There’s a lot of debate amongst writers–both amateur and professional–about whether or not one should outline one’s novels before beginning to write.
Outlining can involve any combination of making notes on major story elements such as plot, theme, setting and characters.
You might plan nearly everything down to the last detail, or you might give yourself a general outline of where you want to end up. Some people choose to do an in-depth character analysis before beginning.
Those who don’t outline might start with a character or a premise, but ultimately they write the book as they go.
I’m not going to tell you it’s imperative to outline your novel before beginning, but I will say this:
I’ve tried both methods, and I know which one works for me.
The reason I believe in the benefits of outlining is that it simply gives you less room for failure.
Here are 12 benefits to outlining your novel beforehand:
- You’ll write faster. Knowing what you need to write next will help you focus. You won’t waste time wondering where to go.
- It gives you a sense of direction. Outlining helps you work toward your characters’ goals, and you can write with the ending in mind.
- You’ll save time on editing. When you finish that important first draft, it’ll be closer to the desired finished product than if you wrote without an outline.
- There’s less chance of writing yourself into a corner. You’re not as likely to get yourself stuck in a plot twist you can’t get out of, if you plan it ahead of time.
- You’ll recognize foreshadowing opportunities. You can’t really foreshadow coming events if you don’t know what those events are. When you’re writing to an outline, there will be points at which you naturally pick up on foreshadowing opportunities.
- It helps you research. Having an outline will alert you to any areas of your story you’ll need to research. Even if you’re ‘writing what you know,’ there may be a few details or facts you’ll need to check. Better to do this ahead of time than have to go back through your manuscript later.
- You can still be spontaneous, or change your mind. Nowhere does it say you must stick 100% to your outline. You may get a hundred pages into it and decide you want the plot to take a different course, or that you’d like to change the setting, or even add new characters. Just amend your outline to suit.
- It helps you choose the right character names. It’s difficult to name your characters well if you have no idea who they are, where they’re going, where they came from, or what’s going to happen to them.
- There’s less chance of writer’s block. Outlining ensures you know where you’re going, so the odds of having a major writer’s block meltdown are slim. All you need to do is review your plans and you should be back on task.
- You’re more likely to get story structure correct the first time. Without an outline, you’ll probably need to go back and do a whole lot of rearranging of material to get the structure right. Of course, there’s debate about story structure as well, but hopefully we can agree that conflict, climax and resolution are important.
- It helps with natural pacing. An outline makes it less likely you’ll go off on tangents while you’re writing. It helps you stick to your storyline and commit plot points to more effective timing.
- You can do it very quickly. Writing an outline can take forever if you want it to, or it can take very little time at all. The more time you spend mentally composting your ideas, the less time you’ll need to write out your plans. Plus, your outline doesn’t need to be a work of art in itself–it’s for your consumption only.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but as you can see, there are many benefits of writing some kind of novel outline before diving into your project.
Why then do so many people choose not to?
The idea is that your subconscious can lead you to a far better story than you could actively think up for yourself. While I don’t dispute that–I’ve even experienced it myself–the benefits of outlining are still more convincing for me.
What are your thoughts on outlining, and do you personally use it? Are you more likely to outline non-fiction than fiction?
Want more on outlining and story structure?
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