Write for the Jugular

To Plan Or Not To Plan

One of the main questions every writer asks (and every published writer gets asked) is, “Should I bother to outline my story?”

On the plus side, every writer has an answer. On the minus side, it’s always the same answer — it depends on you, the writer.

Some writers thrive on outlines. Others eschew them in favor of the idea that writing an outline locks you into plot points that you must adhere to, lest your idea fly apart at the seams.

There is validity to both arguments, but rarely do we ever hear why. So let’s take a look.

When To Outline

Outlining is almost essential for non-fiction books, for the same reason it was essential to your report on the Greek Empire in World History class in high school. You don’t need the Roman numeral and the indents per se, but if you’re tackling a long or book-length non-fiction piece, having an outline breaks things into manageable chunks, secures the timeline, and reminds you that you’re not just pulling stuff out of your … hat. The very advantage of non-fiction (that it’s something real and tangible) makes it a good idea to have something that will keep you in line as a writer. An outline will allow you to see your plot points, develop your story arc, and pace yourself.

Outlines are also good for genre fiction. Unlike the elegiac nature of prose, genre fiction, such as western, romance, or thriller, have certain conventions that benefit greatly from outlines. You don’t have to figure out what to do in every chapter ahead of time (though developing a killer formula has mad Dan Brown a soaring success), but knowing the plot sequence, when to meet the bad guy, when to meet the girl, when to reveal the red herring, will help greatly in the construction of a genre piece.

Just don’t let yourself get locked into rigid plot points that give you no wiggle room. Your writing will show signs of panic and of speeding through events just to get to a turning point (did you see Attack of the Clones?).

When Not To Outline

Short stories, even long ones, don’t typically need outlines. I’ve never known a writer to outline a short, though some jot down the beginning, middle, and end, which I suppose qualifies loosely.

Prose writing, which is an umbrella term for fiction that does not qualify as genre-specific, could surely benefit from outlining, but this has to come with a caveat. The real joy of prose writing is to be surprised by your own story. Prose fiction is considered “character-driven” rather than “plot-driven,” but a better way to say it would be that it is story-and-character driven, rather than formula-driven. The characters move through an actual story that unfolds, rather than through situations to which they have to react.

I can’t tell you not to outline if you write prose, but I would caution you to not get tied down in a step-by-step outline.  I had the good fortune to ask Sam Lipsyte (click here to read his short “The Dungeon Master” in The New Yorker) about pacing and plotting and he told me not to worry about that kind of thing. Maybe I wanted my hero to get from the cafe to the stairs to his bedroom, but he said “Maybe something happens to the guy and we never get to his bedroom.”

The point is, trust your writing. Let your story tell itself, let your characters do what they do (because they’re going to do it anyway). If you need an outline, knock yourself out, but never let your it get in the way of your writing.

And besides — if you don’t know where your story is going, your readers won’t be able to predict it either. (OK, that was from Sam Lipsyte too … But he’s right).

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