There are writers who come up with an idea and just start writing and see where the story takes them. There are writers who mull over a story in their minds for months or years before they start writing. There are writers who write short stories and use those to create a novel.
Then there are writers who outline.
In film and TV, everybody outlines. It’s how we’re trained to write. Heck, it’s part of the paycheck! Before you are paid for that 1st draft, before you even write that script, you are paid to write an outline. Why? So everyone involved (producers, story editors, broadcasters) can read the story and make changes before the writer has labored over a script.
Now that I’m writing a novel, I don’t have to consult anyone about my story. So why do I still outline? I’ll give you 5 reasons…
#5 – Outlines encourage experimentation. In just a few paragraphs, instead of dozens of pages, I can try out different crisis moments, climaxes and endings. I admit I just wouldn’t do this if I immediately started writing prose (it would take too long), and I might miss out on some awesome ideas.
#4 – Outlines allow me to “kill my darlings.” For a conference this year I needed five pages of my novel to show fellow writers, but I had just scrapped an old idea and come up with a new one, so I hadn’t even written an outline, let alone any prose! But I whipped up a sample Chapter 1 for everyone to read. It was a hit, but I quickly realized it didn’t fit the story. However, I loved the chapter, it was my “darling” and I spent weeks trying to make it work within the story. Eventually I had to axe it. If that chapter had simply been a paragraph in an outline, I would have cut it in seconds, not weeks.
#3 – Outlines are easier to edit. Tracking character arcs, inserting backstory, identifying plot holes… it’s all easier to see, and therefore to edit, in outline format.
#2 – Outlines save me time. I can write an outline in mere weeks and tell if the story works. Much more efficient than spending months or years writing a novel only to find the story doesn’t work and I must start over.
#1 – Outlines let me focus on the writing. I write better when I don’t have to think about what needs to happen next. With an outline finished, I can concentrate on writing each scene or chapter in the most engaging, exciting, suspenseful way possible. That’s not to say I won’t deviate from the outline, things can change, but my prose flows best when I know where the story is going.
So that is why I outline. Of course, everybody has their own process – what works for me might not work for others. But who knows, if you’re not an “outliner” maybe you’ll decide to try it after reading my list.
Next Up from Heather… So you want to outline? Great! But what’s an outline? I’ll explain in my next post.