be fine. Maybe I’ll outline the next time. And then I hit the ‘muddles’, either in the middle of drafting or during revisions. It’s a state between bemusement and sheer panic and consists of various quandaries: What am I doing? Where am I going? What have I done? How did I get here? How will I get there? Does any of this matter? What is the point? Help!
Writing a novel can be hard work. Some days I just don’t want to do it. Some days I wish I were staring at a blank page because it would be better than this tangled mess in front of me that I can’t figure out how to fix.
At times like this I’m glad I have an outline. Even a loose one. An outline can’t save a writer from the work of ‘in the trenches’ craft, but it can be a bit of a lifeline when the ‘muddles’ set in.
Won’t an outline limit me?
Once I’ve jumped into drafting, the wildness of the creative process can take over. Rather than my plan to harvest rows of neatly planted seeds I usually find myself dealing with rampant weeds—the weeds of creative inspiration, mind you, but unnecessary overgrowth nonetheless. These on-the-fly ideas often lend the color, depth, and surprise that make the story rise above a formula, but it can also leave me with a messy jumble.
So I return to my hastily sketched outline.
Like a road map guiding me from one destination to another, an outline helps me stay the course when I’m tempted to veer off (or when I already have).
Is an outline set in stone?
No. Is it worth its weight in gold? Yes, if you are intent on completing a project. Is it necessary? Not at all, but it will get you where you’re going with less fear and trepidation (and possibly fewer weeds to pull).
As you waver on the path of process, an outline is there to remind you of your initial intentions and potential for success. It can keep you ‘on track’ when the vagaries of the creative process tempt you to veer off into the netherworlds of an overly enthusiastic or anxiety-provoked imagination. It is a holding pen for the ideas that will fit in your story as well as a barrier to keep out what doesn’t (because so many new things will vie for a place in your story once you’re really on a roll and you will have to ruthlessly interview each candidate before letting them through the gate).
An outline is a map of where you intend to go. If you hit a roadblock on the way and must find a detour, you’ll adapt. If you choose to take in a scenic byway instead of sticking to the interstate, you are free to make changes. With a map in hand, even if you blow a tire and are waylaid in a small tumbleweed town for a few days, you won’t need to fret, because you are still on your way.
Will I miss out on something by sticking to an outline?
No one can predict the traffic or the weather on a cross the country road trip. You can’t foresee that awesome deli in Chicago or the old drive-in you stumble across in Wyoming. An outline isn’t a guarantee against pitfalls nor is it a block to unexpected opportunities.
At heart, an outline captures your creative intention to complete a particular project and becomes a ‘map’ to keep yourself oriented to your intended path. It is the beginning of giving form to your initially formless idea.
How intently you stick to your outline is up to you. And the level of detail in your outline is also up to you.
How do I create an outline that works for me?
The simplest map you can give yourself might be to say, “I’m writing a novel.” But what if you were to add either “this year” or “this month” to that sentence? Already you’ve created a bit more structure for yourself. “I’m writing a novel this year.” These words set up anticipation and expectation. For fun, let’s throw in a stock character: “I’m writing an novel this year about…an elderly man.” We’re drawn in by even just a little more detail. “An elderly man who loses everything and has to rebuild his life and finds love along the way.” It’s till very vague but beginning to take shape. You can feel some momentum start to build. Questions arise: What does he lose and why? How does he rebuild? Who does he fall in love with? If you want, you can keep going, adding details, until you have a scene-by-scene breakdown. Or you can sketch out some key scenes and sequences that align with basic story structure concepts regarding beginning, middle, and end and go from there.
There are a million ways to approach an outline to your story, and you need to find one that feels natural to you, even a little exciting. Ideally, an outline will motivate you to sit down and write. It will give you the confidence that you can begin, navigate through the middle, and find your way to the end of your story.
You may have try a bunch of different approaches to find the one that works for you, but it’s well worth the effort if you are serious about writing—and finishing—a novel (perhaps more than one).
Can an outline help if I’ve already written a full or partial draft?
Absolutely. You can use it to ensure you have all the pieces your story needs, or it can help you get back on track if, halfway through, you’ve found yourself at a dead end. You’ll probably have to do some major renovations on your story. Outlining isn’t for the faint of heart because you’re forced to face what works and doesn’t work in your story and some of us like to hide behind the mystery and magic of the writing process, adhering to a blind faith that the story will ‘sort itself out’ (I used to be one of these writers). Sometimes we get lucky and the story does sort itself out, though we may not understand why or how and thus be powerless to repeat the process, except by relying on blind faith once more.
Outlines—you can take ‘em or leave ‘em. Personally, at this point in my writing life, I’ll take all the help I can get.