Does an Outline Prevent Discovery?

Plotters and pantsers make up the ends of the spectrum of writers about outlining. Some hate the word, while others live by the outline map. I happen to be someone who outlines. It wasn’t always this way, but I have come to find a way to outline that keeps me focused on the story ahead.

The biggest complaint I hear from pantsers (the ones who write by the seat of their pants) is that if they outline, they’ve already written the book. What’s the point?

Maybe we have too much thrown into the category of outline. I remember them from school with the Roman Numerals and the Arabic numbers underneath. Someone must still use that kind of outline, but not most of the writers I know.

What happens to me without an outline is that I wander far from the beaten path of the story. When I have my draft, I spend more time figuring out the threads and the pieces that don’t fit than anything else. Like, why did my protagonist wander off with her dragon here? That doesn’t fit the story! Did I really need to discover that for twenty pages? (Yes, I’m exaggerating here.)

But the key to a great outline is to allow enough to keep in mind the end while not tying hands too much to get through the story. And it isn’t like an outline is set in stone. If your characters mutiny against it, the writer had better understand what happened – and act accordingly. The choice is to change the characters so they’d choose to run through the outline, or change the outline so the characters want to travel that direction.

How much of an outline is enough? It’s what keeps the writer on track with the story. If it’s enough to have that vague image of an ending in your head through the writing – go for it. An outline can be as minimal as fifteen words or as detailed as a snowflake. It’s simply a tool to work for the writing.

So does any kind of information go against the discovery of the novel? Is it forbidden by the pantser to make character sketches or physical sketches of settings or to write out the history of the world before the story begins? Maybe because I write science fiction I struggle with this. I might have years to cover with changes to the characters, society, and technology to get to the point where I want to begin the story.

I might be able to do that off the cuff, but I might get left with questions like I did from reading books like Divergent: How do you get the factionless to work in factories or drive trains or do anything when they’re homeless and don’t have food? What did Voldemort do in the thirty or so years from when he left Hogwarts to when Harry’s curse zapped him away? Thirty years feels like a long time to be gathering the supporters, if only to try to take down the Ministry of Magic the moment Voldemort gets his body back. If he gathered power to terrorize people for thirty years, wouldn’t he be a little more patient? (And I know the Harry Potter novels were outlined.)

But then again, perhaps I just overthink these things. Maybe you have your own examples of those books that have those little questions that keep you awake at night. It isn’t really possible to answer every single question about a world, but the writer ought to know. Some of that is always discovered for me while writing, no matter how tight my outline becomes.

Some resources for outlines:

Minimalist- 15 to 20 words by Les Edgerton 

Rowling’s Method (There has to be a name for this somewhere, but I haven’t come across it)
If you have a way to outline other than these, please share!

5 thoughts on “Does an Outline Prevent Discovery?

  1. I don’t normally outline for short stories, but I tend to make notes (except in very rare occasions) and a lot of time I’ll hold conversations with fellow writers about whichever story I’m working on at that moment. That’s my form of outlining. Helps working out the kinks of that given moment.

    As for longer pieces–yes, I do outline more now than I used to and I think that has helped a LOT. Makes a lot more sense with where the story is going and how things happen. Like this!

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Ransom! I appreciate it. It made me go back and revisit that blog post and I think I’ll repost it. One person asked when the book I outlined was going to come out and I’m happy to report it comes out in early October from Down&Out Press, and is titled, THE GENUINE, IMITATION, PLASTIC KIDNAPPING.

  3. That’s wonderful news, Les! We’ll have to keep our eyes open.

    And Medie (who accidentally posted anonymously), it’s good to learn how it helps you to write. I know you’ve been focusing on that a lot lately.

  4. Some sort of structure is useful for a large scale project like a book. I am against a too rigid structure, which fails to allow for changes in situation or creative insights.

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