To Outline or Not To Outline

by Robbi Hess

Does the word “outline” cause fingers of dread to claw their way down your spine? Outlining: Does it conjure up images of your high school English teacher standing in front of the classroom explaining the “finer” points of A, Roman Numeral IV and footnotes? Would you feel better with the terms diagram, skeleton or road map? Even though it’s a matter of semantics, some writers are tempted to break every pencil in the house and toss the keyboard out the window at the thought of having to sit down and outline their idea.

What works for you?

Many writing purists believe the use of an outline stifles creativity. “A story, if it is well written, will just flow,” they say. On the flip side, a writing instructor of mine said recently, “If I know where the story is going, so will my reader.” She obviously resides with the non-outlining faction of writers.

Still other writers adamantly state that without an outline, a writer will paint themselves into a corner, or be at the top of a cliff with no where to go but down. They say that the outline is a necessary evil to keep your character/story on the straight and narrow toward that finish line we call “The End.”

Some writers need at least a vague idea of their story’s beginning, middle and end. But there are those individuals out there who are so meticulous in their plotting that they contemplate chapter and verse, sometimes down to which scenes, sentences and conversations will occur in which chapter.

Personally, I know how my story begins, what might possibly happen in the middle and definitely how it ends. How I (my characters) actually get there is a delicious mystery. I am a “story-boarder.” I love the look of a white board/dry erase board when it is covered in various colors and sizes of sticky notes. Sticky notes are portable so if an idea for a scene, a solution to a dilemma my hero has gotten himself into, or the path my heroine takes to get from town to town can be jotted down on a sticky note and stuck to my white board when I get home.

The closest I have gotten to outlining my story is to take my white board and draw on a grid (the squares I drew on are the size of my stickies) and label the top rows with chapter numbers and the side rows with scene/idea titles. The beauty of the white board and sticky notes is that offers me some semblance of structure while not being as confining as a high-school term paper outline.

So… what kind of person are you?

Whether you painstakingly diagram hundreds of computer generated pages of plot, sketch your idea/story out on a white board, cover your walls with post-its or simply throw a dart at a plot point and go from there – you need to know yourself well enough to choose the method that works for you.

If you are not the type to get bogged down with the details, the idea of having to complete an outline will be a task too daunting to surmount. When faced with this dreaded obstacle, your creative urges will eventually suffocate from the perceived lack of freedom. The joy of writing will be leached from the process… and you don’t want that to happen!

Whatever works for you is the way to go. You can’t compare your approach to writing the way your neighbor does – individuality is one of the rules of writing. If you know that you cannot possibly wade your way through a 100,000 novel without having a completely mapped out route, then by all means determine which approach works for you (whether it’s the formal outline, a detailed synopsis, etc.) and let your creative juices flow.

There are writers who actually plot out, and write outlines for, flash fiction pieces. It works for them.

Many writers need only know what their characters want in order to “outline” their story. For example: If Mary needs to exorcise the house she has recently inherited because she has no where else to live, then the writer knows he must work at getting Mary from the beginning, to the middle, and happily to the end.

Help is out there

There are many books on the market that appeal to each plotting personality. There are also myriad Internet sources that offer thumbnail sketches of various plot/outline devices. Maybe you simply need a detailed character sketch because once you know your character inside and out they will help you write their own story. Opt for the writing method that works for you. Sit down at the keyboard and put those words to paper. The only way to get any writing done is to show up at the page. Take a few minutes now and determine what works for you and simply go with it.

© 2003 by Robbi Hess

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