Oooh! The “Evil” Outline

Writing K. M. Weiland wrote an awesome post on the Writers Digest website this week titled “7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story.” His opening words hooked me in an instant.

Mention the word outline in a room full of writers, and you’re sure to ignite a firestorm of passionate debate. Writers either love outlines, or they hate them. We either find them liberating, or we can’t stand how confining they are.

Any writer can tell you, this is SO TRUE. There is no better topic to start a violent debate at any gathering of writers than that of “outlining” or “pantsing.” And the most vehement debaters seem to believe that your can only creatively, meaningfully, and powerfully write one way or the other, that the two styles of tackling story are completely antithetical. That is why I was so grateful for Weiland’s reasoned account.

Why? I’m sure you have already guessed, I do both. Mostly, it is a matter of necessity. I have far more time to think of ideas for novels than I actually have to sit down and write them. (I’m sure many of you writers who like me hold a day job probably find yourselves in this same position.) Therefore, when a good idea comes to me, I write it down. When I’m thinking of writing a new novel,which is usually when I am in the throes of writing another novel, I can’t just keep switching gears from one story to the next like a butterfly sampling nectar. If I am ever to finish a project, it must get the bulk of my attention.

And yet… Ideas are everywhere! Therefore, by the time I am ready to start a new novel, I have a pile of ideas (we’re talking multiple inches in height on materials as varied as index cards, paper placemats from my hubby’s favorite Chinese restaurant, cash register receipts, the pretty flowered stationery I keep by my bed, checking account deposit slips–you name it) and the only practical thing to do with them is to string them together in the order I want to use them, like a pearls in a necklace, lest something wonderful be forgotten.

Once I’ve got my stack properly ordered, I begin to write. Do I have every idea nailed down in fine detail? No. Do I have all the links worked out from one planned scene to the next? No. If another wonderful idea comes to me do I reject it because I’ve already organized my stack of ideas? No. If the scene or characters I am writing take me in an unanticipated direction do I lasso them and drag them back to their intended places? No.

I work freely within a framework of ideas that have already excited me. Maybe someday, if I can ever get all the novels that are incubating completed, I might need to work in a different manner. However, at the rate ideas fly at me, I think I’ll probably always have to face the hard choice of what I get to work on next.

What about you? Do you outline, wing it, or throw the two methods into your own crazy blender. Tell me how you like to pull your stories together.

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4 thoughts on “Oooh! The “Evil” Outline

  1. I use the outline as an organizational tool. You see when I first get an idea I write a barebones outline using the “plot triangle” points (exposition, rising action, etc.) as headers. My outline doesn’t stifle my creativity because it is by no means unchangeable. If, as both the story and characters become more fully developed, I find that one of the bits from my outline doesn’t make sense I simply change it. For my writing style the outline does nothing to stop my creativity, it merely offers me a method to organize my ideas and to envision how the story might end.

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  2. I jot notes on paper when I come up with the initial ideas. Then I just start writing. About halfway through, I feel the need the organize. I then add a page at the end where I list the remaining plot events in the order I want them to occur. It’s hard to outline any earlier because I know the premise and the end result, but I wait for my character to tell me how we get from point A to Z (he or she fills in the B-Y as I go). I’d like to try a little more pre-planning for my next book, but I’m skeptical that it will work for me.

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    1. And that’s okay, too. Pantsers and outliners and flexible folk all need to respect each other’s style. There is no one right way to craft a story. A story can be pulled together in a variety of ways, and each person’s personality and approach helps to make each story unique.

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