I used to be a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants – or pantser – once upon a time. After many false starts, I even managed to finally complete a novel manuscript with that method, although it took me nearly four years to revise it into something I could submit.
So that’s my first reason. Outlining has greatly cut down on my revision time. When I was pantsing it, I never had much idea about where the story was going beyond a vague notion about the main characters and their basic conflict. And so, after the first draft I had a huge pile of… well, stuff… and my next job was to sift through it for a coherent and consistent story. I had many scenes I couldn’t use, at least not in their original form, and many spots where I needed to go back and write new scenes to fill crucial gaps in the story. Not that I don’t still need to do those things as an outliner, but far less often.
The second reason is work ethic. Part of the reason it took me so long to finish projects as a pantser was that I’m the type of person who needs a plan in order to stay on-task. When I was just winging it, it was too easy to blow off the writing on any given day because it felt like an endless project. I need to see my progress, and word count is too abstract when I have no idea if my story would end up being 50,000 words or 500,000.
The third reason is that it’s a control issue. Having an outline in hand before I start a project makes me feel as if I have a roadmap with clear milestones along the way. It gives me a lot of comfort, knowing where the story is going from the start (and sometimes finding out I don’t even have a story before I start, which can be handy). So I don’t feel like I’m producing a chaotic mass of steaming crap, but something that has purpose.
Lastly, outlining is my personal technique for engaging both the creative and analytical sides of my brain up front. It’s a sort of “pre-season” for my writing. It gets me in the right mindset to write.
What is Outlining?
For me, a story outline is a summary broken down by scenes. That’s how I conceptualize my novels and so I try to keep all the plot details at that level. I outline each of these scenes with a few sentences about what is happening, which characters are present, their motivations and goals, and even some snippets of dialogue if they come to me. I try to make sure that every scene has an arc with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s important that I know the conflict(s) present in each scene and how they are resolved at this time. Of course, for the heroes, the resolution for most scenes is: Things Get Worse!
Now that might sound elementary, and it is, but until I internalized that concept, my scenes were often weak and misleading without a strong emotional drive to propel the story forward.
I don’t use the old system we learned in school (I, II, A, B, 1, 2, 3…), but I do use bullet points. Lots and lots of bullet points. They are something of a fetish for me now.
So for Blood and Iron, the outline for the first scene was:
A ship at sea during a bad storm. It’s a transport vessel from Arnos, carrying troops to the east for the Great Crusade. Horace is the ship’s carpenter. During the storm, they are attacked by an Akeshian warship. The storm changes to bright green lightning and Horace feels weird. But then he’s swept overboard into the water. He thinks of his dead wife and son as he loses consciousness.
That’s it. You’ll notice I only mentioned enough detail to conjure the gist of the scene.
I outline the entire novel, from start to finish. Not just the main plot, but all the various subplots, too. By the end, I have a document that can be thirty pages long (9-pt font, single-spaced). I’ve heard from some authors that create longer outlines for their novels, and some that go quite a bit shorter. But that’s what works for me. You’ll find what works best for you.
Writing From An Outline
As I write, I edit the outline, condensing the notes down to one or two sentences that contain the gist of the scene. This way, the outline becomes a brief scene-by-scene synopsis of the novel, which helps a lot because I hate writing synopses.
Still, even after outlining several novels, I don’t get it perfect. There were two spots in my outline for Blood and Iron where I had laid out the beginning of a scene, but nothing else. Now, for you pantsers, that might be an exciting thing full of unknown promise. For an obsessive outliner, it’s a moment of sheer panic, let me tell you. But sometimes it’s also an unexpected gift, because it forces me to stop and brainstorm anew, and good things often come from it.
Going Off the Rails
It’s almost inevitable. That after all the outlining and the preparing, that you’ll come to a point (or several points), right in the midst of a writing frenzy, when a better idea will occur to you. But there’s no rule that says an outline is iron-clad. When a better plot twist or a superior notion about the secret origin of the main character’s claustrophobic aunt occurs, it’s okay to go with it. Explore that new idea, because those sudden inspirations are what make writing so magical. Yes, sometimes they lead us into literary cul-de-sacs without a trail of breadcrumbs to get back, but more often than not the new idea eventually flows back into the original plot at some point, and now I have a delightful (or in my case, bloody and horrifying) little wrinkle in the story.
The Dangers of Outlining
Before we end, I’d like to mention some myths and pitfalls that can come with outlining.
The Creativity Gap: This is the one I hear about the most from writers who don’t outline, that outliners don’t have that creative spark where the prose hits the page. I’d like to put that notion to rest. Writing is writing, whether you’re working from an outline (itself a creative document) or coming at it cold. It’s about the moment, about the characters and their interactions and their conflicts. The presence of an outline doesn’t change that, any more than looking at a roadmap will actually transport you to another location – you still have to do the traveling yourself.
Procrastination. This one, sadly, is all too real. Because outlining gives you some of the joys of creation without all the mental and emotional heavy lifting of writing, it can be tempting to keep expanding the outline longer and longer, putting off the day when you have to actually get to work.
Uber-Compulsion. Some of us, myself included, are a bit compulsive. The outline can present the problem of becoming too much fun. Rather than spinning longer and longer outlines to put off the writing, we keep it going as an exercise of creative control, convincing ourselves that the more we outline before writing, the better the final product will be. But this is a trap. Once you’ve detailed the important points of each scene, it’s time to move on. Delving deeper is best done during the writing, and afterward during the revision phases, because that’s when you’ll really know what your story is about.
Outlining isn’t a silver bullet. It isn’t a magic technique that makes writing so simple a caveman could do it. It’s just one more tool in the writing toolbox. For me, it makes facing that blank computer screen with enough willpower to create on demand a little easier. And some days that makes it invaluable.
I’d love to hear from the other writers out there. Do you outline? How extensively? If not, what are your objections? There are no wrong answers in the exchange of perspectives.
Jon Sprunk is the author of the fantasy epic Blood and Iron as well as the Shadow Saga trilogy (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master). He’s also a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. For more on his life and writing, check out www.jonsprunk.com.