To Outline or Not to Outline
by Patrick Hodges
Most fiction writers fall into one of two categories, which in the vernacular are called “plotters” and “pantsers.” Lest you be unfamiliar with these terms: a “pantser” is someone who sits down and just … goes. The story they’re writing goes in whatever direction the wind blows them.
Me, though? I’m a plotter. Without an outline or some semblance of where the story I’m writing is going, I’m completely lost. If I were to just sit down and write without a set direction, I’d end up in the middle of the ocean in a small, leaky dinghy with neither oar nor outboard motor to rescue me.
So which are you?
Well, which camp you fall into probably depends a great deal on the kind of person you are. If you’re someone to whom ideas just seem to flow from out of the ether without even ringing the doorbell, then you’re likely to develop a more free-wheeling attitude toward writing. I’ve talked to more than a few authors who have told me they HATE outlines and wouldn’t touch one if it was coated in Swiss chocolate.
For those of us who just HAVE to have structure in our lives (aka: anal retentive), however, an outline is as necessary as breathing. I plan my chapters out in advance – just a one-paragraph summary of what I want to accomplish within that chapter – and then go to work. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, yes, ideas do zap my brain without warning, causing me to make unexpected course changes or full-on detours. As proof, I can attest that my original outline for the fantasy book I’m currently penning looks almost NOTHING like the book I have 20 percent written on my laptop.
What’s the point? Truthfully, this is simply an exploration. Who knows – maybe it will lead to a conversation with other writers out there. I love outlines because they help me focus, avoid plot holes (most of the time) and pacing problems, and generally make it easier for me to be productive. I mean, I cranked out three YA novels totaling 360,000 words in 18 months. I couldn’t have done that without some outlines.
For the pantsers out there, I give you all the credit in the world. Ideas flow through you like water through the Log Ride at Disneyworld. You can come up with brilliant ideas while working, playing ping pong, or picking up after your not-yet-housebroken Chihuahua (yes, I actually know an author with a story to tell about this). And if you all ever have a clubhouse, invite me over sometime. I’d love to see what mind-blowingly good stuff is stuck to the walls.
Patrick Hodges lives in Arizona with his wife of 15 years, Vaneza. After doing weekly columns for entertainment-related websites, he has turned his attention to writing fiction. He is passionate about sending positive messages to young people. Joshua’s Island is his first novel. A sequel is in the works. You may reach him at email@example.com or “like” him on Facebook.
Hi Patrick, I have struggled with this very question, “To outline or Not to outline.” Here’s a link to my blog about this dilemma: http://ckthomasauthor.blogspot.com/2014/06/when-characters-hijack-outline.html
I’ve written novels both with and without an outline, and I still haven’t made a firm decision on the subject. I admit that the outline gives direction and takes away the anxiety about what to write next, but as I explain in the blog, sometimes the outline puts constraints on my creativity. It’s for sure that an outline beats writing myself into a corner that I’m not sure how to gracefully exit.
I think mastering the art of writing an outline must enter into this equation. For example, the next time I choose to write an outline, I’m going to refrain from making it too detailed. On my first stab at outlining I tried to tuck too many ideas into each chapter. Next time I’m going to shoot for a general direction to take for each chapter and see if my characters find more freedom in that approach.
Thanks for writing a thought-provoking blog entry. I enjoyed reading it. C. K. Thomas (aka Cheryl Del Monte)