I have found that there are two kinds of writers, plotters and pantsers. Plotters outline everything. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They may have some idea of where the story goes, or they may have nothing other than an idea and a character or two. They really wing it. They admit that they don’t know how the story will end.
I’ve heard pantsers say that they can’t outline because it will take away all of the creativity and spontaneity of writing. Of course, this is complete piffle. As a committed plotter, let me assure you that outlining does not take away any of the creativity – in fact, it multiplies it.
Let’s just call it what it is: pantsers don’t know how to outline because they haven’t been taught. And they haven’t been taught how to outline because they haven’t been taught how to write. They haven’t been taught how to write because they never took the time and trouble to learn the discipline of composition.
If I had my way, people who have never studied Creative Writing shouldn’t write or call themselves a writer. You’re not a tuba player simply because you own a tuba or your mommy thinks you’re the best tuba player ever. Like anything else, you have to put in the wrench time. Learning is hard work, regardless of the subject. Creative Writing is something that takes a lifetime to learn and longer to master what you have learned.
Those who have taken multiple Creative Writing classes and have learned the basics know the value of outlining, even the necessity of it. Stories have structure. But more than that, composition is always more of an art than a science. Some people have studied the structure of stories, but still know nothing about who to write a great story.
It’s Not That Bad
An outline for a novel can be done on a Word document or on index cards or on a white markerboard. How you outline and how much you outline is up to you, but please, do something! I truly think that pantsers do some outlining, but maybe they don’t write it all down. I had a pantser tell me once that writing a novel was like playing music, and while I like to read the music on the page to see what notes to play he liked to play jazz. Even jazz musicians read music – it’s called a chart. It has time and tempo, key and chord changes. No one plays notes willy-nilly. Jazz improvisors follow an outline, and in some way, so do pantsers. I’m sure of it.
Instead of music, think of your novel as a university term paper, or more to the point, an advanced degree thesis or even a doctoral dissertation. No one writes a term paper without an outline of some kind. You are writing a creative dissertation and it needs to be organized and based upon some kind of structure. And like all good papers, you build everything around the thesis. The introduction builds to the thesis and the closing wraps things up after the thesis has been proven by the body of the paper. The setting for our story is the introduction and it all leads to the thesis – or in other words, the conflict. All things lead to the climax, the resolution of the conflict, and the denouement takes out of it and into our The End.
The body of our creative thesis is the rising action of our story. Everything that is a part of the rising action needs to help or hinder our hero from achieving or not achieving what he wanted but could not get that set up the conflict. This achieving or not is the conflict. The rising action is the hardest part of the novel to write. We need to know what happens between Once upon a time and They all lived happily ever after. This requires preparation and organization. It requires an outline.
Welcome To The Machine
Stated in the most tedious terms, novel writing is a series of making and correcting mistakes. That’s why writing is re-writing. It may be impossible to come up with a perfect manuscript, but merely one you can live with. Anything that cuts down on the errors should be eagerly pursued. Making an outline for your novel will give you much less to edit out. And there is no better preventative for the dreaded Writer’s Block than the slightly less dreaded novel outline. All of this preparing and organizing tends to fix problems before they begin.
Outlining helps us avoid all of the bad stuff and do all of the good stuff. It gives our novel direction and somewhere to go. We have a definite point A and point B and we know how to get to one from another even if it’s not a straight line. And if we consider the final product, all of the things we like in a really good novel can’t be done by pantsing, but only by plotting. Speaking for myself, my outlines give a better story because it gives me better characters. All of those wonderful sparkles of literary fiction certainly cannot be achieved without an outline, such as portends and symbolism.
I’ve heard people cry against outlining because they cannot be creative or spontaneous if they are following an outline. From my experience, an outline feeds my creativity and is the course of constant surprises. Remember that Creative Writing is almost an organic, living and breathing entity, something that does not so much come out of us but through us from – somewhere. We will still be startled by this we discover as we write, even with an outline, or said better, because of our outline. Some novels are non-chronological. I don’t see how a personal pull this off without some preparation. And on top of that, I don’t always writing chronologically even if the story is. I may skip around, chapter 1 today, 2 tomorrow, and then chapter 5 the next. I could not do that if it was a slave to chapter due to pantsing.
Here’s my secret: I get me ideas for my novels from my dreams – I really do. I write down the basics the following morning and let it sit. I decide what to write and pick two dates, one to begin outlining and another to start writing. I’ll spend six to eighth months preparing and organizing and two to three months drafting. I’ll look through my original notes and set out the road story, then I’ll make a list of potential characters like you see at the beginning of a play. I return to the story and break things into scenes and go back to the characters and flesh them out more. This ping-pong game allows me to develop story alongside my characters. No only do outline give me a cleaner first draft, but a novel where the story and the characters were developed side by side, and I think everything is the better for it.
I hope this advice helps you as it has helped me. And keeping in line with the title of this article, I outlined this post before I did anything else.