This week’s post is a brief introduction to outlining, and how to decide if one would be useful for you. Next week I’ll go further into depth about outlining methods, supporting documents (maps, character sheets, etc.) and basic research methods.

So. Do you need an outline?

The short, unhelpful answer is, “Only if you want one.” Lots of people plan their books intensely, and know every twist and turn of the plot before they put a single word on the page. Lots of people write without an outline and figure things out as they go. Whether or not you outline depends on how you think and what works for you as a writer. It’s a matter of knowing (or, if you’re starting out, learning) your process.

If you’re not sure what suits you, try it both ways. If you start working with an outline but find it stiffing, it can always be scrapped. If you start working without one but feel lost, you can always stop to plan a bit before going on.

Outlines Are Useful…

Outlines help you direct your story once you actually start writing. This means that you can write the beginning of your story with the ending in mind, and start laying the groundwork for things that you know need to happen later. In particular, this is excellent for setting up plot twists because it makes it easier for the implications of the twist to permeate the story so that by the time that the reveal happens, while still unexpected, it has also been set-up in advance. Similarly, having an outline can help you figure out what information the readers (and characters) need, and what questions you want your readers to ask.

Outlines are also good for keeping things straight in stories that have lots of moving parts. Having a map of the plot and subplots makes it easier to get the details of the story to line up, and to create situations in which the events of the subplots can be neatly tied back into the main plot, cutting down on logical, thematic, and temporal inconsistencies. Likewise, outlines can help to prevent loose ends, especially if you tend to write non-chronologically.

The third nice thing about outlines is that they can make the writing process quicker and stave off writer’s block. If you sit down at the computer knowing where your story has to go, it streamlines the process and provides a bit of structure for the writing session, so that rather than trying to figure out what to write, you can put all of your energy into deciding how to write it.

…But They Aren’t Useful for Everyone

Outlines don’t work for everyone. Some people (often referred to as “pantsers” in the NaNoWriMo community, from the phrase “writing by the seat of your pants”) prefer to write on the fly. This method is more flexible, and it allows the story to develop organically—if something interesting happens in the scene, it’s much easier to take the story in a new direction or to account for unexpected developments if there isn’t a strict plan for how things must come together. Pantsing puts more emphasis on the discovery process. Even writers who plan extensively tend to learn new things about their story as they go. Forgoing an outline leaves room for details that the writer simply doesn’t know yet, and allows the story to unfold at its own pace.

It also stands that outlining simply isn’t everyone’s process. Not everything works for everyone, and if it sounds like something that would shut down your creativity rather than kick starting it, outlining may not be for you. And that’s okay.

I am not a pantser. However here are a few links from some people who are, for anyone who would like a bit more perspective:

http://storyfix.com/value-pantsing

http://livewritebreathe.com/pantsing/

http://jamigold.com/2014/01/in-defense-of-pantsing/

And here’s solid piece about why neither one is necessarily better than the other: http://www.jackalediting.com/plotting-vs-pantsing/

Hybrid approaches

Lots of writers take an approach that’s somewhere in between, with some planning and some pantsing. Outlining is not an all or nothing process, and it’s up to you how tight your outline will be—you can plan every scene, or only mark down a few major plot events. Likewise, if outlining doesn’t work for you, there are other types of supporting documents that may be useful for developing your story(maps, character sketches, timelines, research notes, inspiration, and so forth).

Other uses

In addition to helping to develop your story or keeping your story on track as you write, outlines can be useful for the end of your story. Reverse outlining is a technique where, after finishing your story, you go back in and create an outline. This enables you to track the major plot threads, while also giving you enough distance from the work to see the places where plot points don’t quite add up, gaps in the timeline, and other loose ends. (Bonus points: it’s good for writing essays and academic papers too!)

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