Outlines: who needs em?

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.


8 thoughts on “Outlines: who needs em?

  1. So Drew, I’d like to say that, first of all; great post. It really gave me a highline view of how your outling process works for you. However, and this however is only really for me and…well, I guess anybody who agrees with me, that whenever I do an outline, work my way through the novel and then…blam–one of those detours hits me square in the face and I can’t ignore it. It always seems to deviate my story so much that my outline is now trash.

    This may not be true, you might say, it may not be trash. Maybe I need to be more creative, you say, and make things work.

    But then I would go so far as to argue that then I feel like my story is being contrived.

    Anyway, not to argue with you–or put words in your mouth–but that was the easiest way to explain how I often feel when I try it your way. I am glad you found something that works for you, I hope it continues to work, and by all means, if you’ve finished at least one manuscript, then you are further along than me and who am I to say anything at all.

    Good luck in all your endeavors. By the way, what type of writing or genre do you dabble in?

    1. I did not mean to make it sound like I follow the outline to the letter, far from it. Often, as you say, sometimes the detours take you a different route, and of course that’s fine. I would never try to force a story that wasn’t working, or try to follow bring the story “back on track” so to speak, if the detour seemed to be going well. Outlines are just that, an outline. But I find that using one, at least at the outset, keeps me working. Then, if i run into something that moves in another direction, I’ll see where it goes, and sometimes even change the outline to match. I usually don’t just write a full novel off the cuff, as that doesn’t seem to work for me. If it works for you, that’s great. Every writer finds something that works well for them.
      I’ve finished two manuscripts so far, and the first one, THE BROTHERHOOD is available on amazon. My third one is still being written.

      Drew Merten

  2. Great post, Drew. Thanks for sharing! I don’t use outlines. For me, it spoils the discovery and I lose interest in what I am writing. I use something similar, though, called bursts. As the story comes to me, I just write down little bits of the narrative. When I have a whole bunch of these for a complete story, it gives me a rough draft to work off of and I go back and fill in details for my first draft. Funny how every one does things a little differently, eh? Thanks for posting!

    1. I sometimes find myself doing the same thing, Dan. While I prefer to use a rough outline, it’s not necessarily a “he goes here, does that” kind of thing, although sometimes it is. Often it’s bits of dialogue, and usually not super detailed. I often don’t know exactly what the characters are going to do until I get there, but at least I have some kind of movement, which is the whole point anyway! No “I’m stuck, what do I do? I give up!” kind of thing. But yes, I love hearing how different writers approach everything completely different. Maybe sometime I’ll post what one of my “outlines” looks like. Pretty embarrassing, lol. The whole point, I suppose, is keeping the story moving, and stay writing, instead of getting stuck. So if someone has a way that works to keep that from happening, by all means do it. Thanks for posting!

  3. Nice post. On short stories, I don’t do outlines because they’re so short, I figure I can get through the story without tripping it up. On novel-length work, I have done outlines. Basically, I just jotted down the main thing I wanted to happen in each chapter. The details were unplanned and filled in as I wrote it. However, there were instances where I the plot turned where I didn’t expect it to – and I liked the unexpected better, so I went with it and made changes to the outline as needed. The thing I like about outlines is that it forces me to think about where the story is going so the plot doesn’t meander aimlessly…(you know…kind of like this comment :))

    1. I don’t do outlines on shorts either. I can usually get through 5-10k words without needing one. The shorts usually just need a strong idea, and thats enough to carry it along. I love unexpected plot turns as well. In fact, I was writing dialogue to one when your post interrupted me. 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

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