Do I Have to Write an Outline for My Novel?

I interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you this very important blog post that must be written before the Story series can continue!

You’re a writer, so you most likely understand the feeling of having a story, poem, scene idea or, heck, even just a single sentence slam against your train of thought and send it off its rails. It’s like an ill-mannered child who screams your name until you acknowledge him, or an aching muscle that throbs and distracts you from your daily tasks until you finally get a massage or take an Epsom salt bath. The difference, though, is that these sudden bursts of inspiration are rarely ever shrill or painful; they just linger…and linger…patiently and persistently tugging at the hem of our skirts, waiting for us to hear them out.

So that’s what I’m going to do: hear it out. I hope the listening is worth it for both me and you.

One of my 2016 New Year’s resolutions was to listen to and/or read something writing-related every single non-holiday day. I’m proud to say I’ve held to it and have consumed hundreds of pages and podcast episodes all about the craft of writing a well-told story. I don’t say any of that to boast, but to establish that I’m beginning to get a handle on a notion that I think every writer should realize:

Every writer has his or her own way of writing a well-told story!

That’s what the screaming child/achy muscle inside my artist’s soul is trying to say.

Do you have to write an outline for your novel?

More often than not, guests on writing-related podcasts are asked this question, which can be paraphrased as, “Are you a plotter or a pantser?”

For anyone not familiar with those terms, a plotter is someone who outlines his novel before he starts writing, and a pantser is someone who writes by the seat of his pants. Brandon Sanderson calls these “discovery writers,” which I quite like.

Answers to that question cover the whole spectrum. Some authors outline every single scene, knowing exactly what will happen in Chapter 17, who will die in Chapter 30, whose point of view each chapter is written from, etc. Garrett Robinson, sci-fi/fantasy indie author, claims to have his next 50 novels mapped out. Other writers have a general idea of their story’s plot – the inciting incident and climax, for example – but fill in the rest as they go along. Stephen King is one such writer, as are Nora Roberts and Margaret Atwood.

There are countless books and articles available which can teach you the pros and cons of both plotting and pantsing. You may find that not a few rather aggressive writing teachers and professors believe pantsing is a creative sin. When I studied screenwriting in college, it was hammered into us that we must not only write a logline, brief synopsis and 20-page treatment of our screenplay, but we should then create a beat sheet, which is a scene-by-scene outline. Only once those were complete could we jump into the actual screenwriting part. Without fail, my projects (which ranged from sitcom specs scripts to feature-length screenplays) would deviate from “the plan.” New scenarios, new characters, new plot twists, new conflicts would always upset the organized apple cart I’d worked so hard to establish.

For each one of the three novels I’ve written thus far, I turned to my screenwriting roots and outlined like a fiend. Unsurprisingly, I stuck to it about as well as the snow sticks to the ground here in San Antonio.

For my current work-in-progress, I used the Snowflake Method in hopes that it might be the glue I needed to stay on track, but alas, I’ve wandered so far off the track that it’s no longer in view. I’m 200 pages into my first draft and have used my outline (which I spent two mind-numbing weeks crafting, by the way) to pen a grand total of two scenes.

So, it seems I’m a bit of a plotting dropout. I came. I saw. I didn’t conquer, but I have this blog post to prove I tried,and trying is what counts. Not being above taking a risk now and then and venturing outside your comfort zone is what counts.

While your mentors and favorite writers may advocate plotting like one’s life depends on it, don’t feel inferior or inadequate if that simply doesn’t work for you. Similarly, if someone you respect promotes pantsing, but you feel aimless and unmotivated every time you sit down at your laptop waiting for the capricious Muse to arrive, don’t feel like you’re unimaginative or unartistic because you prefer to have an outline handy.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

We are all writers who want to make meaningful art, but that doesn’t mean we go about it the same way. Some of us may want to sketch on our canvasses for hours before we bring out our palette and brushes, while others of us just want to playfully throw paint around and see what shapes up. The former group wants to know the end from the beginning; the latter group, like the reader, wants to enjoy the ride with all its twists and turns.

Both plotting and pantsing have its pluses and minuses, and neither technique is foolproof and simple to implement. What’s certain, however, is that if you’ll try each of them, you’ll discover some wonderful things about yourself and how you create, which will inform how you approach each project down the line.

For me, outlining is, as I mentioned before, mind numbing. It’s boring. Monotonous. It feels forced and inauthentic. I prefer to sketch my main characters, clearly define their conscious and unconscious desires, establish an antagonist, jot down my major plot points, then let the rest remain a mystery, one that guarantees an adventure that may (and in fact will) prove challenging at times (pantsers are pretty good at digging plot holes), but will never, ever be dull nor feel like busy work.

I’m not against writers recommending that other writers should or shouldn’t outline. I only want all of you reading this to know that there is no perfect way; what may work best for J.K. Rowling (a plotter) doesn’t work for Stephen King, and it doesn’t have to for you either.

Take time to explore different methods and embrace the one that suits your creating style best, no matter what anyone says about it.

What are your thoughts on outlining versus discovery writing? Which group do you identify with? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me @dandersontyler. I would love to hear from you!

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