Outlines are for wimps

I have never liked outlines.  Thinking through a story and crafting a narrative skeleton only to start at the beginning again to flesh out the details.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  These cycles can take a hours, days, or weeks as you are writing, but not really writing. Only when the story structure, acts, chapters and scenes are designed can you begin the actual task of writing the first sentence of the story.

So, I never used an outline.  I believed that writing a story was an act of discovery for me, the writer, and I did not want to know how the story ended any more than I wanted to know the ending of a book I read.  How much more fluid and spontaneous would my narrative be if I didn’t know what was going to happen next?  How much more could my characters ad lib and pursue tangents and tell me, the writer, what they really wanted to do?  How could I justify putting a script in my characters’ hands and telling them to only say this and do this?

After all, this is how Stephen King writes.  Hasn’t he published forty plus books and sold millions?  He doesn’t use outlines and if we are supposed to emulate the most successful people, why wouldn’t I emulate one of the top sellers of all time?

Two unfinished novels totaling over five hundred pages later, I had my answer.

I didn’t have the skill or experience to write a story with the natural rhythms of structure and plot pouring out of my mind and onto my computer in a first draft.  I wrote myself into a dead end in each novel by not planning out how to get from the beginning of the story to the end.  I had a great concept, great characters, settings I either developed or knew well, and I had compelling opening scenes and conflicts to launch the action.

But somewhere along the way, all that untamed creative energy buzzing around in the recess of my mind dissipated and I was left with an empty reservoir of momentum.  I had no plan to move the story forward beyond the vast expanse of the middle of the story.  And so like many aspiring authors, I relied solely on creativity and inertia and when both were spent, I had a story that could go nowhere like a car with no fuel.  I was stranded on the side of the road to completion.

So, this year, with my new prequel novel I am writing an outline first.  A story plan, structure plan, character plan, and everything else plan so that when I’m six months into the first draft, I don’t stop and wonder what is going on with the story and why it isn’t working.  I intend to avoid writing myself into the proverbial corner.

The month on January is my outline month.  February 1, I will begin writing the first draft.  With this plan, I except to spend less time along the way on detour and subplot tangents and more type craft the best story I can write.

When I finish the first draft, I will then know that it was the outline that made the difference.

If that makes me a wimp, to use an outline, then so be it.  I take that title all the way to publication.

–Mark

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10 responses to “Outlines are for wimps

  • Regg

    Good post! this is very applicable to life. without the outline and goals. You live on spontaneity, building a shell of unused potential, walking a paradoxical path that soon dead ends.

  • butchie34

    I also prefer discovery writing but also almost run out of steam in the middle of my stories. I know that I have pushed through and when I hit a dip where I’m not sure of where to go with the story, I move onto the next scene I’m excited about and carry on. It means that I have to go back and fill in the gaps.

    The problem I’ve also found with discovery writing is the fact that you have to do far more drafts and revisions than you would probably need to do if you had an outline before.

    Another approach if you want to carry on discovery writing is to do what Dan Wells does. He writes half of what he believes his novel will be, takes what he’s written and then outlines the rest of the novel.

    I find that creating an outline can be incredibly frustrating because I suppose that I’m incredibly impatient and only want to get going with the story.

  • MJT

    I’ve read by the published writers who propose and defend outlining, that their opinion of famous and published discovery writers is that they must outline in their heads or have such a finely tuned innate sense of story structure, that they don’t need a written outline.

    After two false starts, I’ve determined that I need an outline. Continuing to write without one will only create another half finished novel.

    • butchie34

      I watched the video of Dan Wells about story structure which James posted in our writing forum and he says that if we discovery write we will have to put the story structure into the story in the next draft after we’ve finished the first draft. This of course does mean more revision time and personally, I hate revisions and rewrites.

      I’m busy with outlining and character notes so I don’t have to do this for my next project.

  • butchie34

    An interesting thing to note with Stephen King and the endings of his novels was that most of them end with a deus ex machina. I had never noticed it before, but it really stares me in the eyeball now that someone has pointed it out to me.

    • MJT

      By his own admission, Stephen King has trouble with his endings and I think that is a direct artifact of his discovery writing style. Although, the Gunslinger series ends surprisingly appropriately.

  • Spring clean your mind « Arcane Roads

    […] that I was creating for myself.  I was starting to question my decision to write using an outline (click for a previous post on outlines).  I was supposed to start writing the first draft on […]

  • Outlines are for Wimps – redux « Arcane Roads

    […] Back in January, I wrote about how outlines were for wimps, and how I finally had the courage to become a wimp. If you missed the original post, you can read it here. […]

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