Novel Planning: Should You Write an Outline or Not?

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The Tao of Story Creation

Think of the story as a vague shape; a block of wood formed from your desires and experiences. Somewhere inside it is the story you want to tell. That is a different shape; it must be contained within the block, and suit the grain and density of the material, but doesn’t yet know its final shape.

And neither do you. But you have an idea of the order, kind and type of shape that you want to give it. You have an idea of how you want people to be affected when the see the final shape; you have an idea of what you feel, and what you want them to feel. An impression of the impression you want to leave.

Before you start carving the block, you need to get to know it well, to understand its potential. This is self knowledge – knowing your own experience and abilities, but also knowing what matters to you, both about the creative process and about what its outcome—the story—should achieve.

Before you start carving the block, you need to get to know well the idea that will guide and shape the process of carving it.
But who knows what surprises are hidden beneath its surface? What knots and twists in the grain, what interplay of the color of heartwood and sapwood, what new surfaces will you both reveal and create?

So, as you carve, you will incorporate these discoveries into your idea. Even as where you chuse to cut, chisel and scrape is guided by your story idea, so your story idea is formed and shaped as it adapts to the qualities and textures of the wood as you reveal it.

This is an idealized view of how the creative process of writing a story works. For many years I’ve been working towards a way to describe the process that takes account both of the infinite variety of methodologies that I discover in my writers, but also of their difficulties and frustrations. Probably the most divisive and dominant of all these frustrations is the conflict between planning and discovery.

A False Dichotomy

The false dichotomy between what is unhelpfully called “plotter or pantser” has been obvious to me for a while. Doubly unhelpful because the terms themselves are misleading (which is a polite way of saying “wrong”).

“Plotting” (in storytelling, not moustache twirling) is primarily an activity for academics. Writers can usefully apply it for self-editing, using it to map out the events of their stories to help find flaws. Crime and thriller writers can also use it beforehand, as a means of understanding, revealing or making clear the events that cause the story. But not the story itself. There is a pervasive myth that somehow PLOT is the skeleton or substructure of STORY, so if you first create plot, story can be built on it, or fleshed out (shudder).

“Pantsing” is short for “writing by the seat of your pants”, which is taken to mean “writing without the security or safety of an outline”. But “by-the-seat-of-your-pants” was originally a term used by early aviators as a jokey way to explain to non aviators how they stayed in their aircraft, because for their own safety they wore no seatbelt or harness. This was for exactly the same reason that pilots have ejector seats today. You’re much more likely to survive a bad landing. Early aircraft were light and slow, so being literally thrown clear improved your chances. So flying by the seat of your pants was safer than being strapped in!

That is, of course, just a linguistic quibble, albeit a fascinating tangent.

I was talking about a false dichotomy, and it is this:

EITHER you invent the whole story and then write it,

OR you make it up as you go along.

Neither of these is true. All writers know, if varyingly, what story they want to write. If you really made it up as you went along, you wouln’t get beyond the first word, because you wouldn’t have a purpose for the first sentence. But equally, if you could really know every detail of the story before you wrote it, you would have to write motivated by self-discipline alone. It would be like doing homework for a subject that doesn’t interest you – sound familiar?

Actually, the pantsers have the easier side of the false divide, since they are following their creative instinct. They create difficulty for themselves through fear. They are afraid that if they work out too many of the details in advance, then the creative part of the process will have been done, and there will only be the tedious slog of writing it out. They fear the boredom, and they fear a loss of the creative spark.

They are right, of course, but for (partly) the wrong reasons. All communication is creative. Creative writing is better the more creativities are active as you write. That’s why poetry is such an essential learning tool: it seeks to engage every type of creativity at once, to exploit connexions and associations, by encouraging visual, verbal, imaginative, absurdity, nonsense, half-meanings, dissonance, harmony, and so on, all in search of communicative serendipity – the chance discovery of perfect arrangements of words that arises from a well prepared state of mind.

To be slightly Taoist again, the discipline of poetry is to cast off categories, to include everything, especially indiscipline.

The plotters are also right, insofar as they admit to themselves that you can’t write a story without first knowing what it will be. Where they go wrong is much the same as where people go wrong in all manner of human endeavor: believing themselves to be in a category, they try to conform to consensus about that category.

The most common example of this is when people conform to expectations of them that are based solely on their gender: they do so because they think it is right, and think there is something wrong with them when they feel ill-at-ease with it. In the UK, young men are expected to be fanatical about football (soccer) just because they are young men.

Plotters, having recognized that you need to know the story before you start writing, conform to all the planning, plotting and outlining advice they can find. They soon become unhappy with how constraining it is, but have been told that the only alternative is pantsing, which they won’t try because they believe what the pantsers believe: that it is done without any foreknowledge of the story; and they know this to be impossible.

I’m here to tell you (today) that everyone who writes a story has some foreknowledge of the story. How much foreknowledge should be what drives the rest of the creative process. If pressed to make a distinction, I’d say that some writers are much more conscious than others of what they want to write; they plan the story unconsciously, and don’t realize that they aren’t really making it up as they go along, but are actually working towards an unconscious goal.

Creativity is About Plasticity

Forget about left-brain/right-brain; not only is that distinction unhelpful, it also isn’t an accurate depiction of the way the brain works. Everyone is creative. But some people adapt better to having their creativity “channelled” (for which read “stifled”) than others.

An effective creative process arises from two things:

  • a definite objective, such as a problem to be solved
  • freedom to express and explore all possibilities

On a number of occasions I’ve applied Alfred Jarry’s invented science of Pataphysics to real-world problem solving. It is extraordinarily effective as it teaches people to shift paradigms at will – and paradigm shifting can only be done if you can encourage, develop and exploit the associative interconnectedness that is the real power of your creative brain. I really sound like I’m going to sell you some pseudoscience product now, don’t I? Any second now I’m going to use the word ‘quantum.’

Pataphysics is described as ‘the science of imaginary solutions.’ In Pataphysics, you present or describe a real-world problem, and encourage people to come up with solutions that can only work in their imagination.

This exercise encourages freedom of imagination, which is what post-industrial educational institutions beat out of you. It’s the imagination that you have to rediscover; non-instrumental imagination; imagination that does not, because it cannot, lead to concrete results.

Why Are You Reading This?

If you are an experienced writer, you already have a process that works for you, and you aren’t reading this.

You aren’t reading it because you already know that it is impossible to write a story without knowing what it is going to be, but also impossible to write a story that can’t be adapted to what you discover while writing.

You’ve left the whole “plotting vs. pantsing” question far behind you, or given up writing for good, so you still aren’t reading this, unless indulging in the cup of regret.

So I’m addressing myself to those who are still on the steep part of the learning curve – the part where it looks like a sheer cliff-face.

Don’t try to be a plotter, don’t try to be a pantser. Try to discover the creative process that works for you.

So How Do I Outline My Story, If At All?

Before You Start Writing

How much you do before you start will depend on what sort of story you want to write, so you should begin by understanding that. The key issues are going to be length and complexity.

Length can refer to word-count, but before you start writing, you should think about the density of events. If the story contains two or three major events and the rest is all about their consequences – emotional, psychological, economical, then even if it is 500k words, it has a low even density, so you won’t need to do much note-taking. If it is action packed, leaping from place to place, filled with significant encounters and twists-and-turns, then even if it is only 80k words, you may need to make some notes.

Complexity is revealed through looking at the interplay between story features (characters, locations, events, items, ideas) as well as how numerous they are. Broadly speaking, the more characters, the more complex the story, even if most of the characters are minor, if they appear more than once, they need to be tracked.

Forget anything you’ve learned or read about structure. If you define a structure and try to fit a story to it, then if you’re extremely talented, the story will be well-written but mediocre.

If it looks like it’s going to be long, complex or both, then you will make your life easier if you start thinking about a few objectives.

Finally, consider your availability. If you are already a full time writer, then you will be spending a considerable chunk of your time, daily, to your book. You aren’t likely to lose track of the bigger objectives, but probably need to make less notes. If you only write in your spare time, or at weekends, making notes and identifying objectives and writing them down becomes a necessity.

The Hierarchy of Objectives

Objectives are ordered from the vague and general at the top to the precise and local at the bottom. Think about all of them, but don’t write them down unless you think you are in danger of forgetting them, or getting distracted.

  1. Message and Theme – You write because you have something – or many things – to say. Issues or ideas that matter to you, or that you care about. How much they come through in your writing is partly up to you, partly beyond your control. It’s worth deciding before you start writing whether it is your objective to communicate these things to the reader.
  2. The Reader’s Experience – I would describe this as: how you want the reader to feel at the end. But it includes the various emotional or psychological states you want the reader to go through as he reads. Don’t worry: this can be as simple as wanting the reader to feel entertained. Expressing this objective in one to five words is ideal.
  3. The Problem and Its Solution – Especially if you only write in your spare time, but in general, it can be very helpful before you start to think about what your story is about. Why are you writing it? A story is usually about a problem and it’s solution. When you start writing you may be able to be very precise about both, or vague about either or both. At the very least, you should be able to intuit, with the aid of the previous two objectives, the general type of solution.
  4. The Rest of the Objectives – It is very helpful, though by no means essential, to identify objectives for each story feature, and then to identify objectives at a book, section, chapter and scene level. In the most critical or difficult passages, it can be helpful to think about objectives at a paragraph, sentence, clause and even word level, especially in the early stages of your writing career.

Your Outline

In my experience, the difference between a very good book and a great one is the existence of an outline; but an outline can cut both ways if you don’t know how to use it.

Think of your outline as the empty space between the beginning and the end of the story. What you put in between should be a balance of what you feel is necessary for you to be able to start writing, and any important ideas that you have that you might overlook if you don’t write them down.

Most important is that your outline is not fixed.

Even though you might sketch out in charcoal the shape you expect it to take on the outside of the block, once you start carving, you have to adapt.

The flexible outline has three qualities.

  1. Anything you note on your outline should leave you with the freedom to change, adapt or abandon it. Your outline is not a description, nor a prescription, of what you are going to write; it is a guideline and an aid to memory.
  2. Anything you note on your outline can be changed, moved or cut.
  3. Once you have started writing, your outline MUST be updated. When you deviate from the outline, change the outline. The real power of an outline is that it keeps you to your major objectives and helps you to track the small details you might otherwise forget or misremember, but leaves everything in between open to interpretation, variation, evolution, development and change.

In short, the purpose of an outline is to let you get on with creation, but mitigate for your faults and failings. If I didn’t make notes of all the ideas I have while writing, I’d forget most of them. But I also note important fine details (recently, the colour of stockings that two characters were wearing) so I can refer back to them correctly (the right colours on the right legs, which I would certainly get wrong otherwise) AND expand them into the symbolic landscape (echoing the colours elsewhere).

Actual Types of Outline. Seriously.

Sparse Visual/Spatial Outline.

I like to use this one myself for editing, and especially when helping an author to develop a story idea. There is enough information here to start writing, provide you know what type of story you want to write.

How to do it:

At the top of the page, write a single line that describes the first event in the story – the event that starts everything happening.

At the bottom of the page, write a single line that describes the story’s ending. This is a lot more difficult; it can take several stories before you get proficient at summing up an expected ending, so don’t worry if it seems vague or unclear.

Draw a vertical line from the start to the end.

On the left-hand side of the line, write the major events that you expect to happen in the story, and mark with a short horizontal line approximately where you think that the event will occur.

On the righthand side, make a note of any other thoughts or ideas you’ve had, and if possible draw lines to the outline showing where they have influence. In the example I’ve just used characters, but other features – locations, idems, ideas – are all relevant.

The most important thing in this approach is that you DO NOT EVEN TRY to think of anything, let alone everything. Make a note ONLY of the ideas that have already come to you. If other ideas follow on from the process of making this outline, make a note of them only if you think you might forget them.

As you write, add events to the left, and other features to the right, as you write them. Evenually this outline will become quite cluttered, but keep it up to date and it will form a very accurate picture of your story by the time you reach the end. This is of very great value in self-editing.

Chapter by Chapter

Literally the opposite extreme, a chapter by chapter outline can be produced in a number of different ways, but my advice is to work by working your way down a hierarchy of objectives.

How to do it:

Using your favorite word processor or creative writing software, begin with some major objective signposts. Two of these are obvious:

  • Beginning
  • End

There are a few others that are not too difficult to find:

  • Introduce Anatgonist
  • Introduce Main Secondary Character
  • Climax

If you already know what the key events of the story are going to be, give them simple names and put them in as objective signposts:

  • [Key event 1] Happens
  • [Key event 2] Happens

And so on. If you know that characters have to be in particular places or states of mind by any particular stage, use those, too.

  • Protagonist is Grief-ridden
  • Antagonist Reaches Antarctic

Bear in mind that before you start outlining the actual chapter content, you may not have many clear objectives, but they will occur to you as you are developing the chapters. Write them down, in approximately the right place in the story, as they occur to you. Bear in mind also that as you progress through the chapter details, some major objectives may change or move. Do so as soon as it occurs, even if you haven’t finished writing a chapter summary.

Once you have your major objectives, begin working your way through each chapter in order. For each chapter, write a sentence or two describing the chapter objectives, and a few more describing how you think you will reach those objectives. I generally write the objectives first, and then build the story around them (see further below).

This is the outline for chapter 2 of a book I am writing:

We bring Chastity to Ake town. It is Saturday – the day after Chaper 1.
We get to see various features of Ake Town including Mill Scrap.
By the time Chastity and Warris sit down to dinner, an even worse storm is raging than the previous day.
Show that Chastity already knows Doad – inevitable really, considering how long she has been there.
End the chapter with more than a hint that Warris stays the night with Chastity.

As you work your way through the objectives for each chapter, you will probably find that details of later chapters start to suggest themselves to you. Make a note of these. Eventually you will start to see how the events of each chapter tie the major objectives of the story together.

The advantage of working ONLY with objectives is that it leaves completely open how you chuse to achieve them, and therefore enables you to create a clear definition of the story’s intention and it’s destination, without fixing the path that it follows.

Finding Your Own Balance

My technique is to begin with overall objectives but not to fill in any details until I am ready to write them. This is a process that builds up the story outline progressively as I write it.

Before I used Scrivener I used loose sheets of paper, because you need to be able to add new information between existing information.

With Scrivener, I have a folder for each chapter, and within it, a file for the chapter outline, a second file for the scene outlines, and then each of the scenes in a single file. But how you organize it matters less than the overall process:

How to do it:

Begin with a sparse outline, and then add in as many major objectives as possible. Write out a brief story summary. This is one paragraph for each of the major events, and lists the major revelations.

Then decide the objectives for the first chapter. Once you’re happy with them, add some details as to how the objectives will be achieved. This is the second chapter outline with those details filled in:

We bring Chastity to Ake town. It is Saturday – the day after Chaper 1.
She has been given various errands by other girls (and maybe by members of staff). She goes to town with Hope and one other girl. They have to leave her at the Star with the Inspector, who is expected to bring her back to the school.
Over the course of the afternoon, the weather worsens. The market closes up early.
We get to see various features of Ake Town including Mill Scrap.
By the time Chastity and Warris sit down to dinner, an even worse storm is raging than the previous day.
They convince each other that it would be best if Chastity stayed the night in town, in one of the Star’s comfortable rooms. The inspector uses the call box outside the Star to call Letter House.
This gives an opportunity to show that Chastity already knows Doad – inevitable really, considering how long she has been there.
Possibly drop a hint that Chastity has already slept with some local young man.
End the chapter with more than a hint that Warris stays the night with Chastity.

From here, you can identify individual scenes within the chapter, and outline them, immediately before writing them. Here’s scene 1:

Scene 1: the bus to town
Objectives
Use the view from the bus to establish the broader landscape.
Also, use it to give the first glimpses of some important locations: Newly, the Old Mill, Mill Scrap.
Give some slim details of the town centre.
Develop the relationship between the three girls a little more.
Drop the mysterious parcel in there somewhere.
Get the girls to the tea rooms.

In summary:

  • rough outline the whole book
    • define chapter objectives
      • define scene objectives
        • write scene
      • repeat until chapter objectives are met
    • repeat until book completed

But, while writing, I continue to update the rough outline, and while writing a chapter, the chapter objectives and outline can also change, so I make sure to update it once I’ve finished each scene.

How I Hope You’re Going To Do It

My main points in this article are these:

  • you have to know what you want to write in order to write anything
  • you have to be prepared to adapt what you thought you were going to write

In short, writing, like any creative endeavor, is a mixture (rarely a balance) of expectation and discovery. Both are essential to creative excellence. If there is a balance to be found, it is between your anxiety, your needs, your desires, and the needs of the story you want to write. In other words, the right approach to writing an outline is going to vary with your personality and experience, and with the requirements and constraints of your chosen project.

What I hope you will do, therefore, is find a balance to suit you that is some sort of mixture of all three outlining techniques that I have described.

Remember:

Your outline is there to help your story meet its objectives – to help it to become the story you want it to be. So your outline must not dictate the path that the story follows, just show it where it needs to get to.

Your outline should become more and more detailed as your story progresses. Your story shapes the outline.

The story you finish up with, is a combination of your intent, and the process of realizing your intent, and the tools and the medium you work with. As you carve the block, the wood pushes your chisel. You have to decide when to let the wood guide you, and when to force it. When to follow the grain and when to cut the grain. You have to learn to recognize the beauty that your process reveals, and balance actively searching with surprise revelation, balance force with discovery.

A Final Thought

Art is meaningless without conflict. If it was a matter of every factor in the creative process working in perfect harmony, the results would not merely be uninteresting, but pointless.

No creative process can be uniform, nor uniformly easy. Some parts will be difficult. There will be times when you strike a knot, and have to completely rethink the shape of the final sculpture. And that is exactly how it should be.

Whatever process you follow to your current story, you should prepare yourself to begin the next one in the same way, with another uncarved block, and another journey, where you will again discover both the work of art, and the process of creating it, at the same time.

About the Author Harry Dewulf

Professional Literary Editor and Creative Writing Teacher. If you want help of any kind with your book, you may contact me here. I recently launched a course to teach you everything I’ve learned about writing novels in the last 8 years. It’s called Read Worthy Fiction, and you can find it on Udemy.

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