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In Defence of Outlines

I’ve met so many writers who don’t outline. They say, “If I knew what was going to happen, I wouldn’t care enough to write the story.”

Those words always make me feel odd and out of place, for I am not that way.

I outline. My outlines are twenty pages long. Even before I outline, I play out a story in my head thoroughly, repeatedly, until I have a hold on it. I’d say, in fact, that if I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t care enough to write the story.

I used to draft without an outline, with just a premise or a character or a moment. I’d run with it, typing as I went, seeing where it took me. That worked well with short stories but not at all with novels. My longer works started out well, then wandered aimlessly for several hundred pages while I kept at it, hoping the road would eventually clear.

I don’t do that anymore. I still come up with stories that peter out, but they fail in the imagining-it-in-my-head stage. I’ll waste a few days that way, but I don’t waste months of drafting. It’s so much easier to let those failed stories go because the investment is small.

Winging it sounds creative: just me and my muse at the computer, ready for whatever might happen. But I’ve come to learn that, for me, following an outline is a far more creative process.

If anything can happen, I only have to skim the surface of my imagination to come up with the next step. But if something specific must happen to carry my plot—within the confines of a certain setting and particular characters and future plot points that rest on it—then I really have to dig deep. Then I’m grappling with all my imagination.

And it’s still a process of enormous discovery. Storylines change as details fill in. Certain actions prove impossible to execute or certain characters just won’t do what I’d planned for them. Supporting characters become dispensible while minor scenes become critical. My protagonist grows before my eyes and finds his voice. Subplots blossom and themes pull together in ways I didn’t dream of. (Yet I always have my outline to refer to if I’m stuck or my energy lags.)

But the greatest discovery, the most exciting thing for me, is finding out how I’m going to tell the story. My lengthy outlines don’t spoil that discovery. Because what the story is and how the story is told are completely different things, and for me it’s the latter that fascinates. My first draft is not me figuring out what’s going to happen. It’s me figuring out how to show it in an authentic and compassionate way, how to feel it from my characters’ points of view, and how to manipulate language to make a reader care. That’s the discovery I treasure most.

I don’t wander aimlessly anymore. I speed toward my goal. And I work so much harder to get there.

So if you never outline and that works for you, godspeed. But if you’ve written a couple of novels that led nowhere yet you’re reluctant to outline your third because it seems too stiff or uncreative, let go of that reluctance. Envision. Outline. Then—if you’re still gripped by your story—draft. See where that takes you.

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