The Ins and Outs of Outlining

My college creative writing teacher always said that some things were to be avoided at all costs. We students were not to use exclamation marks ever (“Put tape over that button on your keyboard, people!”) and we also learned quite quickly that tired clichés had no place within our work, as they were the fallback of the unsophisticated writer.

And outlines. We all knew not to get him started on outlines.

A few bright-eyed students asked the teacher, at the start of our short story unit, if he would please look over and comment on their rough outlines. They appeared stunned and a little hurt when he promptly said that he would do no such thing.

“Outlines stunt your creativity,” he said. “You should be discovering your story as you write, not sticking to some pre-conceived list of bullet points.” He went on to say that if any of us insisted on writing outlines, he didn’t want to know about it.

This news was troubling. From my days as an unfettered teenage writer churning out cartoony novellas and fan fiction, I had always been a major outline aficionado. I actively looked forward to writing long, sprawling story summaries to plan my characters’ every major action. I didn’t outline specific lines of dialogue–too tedious, even for me–but I did map out all the main events so that I wouldn’t begin writing without first knowing what the story’s end was going to be. My teacher would have said this was stifling, but my outlines always made me write the actual story quickly, eager as I was to see the exciting ending actually take shape.

I gave my college teacher’s advice a fair shot, though, and wrote my short fiction for his class without outlines. As I tapped away at the keyboard night after night, I found myself feeling queasy. Venturing into a strange, dark writing house with no flashlight, a little voice in my head kept shouting, “Don’t go in there. For the love of God, do not go in there!” I feared my creativity would be bludgeoned to death if it took a wrong turn.

These days, I still opt for outlines when working on long, fictional pieces. I don’t bother with complicated charts and maps; my outlines are little more than long, flowing paragraphs, focused on plot, with initials stuck in for character names. They tend to read like this:

D and H arrive on their first day of high school. Within seconds, D get on the bad side of JC, the school bully. On top of that, H tells D that he thinks it’s time that they both go off and make new, “popular” friends. D is hurt, but pretends that he agrees…

I wonder, is this wrong?

I’m sure many excellent writers leave outlines by the wayside, and I’m a bit jealous of those people. There are few things as invigorating as discovering your story or piece as your write, but I do try not to rob myself of that joy. I may switch on as many lights as I can before entering my writing house, but as I walk comfortably through the rooms I might spy a lovely, painted serpentine dresser hidden under a pile of clothes. “Well,” I think to myself. “I had no idea this was going to be here.”

The real danger, I suppose, is not starting with an outline, but refusing to deviate from it.

So, would any of my fellow writers care to sound off on this? To outline or not to outline–which works best for you?

Next week: If You Can Speak, You Can Write

Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site has more examples of her work.


4 thoughts on “The Ins and Outs of Outlining

  1. As I mentioned last week, I love outlines — although I tend to go for non-traditional outlining format. I usually start with a mind map and then turn it into an outline by choosing the order in which I’ll address each of the main points.

    But yeah, I think that a mindless adherence to an outline in the face of changing story needs would be the problem with outlines. But it’s only with an outline that I feel comfortable enough to write things out of order. I’ll work on whichever part of the piece that I feel like writing, and put it all together at the end. That way, I’m freed up to write according to my thoughts of the time, and not forced to stick to the narrative structure if I’ve got the whole thing in my head.

    And if I don’t plan things out in advance, I run into problems where I find myself at the end of the piece unsure of what point I want to make — which means even more revision. (Sometimes a valuable exercise, but it certainly takes longer and is more likely to lead to unfinished work.)

  2. I agree with Sara and Martha on the benefits of using outlines. And I also think that to say that you’re stifling yourself creatively by using them underestimates the amount of art that is required in the writing of the outline! There’s the creativity of coming up with plot, theme, mood, character backgrounds, all of which can lead to a solid outline.

    I also think that strict adherence to the outline may cause you to miss opportunities, so it’s good to be flexible. But at the end, every writer has to approach their story in their own way.

  3. I am too chaotic a thinker to use outlines the way I was taught in school, with topics, subtopics, sub-sub topics, supporting details, etc. If you believe that writing is a process of thinking, not a product or evidence of that thinking, it’s a little hard to have the structure emerge before the process.

    I do make concept maps (I know, very teacher-talk) for non-fiction. The concept map that became “The Turret,” looks like the scribblings of a madwoman, but it enabled me to quickly assemble everything I wanted to say about the idea and make sure that the images and insights (such as they were) that occurred to me ended up in the correct paragraphs. When ideas are coming thick and fast, scribbling a chart of how one idea relates to another ensures that I keep as much of the brainstorm as is worth keeping.

    For fiction, I’ve been experimenting with something I think of as a loom, something that looks a lot like freewriting, but that also contains the actions, character development, and certain key pieces of dialogue that must occur by the end of the chapter for that chapter to have done its work. A couple of pages of loosely-woven “loom,” too rough to even merit the title of “rough draft,” can yield a much longer chapter, in which dialogue, description, and characters’ thoughts are woven onto that very simple initial structure.

    Then again, I do every damned thing the hard way, so maybe I should just outline like a normal person.

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