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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Join the discussion
Hey Suzannah – all I can say is, BRAVO. Well stated. And so, so true. Folks doing NaNoWriMo need to take notes from you here, and USE every one of them. And if they don't, and at the end of the month they look back and wonder what went wrong, they should come right back here and read this again… and wonder "what could have been." Bravo.
What can I say? I know you're an authority on outlining and story structure, so I'm really pleased to hear I've got things half right! I really appreciate your feedback.
I can see why you'd find outlining practical, and why it works for so many people. However, I have always found the opposite to be true for me: when I outline, I end up with more writer's block than not.
The only way I can "crank out" a book-length work in any reasonable amount of time (be it a month or two) is to follow what a professor of mine used to call the "blurt system." That is, I blurt everything out onto the paper, in any order. If I'm inspired to write a scene that takes place near the end of the novel one day, I do. If I sit down the next day and can't get back to that scene, I might try a scene in the beginning. Sometimes I write parts of a scene without knowing where it will go.
My second draft is about structure and outlining and all that stuff–after I've gotten 95% of the novel down on paper by "blurting." That works for me…Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
ncb: Hey, if it works for you, go for it! Like I said, I've tried both and it is possible to get the same end product, but for me outlining wins.
In terms of "writing parts of a scene without knowing where it will go," I think you still experience that with outlining. That is, unless you've planned every scene down to the last detail. When I outline, I have a synopsis of the plot, characters, and any research I need to do. That still leaves a lot of room for creativity, but you'll know the general direction in which you want to go.
Also, I don't necessarily write the whole thing in order. But, if I do skip ahead, I'll make a note of what needs to eventually be written in between.
Thanks for sharing your 'blurt system!'
Lia Keyes says
Thank you for a fascinating and thought-provoking article! It made me consider the method that has emerged unconsciously over the last five years as I complete my first novel and develop future projects..I’m a very intuitive writer and have a lot of faith in the subconscious as the curator of emotional truth, but there comes a point (usually three to five chapters in to a new book) when I have to stand back and ask “What am I writing here?” and then construct a few one page synopses of possible directions in which to go.I take this to my weekly critique group and ask them which is the most intriguing synopsis, or how I can tweak the best of the bunch to create a story they’d like to read. I also ask myself the same question.Then I start working with structure in a longer synopsis of 3-5 pages. Which are the five main scenes that the story can’t do without? What theme emerges from this skeletal outline? Then I start putting flesh on the bones, developing the characters further by asking them why they’re making certain choices, what they hope to gain, and what they perceive the obstacles to be (may be different than the actual obstacles because they have yet to achieve the growth that will allow them to prevail). At this point I choose which events need to happen around the skeletal five scenes the story can’t be without for that growth to be possible and believable. I consider what motifs, images, locations and supporting characters would best present and support these ideas to the reader. Finally I take a look at what I’ve got and ask again: Would I want to read this book? Would it be worth the investment of time it would require of a reader? What emotional roller coaster have I designed, and could I make the highs higher and the lows lower?This is all before writing any more chronological chapters, though I might write a few more random snippets, jumping around the story to explore ‘voice’, perspective, and motivations. Those things seem to come from my subconscious and can’t be coldly plotted. I have to write for them to emerge. I may use those scenes, incorporating them into the synopsis to see if they deserve a place there or not. Or I might glean the useful parts of the random snippets to use elsewhere. But the bottom line is that in synopsis or outline form I can see the whole novel quickly and clearly. It’s the difference between standing too close to an impressionist painting and standing back from it. When you stand back you can view the whole at a glance and the kaleidoscopic dots of color suddenly make sense.