Do you outline your novels? Why or why not?
Since my title is “Against Outlines,” you may suspect I’m going to argue against them.
Maybe, though, I’m not vehemently against outlines for writing novels.
In my brief career* as a romance novelists, for example, outlines were essential.
After all, these books were short, about 55,000 words, and I had to produce them in a matter of months. Writing one had to be like running a mini-marathon.
You were given a route and a clear finish line, and you had to run the same route as everybody else. You could throw in a leap or a flourish here and there—in fact, you were encouraged to, as long as you didn’t stumble off course or onto the sidewalk. You had to plan every character’s action and reaction so as to arrive at the essential alchemy of the ordained finish line. No characters allowed to stop and drift into quirky shops or down unmarked alleys. Eye on the prize!
Lest romance writers rightly take offense, let me be clear. Setting off on and finishing this course is no snap.
Planning at this level takes enormous discipline. To exploit a different metaphor, directing each scene so that each actor arrives at the mark for the scene to follow requires a well-honed sense of character motive and of how dialogue and action can deliver on that motive. And those flourishes: as I learned (metaphor shifts back again), to carve out a lane for yourself with all those thousands of others huffing along beside you, to be you without veering off course: that takes a brand of genius. Believe me, I was there. I know.
Outlines make such a demanding fictional endeavor doable. Each scene can be carefully slotted into the overall course. There’s a marked turn coming up; if the scene that propels the characters around it is missing, the gap will glare. Too many talky scenes in a row? The outline will flog you back on pace. And each checked-off block of the outline announces your progress. Three-quarters there? Do you have enough action to fill those last pages? The outline knows.
And of course, even if I were to inveigh against outlines in rabid, absolutist terms, I’d have to admit that we all need one thing outlines amply provide: a story arc. Something’s going to change before the end of the story. You can’t write your final outline entry without knowing what that something is.
But. . .
A dear late colleague of mine used to say, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” That “surprise for the writer” is what an outline trades away.
Writing without an outline is more like setting out on a road trip than a marathon. You do have a destination. You can see it, a glow on the horizon. But you’re not a hundred percent sure yet what’s giving off that glow. Oh, you have intimations. You’re packed your bag for many eventualities. But you really don’t completely know.
So off you go. Maybe you have a map, but it offers you many forks, and you can’t even tell which one is shortest, let alone which one you’ll most enjoy. Along each fork you choose you spot little side trips, where you park for a bit and wander to see what’s there. You find your characters in those quirky shops, down those murky alleys, picking up memories, fears, loves, trying them out like costumes to see what new selves they reveal. You didn’t know your character loves French movies even though he doesn’t understand any French, or that she loves cats even though they make her sneeze. Or that she fell out of a tree and nearly died when she was ten, did you? Oh! That explains her anger at the father who didn’t catch her. You didn’t know your character once loved a girl who dumped him; now you discover his struggles with trust.
Without the confines of an outline, you don’t tell characters what to do. You follow them and see what they do. It’s not like you tag along blindly. If they get too wild, you may abandon them, leave them to their own stories . . . though you may come back one day just to see where they ended up.
The fact of it is, without an outline, there’s a sense in which the story writes itself.
Dangerous? Oh, my lord, yes. It takes much longer. It tempts complication, which can be a storyteller’s bane. You can’t afford to constantly wonder, “Why did we turn off here?” when you’re expected/hoping to write a book a year.
But it can save you grief as well. My one great, sad lesson from my Failed Novel was that once you set your thinly known characters loose in the world, talking to each other and finding unexpected doors to open, they create themselves—excuse the cliché: they take on a life of their own. And once that starts to happen, you must listen. The marathon route says turn right here; they say, “No, we don’t like that direction.” Boss characters you’ve found, not made, and they’ll punish you.
So maybe we need a middle ground. A marathon route for the directionally challenged for whom the trip is the joy? A road trip into delight and surprise for the writer-on-deadline who must get to that glow this week, not next year?
What strategies do you use to keep your novel on track without giving up the chance for surprise?
*(I had a two-book contract with a line opened by NAL in a short-lived attempt to bite off a piece of the Harlequin/Silhouette market. Their decision to close the line after only a few titles nudged me in a different direction. Otherwise . . . well, who knows.)