Outline? Or let it flow?

One of my recent responsibilities for a class assignment was to respond to student essays about certain aspects of writing: influences, how to start a project, etc. One common comment about starting a writing project always makes me think, “hmm. Yes, you haven’t written very many things, have you?” That response always goes something like this:

When I start a new project, I just write. I don’t worry about the characters or the plot or the story, I just write and see where it all goes. I just let the character (or story) take me where he wants to take me. (This is not an exact quote, for those of you thinking such things!)

This line of thinking gets us to the debate of whether it is advisable for a writer to write as the muse strikes and just let it flow out of the brain and fingertips, or to compose an outline and then work from that.

When I sat down to write a novel the very first time (not Buying Time, a different, unfinished one), I wanted to just start writing and “let the character tell his story” and/or “let it flow as it hits me.” I’d heard a few writers talk about composing like that and I wanted to try it. I wrote forty-thousand words. I was well on my way. But when I hit that 40k mark, while I thought I had some nice scenes, I had no STORY. And you know, story is king!

When I sat down to write my next novel (finished, but unsold), I outlined extensively. I revised the outline quite a few times in order to work on pacing and conflict…y’know, story stuff. The writing went fast…and the characters STILL told their story, I just knew where it was going.

When I sat down to write my next novel (now we get to Buying Time), I did a combination of the two. I had a “concept” but not a story. So I thought I’d write 10-15,000 words and see how it felt, but I didn’t want to write 40k words that went nowhere again. Once I got to that stage (10k words), I stopped and examined the piece for what was there and pulled the story out of it…and then did a rough outline. Once again, I knew the story and the words came more quickly.

When I reached that 40k mark in my first book, I had no idea where the story was going. And if I—the writer—didn’t know where the story was going or what it was, how could I expect to sell it. Notice, I didn’t. Oh, sure, I may revisit it one day and see if I can find the story there…but for now, it’s simply 40k words of everyday scenes.

It’s a little easier to let it flow when writing a novel, though. There are no real “markers” you have to meet—it’s whatever floats your boat. With other kinds of writing (film, television, comics, etc), outlining is vital because you have limited “time” frame in which the story must fit. You can’t (normally) just write until the story plays out, you have to fit it into the chosen format. This requires good outlining or you’ll find yourself with a bunch of words that may sound good but mean nothing.

There are pros and cons to each, I guess, but ultimately, for most writers, outlining has to enter the process at some point. I guess that’s why I always suggest writers do it earlier rather than later. It’s a lot easier to revise in an outline stage than when you have seventy-five thousand words.


Filed under writing

10 responses to “Outline? Or let it flow?

  1. An informative post about your process. Thanks.

  2. I have mixed feelings. My TV-writing parents never started a script until they had a full, scene-by-scene outline. I never started an outline until the story was well underway. Of course, their stories ended up being produced, and mine ended up around page 30, unfinished and unfinishable.

    • And I think there’s a lot to be said for that. One person told me it was like building a bridge: you don’t just start laying timber, you draw out an extensive plan to determine how it’s going to be done. Your TV-writing parents had a very strict format their stories had to FIT, so it makes total sense. I think you can be a little looser for novel writing, but an outline still makes sense.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Hi, Roland. I have had an outline sorta “in my head” from the beginning, but I found the downside of not committing it to paper to be that I need to go back and introduce that conflict sooner and probably shorten and combine certain chapters. I’m not halfway through so it doesn’t feel monumental. Maybe doing that will help me get back in the groove and finish my first novel! I got distracted launching a blog. I’m still so green that it’s pretty basic. I’d love for you to give it a look,

    • Blogs are a lot more “work” that many realize. It’s good writing practice and good for your writer visibility, but it can also DRAIN your writerly energy…that’s not often discussed. Anyway, yes, it’s probably a good idea to get it down on paper rather than just in your head. When it’s on paper you can go back to it again and again and again. It can remind you what the GOAL for your character is and to keep working for it.

  4. Because of several bad experiences of not outlining and ending up with writer’s block, I prefer to plan out where my story is going to go.

  5. Why not use an outline? When I first started writing, I did use an outline. Not only did I outline the first book, I outlined the next twenty! There’s some pretty good ideas in them actually. I started writing the first book, got through a chapter and realized I liked the next character better than the first one, so I did an outline of her story. Then I started writing that book. I did a vast outline that would cover it and a lot more first. By the time I finished chapter three of that book, I had 40,000 words written and realized that each chapter was much too thin and would be more realistic as their own separate books. So I started over and wrote a new chapter one using the original first chapter as an outline. That’s when I realized that I had lost all interest. I knew how the story ended so it wasn’t fun anymore. That’s the key right there. If I know how it ends, it’s not fun for me to write.

  6. Writing The Nexus was like unearthing the story a page at a time. Because I didn’t know exactly what would come next, it was like reading someone else’s book. It was exhilarating. I closed the daily writing sessions with endorphin highs. Each morning I sat down at the computer with heart beating and mind rushing into the next scene. I finished the first draft with 170,000-plus words on a Monday night and the next morning I resaved the file with a new name and began the second draft. Since I’d kept the research mnemonics file up to date, the biggest revision concerns were already saved in my “Things to Change in Second Draft” file.

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