Wiley Wednesday: To Outline or Not To Outline

A lot of people, generally nonwriters or new writers, tell me that to write a novel, one needs an outline. To which I say, Hogwash.

That’s right. Hogwash!

One needs an outline as much as one needs a pencil – which is to say, there’s more than one way to write something down.

Take a look at my story, The Night is a Harsh Mistress. I started this without any kind of cohesive plan, just an idea of a flavor. I wanted to write something noir, which is to say like a 1940’s detective novel, but with a female lead. Most such novels have a main character who is a loner and who smokes, and I felt that in today’s climate, smoking without compunction would be a little unrealistic, so it would be someone trying to quit.


That was really it.

So, when I started, I wrote about her in the pursuit of one of her cases. Classical storytelling tells us that we need to show our protagonist succeeding at their objective, then put in a position where they cannot possibly win, then they surmount the odds and win. So the first chapter is her succeeding at her work. Then it gets weird.

I added Viktor not, as many of my readers have assumed, as a love interest, but as a foil. He’s someone who would usually be a villain, but in this context I wanted him to be more of someone who helped Rachel to find herself in the midst of all the activity of her life.

How do I keep the strands straight? A couple ways. For one, I reread periodically, so I can keep the flavor of the story in my head. This is more critical when I’m writing a serial like Rachel, since I’m only writing a chapter every two weeks. Additionally, I keep a notes section at the end, called “Endnotes,” where I track ideas for action I want to see happen or things I don’t want to forget. I also put questions here, like “Who is the man in the first chapter?” That way, as I’m writing, I can incorporate those things into the story.

I find that if I write an outline, in order, from start to finish, it sucks the fun out of the story for me. That’s not to say that outlining is bad or doesn’t work for others, just that it doesn’t work for me. If you find you’re that way too, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong – it just means you’re not left-brain sequential in your approach to your storytelling. Or, it may mean that you use an outline for some projects and not for others.

Steven King, in his book On Writing, talks about his method of working (and he doesn’t use an outline either). He starts a story and doesn’t stop until he’s finished. He suggests that you find a room, hide away in it, (the fact that the room has a door, even if it’s the bathroom or a laundry room, is of the utmost importance), and write on a regular basis. He suggests not starting a new project until your current one is finished, because he finds that it dilutes his focus. While I don’t work that way – I usually have multiple projects going at any one time – I like his idea of having a regular writing time where you shut yourself away from distractions and work until you’re finished. That’s advice more of us could use.

So instead of worrying about your outline next time you sit down to write something, just try telling a story and see where it leads you. Like me, you might find this method is a lot more fun. And, in this business, what’s fun is what works.

4 Replies to “Wiley Wednesday: To Outline or Not To Outline”

  1. What??? Viktor is not a love interest??? There are still some chapters, can you fix that for me?

    Thanks for the insights into your writing, we do all have our own way to go about it, don’t we?
    ~hugs~ E

  2. Ah, girls – you didn’t read carefully enough. She said she didn’t put Viktor in as a love interest, meaning that is not his ‘story’ function. Doesn’t mean there’s not room for love, or tension, or both or either. Since it’s not set in stone, there’s hope yet! BTW . . . . *POKES*

    And I outline pretty extensively, but I don’t stand behind it as the only way to write in any sense. It’s more just the part of my brain that demands organization, and a way to break the story up into manageable chunks. I didn’t always outline, and don’t always now, honestly. And my outlines always change.

    I think the people who cling to outlines as a must have are probably less natural storytellers, as you are, my dear. You could describe a brick to me, and make it riveting. And I definitely got your flavor in the first chapter – and you’ve continued to keep it going. So . . . Hogwash, indeed. 🙂

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