The answer to the question is, depending on who you are, what you’re writing, and how quick you want to write it.
When I first started writing I never used an outline. I had done tons of reading, more books than I can count. Then I read books on writing, and listened to authors talk about writing. Then I read books on writing by authors who talked about writing. I think the two who stuck out in my mind, during my initial writing attempts, were Dean Koontz and Lawrence Block. Dean Koontz swears he never uses an outline, and rewrites pages something like a hundred times before moving on. Lawrence Block wrote an excellent book called “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit”. Still a good read, but I don’t think he ever advocated using an outline, and some of the ideas in his book sounded as if he didn’t. So off I went, trying to write off the cuff with no outline, and let the characters decide what happens in the book, or let the book write itself (something Dean always says). But you know what? That didn’t work for me.
I wrote one completed manuscript that way that took me a year. Then I stopped and started three others, none of which went anywhere. Why? Because I had “writer’s block”. I had no idea where my stories were heading. I had characters, but nothing to tell me what direction to take the book.
I decided, when I came back to writing after a good-sized break, to take one of those unfinished manuscripts. I took the shortest one, I’d only written perhaps eight thousand words or so on it. Then I thought about the story, I started thinking about what if? Asking “what if” is great, because it forces you to play out scenarios in your mind, just like you did as a kid playing with G.I Joe figures.
Basically an outline is just making up the story as you go along, without spending time on details. Does it matter whether your main character kills people with a slingshot or a .44 magnum? nope. Does it matter if your villain has a wooden leg? If you think of that while writing the outline, throw it in there. It will help later. The point of an outline though, isn’t to write in all the details of the book. You can add some if you like, if it helps you remember them later. But the main point is to write the path of the book. Are you characters going to be chased by a giant dinosaur in the dead of winter across a little well-known part of Nevada? if so, that goes in the outline. Also what happens after that.
An outline should be a Google map, a view of your book from high up, where you can’t see the details, just the little line that shows you what road you’re taking, but not much more. Will you deviate from your outline? Most likely. I did, as I wrote and things popped into my head, as they do when the words are coming. But with an outline you won’t get stuck. You won’t have to stop and think, “where the hell is this story going?” You can look at your outline, and start on the next scene. I outlined my first complete novel that way. I deviated some, but for the most part it was a pretty clear path. There’s always detours you can take.
Probably the best thing about outlines, is that aside from keeping you from getting stuck, it speeds up your writing in leaps in bounds.
In my personal opinion, an outline is the cure for writer’s block. What do you think? agree or disagree? leave a comment and let me know.