Outlines: Mapquest for novelists, or soul-killing, oxygen-sucking waste of time?

A friend of mine told me she was getting frustrated with her writing class and wasn’t sure she was going to stay with it. Students were told to outline the whole book before the instructor let them start, and he’d just rejected her fourth outline. She was itching to begin chapter one. She wasn’t alone; most students in the class had submitted multiple outlines that hadn’t measured up.

I couldn’t help but think of what my old writing instructor, Leonard Bishop, would have thought of this idea…

Here’s one clue, from notes I took in his class on October 17, 1977: “When you write every day, you bring forward content that you didn’t realize existed. Outlines don’t work very well because they don’t allow material to come forward. Writing begets writing. Don’t think it through; write it through.”

It got me to thinking of outlines, and just why they don’t work very well.

I do understand their immediate appeal — it’s tempting to think they would be a good idea when you think of how intricate and highly organized the final product is likely to be. If I just wander off without an outline, won’t I get lost, or end up in a cul de sac somewhere? Will the story make any sense? Won’t it become chaotic?

The problem is outlines don’t account for the way the human imagination works. There’s something decidedly organic about the way a story evolves. If writing a succession of scenes were like connecting boxcars, then an outline might speed the process up. But the reality is that a novel grows more like a tree.

You start with a seed. This could be whatever it was that goaded you to think of writing a novel in the first place — a person or persons you feel compelled to write about, mingled in with some sense of a formidable problem they’ll encounter. The chronology is a mystery, as are most of the supporting characters. You toss your seed into a fertile patch. In a way, you’re helpless now; all you can do is water it by showing up at the writing desk every day — and writing scenes. Just as you can’t predict every twist, every curve, of every twig and branch of your tree by examining the seed, so you shouldn’t expect to be able to produce a fixed and unchanging order of scenes from your core idea. Your tree just grows, putting out a branch here, shooting a twig out there, obeying its own enigmatic tree-logic.

This is because scenes are experiments. Most will fail. It’s impossible to know which scenes will “work” until you write them out fully.

Another way to look at it is that an outline can contain no more than the contents of your unconscious mind during one, or very few, writing sessions. By contrast, letting scenes grow out of scenes over a period of years allows a much richer, more layered story to evolve — one that will allow in more of the crazy unpredictability of life, and possibly send the plot off in unimagined directions.

Once when a student who hadn’t yet finished his first draft yet asked Leonard Bishop about outlines, he gave that student an answer that, back then, I thought was a snarky dismissal of the question — “The best time to do an outline is after you’ve written the book.” But now I think I get it. When the first draft is complete, the book has an ending. You know where you’re going now. Outlining at this phase gives you a firmer hold on the succession of scenes, helping you foreshadow what’s to come when you write the second draft.

But what about getting hopelessly lost? If you keep bringing forward material from previous chapters, you won’t. The early chapters are the trunk of the tree. I read somewhere that Hemingway reread his entire manuscript from the beginning before he started a day’s work. (It’s also said this is why his books were short.) I suspect he was going back to reconnect with the trunk.

And my friend in that class? She quit after the instructor praised her outline and told her to begin, then reversed himself later in the class when, during an open discussion, a student found yet another flaw. And then she went home, typed “Chapter One” at the top of the page and wrote her book.

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20 Responses to Outlines: Mapquest for novelists, or soul-killing, oxygen-sucking waste of time?

  1. This is a great piece! Highly informative and really spot on about the organic process of writing! Thanks, Donna!

  2. Pingback: Outlines: Mapquest for novelists, or soul-killing, oxygen-sucking waste of time? | Leonard Bishop

  3. I think you’re reading my mind right now. I have two ideas that I am itching to get started on while my manuscript is being edited. I have been trying to sit down and plug in the equation: protagonist, desires, antagonist, complications (most of which come along after a little thinking). Then I get into the latter part: reversals, climax, resolution… Up comes the brick wall inches from my face, and from there it seems a mile wide. I’m at my computer right now, and after this comment I’m opening up a word document and writing those words: Chapter One. Thanks for the insight, Donna!

    • Hi, Rochelle! I know the feeling. I think this is exactly what my writing instructor was talking about when he said, “Don’t think it through; write it through.” By the time you actually get to the end, everything’s going to be much richer, more complex. You’ll have characters and situations in there that you can’t imagine right now.
      Best of luck with the new book!

  4. Merita King says:

    Great post. I hate outlining and never do it. I like to sit down and just write. My characters step forward and take over control and I just take dictation from them. I find the whole process of outlining and preparation boring and it kills the interest in the project. I’m a ‘seat of the the pants’ writer and wouldn’t want to be any other way.

    • Thanks, Merita! I totally agree; “seat of the pants” is the way to go. For me, a good writing day is when the characters jerk me around and I’m putty in their hands; a bad writing day is when I’m moving them, like animatronic zombies.
      I love your website — I plan to go back and explore it at leisure!

  5. Donna, great post. I agree that writing is certainly an ever evolving process. However, the use of outlines is a controversial issue for many writers. I actually use a hybrid version of what your instructor thought an outline must be, something that works for me. Instead of writing it first in its entirety and making it complete, I do something different that grows before the trunk, like an astral projection of the tree, planning out the tree’s destination, but it is more like a guideline than unchanging instructions. Your post motivated me to write about it, but I don’t want to take up too much room on your message board in response, so I’m going to post it on my blog at http://www.authorwakincade.blogspot.com. If you are interested, feel free to check it out. I’ve linked to your page. Thanks for the post. I love hearing how other authors progress and work through, and I am very happy to have come across your post.

  6. Hi, Weston,
    You’re right — writers have to explore all methods and find what works for them. Sometimes I think there isn’t really a hard, fast line between what constitutes an outline as opposed to a very detailed succession of scenes — particularly if you regard those scenes as fluid and open to change. In the past, I’d experienced instructors who imposed outlines rigidly, but what you describe in your blog post (http://www.authorwakincade.blogspot.com/) sounds like it would be highly effective for imaginative, intuitive types, too.
    You mention brainstorming — I find it’s a great logjam-breaker when I’m having a wretched writing day.
    “An astral projection of the tree” — now there’s an interesting concept. It’s making me realize this whole business is all more complex than my post implied. Because I know I’ve written from dreams. Probably the whole tree was there and I just didn’t remember when I woke up.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    • LOL. That’s taking the concept and theory behind writing to whole new levels. I hadn’t thought about the implications and rolls fate and dreams play in our unconscious ideas as they flourish in our writing. It’s an interesting thought, but probably something for another post. Thanks for replying and good luck on your writing.

  7. I’ve always been a “pantser” and it’s always worked for me, but I agree that an outline might be something you should make *after* the first draft. I’ve re-written my current manuscript four times over several years because I just can’t make it work and I didn’t understand anything about structure. I came across a “beat sheet” for novels (like the type screenwriters use, but with four acts instead of three), and after I filled that out I realized where I was going wrong. I plan on using that beat sheet on the next project re-write as well, but I can’t imagine using any form of an outline before that first draft. I love the discovery of sitting down and just writing! It helps my brain spin off in all sorts of magical directions I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of taking.

    Great post! I’ll send it to my friends doing NaNoWriMo, since they are just sitting down to a month of “butt-in-chair pansting the first draft of a novel”. I think this will be a perfect thing for them to hear right about now 🙂

  8. Hi, Rebecca,
    A “beat sheet” for novels — I’ve never heard of that! Sounds like a fabulous idea, especially for someone who’s looking for a writing instructor who emphasizes structure and can’t find one. I was lucky — I think my old writing teacher (Leonard Bishop) functioned as a sort of beat sheet for me — he had clear ideas, for example, about what chapter one should accomplish, the point at which the story lines should start opening out, what should and should not be in the final chapters, etc.
    Glad to hear you like to romp off in magical directions! I can sure get behind that!

  9. SJ Main says:

    I loved this post. I wrote my first novel very naively. I just sat down and wrote. It didn’t occur to me to do it any other way! What I learned from that experience is to have confidence in the process – that writing does beget writing. I think if I had to outline, I would never get started.

  10. Pingback: What’s the Big Idea? « Diary of a Novel

  11. Absolutely fascinating. Writing a superb outline might encourage a feeling of dread in case the finished product failed to measure up, and so could be very inhibiting. I love this blog, and the reflections and comments it has inspired, Richard Thomas.

  12. Pingback: In Praise Of Outlines |

  13. Pingback: Crossing Deep River: Finishing a Novel | Pen In Hand

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