To Outline or Not to Outline That is the Question

If you are a writer of any longevity, whether the first book or the thirtieth, this is a question and argument you will come across. Yes, there are two main schools of thought on plotting out your entire book chapter by chapter, character profiles ad nauseam before starting the very first word on your new project. I applaud those who have this clear picture in their head of how the story is to go. When you spend the first two to ten thousand words of your inspiration on an outline, I find it is a slippery slope that may sometimes steal the inspiration later.

When is Outline Too Much

Again, this is one writer’s opinion, but a good outline should only be a highlighting endeavor. Main themes of chapters, character engagements, and what the chapter will do to move the story along. If the outline is longer than a chapter is intended to be – you did something wrong. Try to allow the organicness of storytelling to still come through even as you read and follow an outline is how I prefer to go about this process. Additionally, how much to outline will depend on the book’s length or piece being worked on. Novellas under say fifteen thousand possess much fewer outline details, but it must move the conflict, resolution along much faster than longer books where you need to carry a story for a lengthy bit of road and still engage readers.  

Series, of course, will require you to keep some form of an outline. You cannot retain characters, places, and events all in your head in a manner to work through three, four, or ten books of a continuing series. Again, basic facts and ensuring you can read and remember the outline points are critical. Try not to overdo this outline either, though, because what you will find is as you write, should things change, you now need to keep the main book and outline current. I am not of the school of thought to have cards, massive outlines, and huge character tables before starting the story. While it works for many, this process makes me feel like I’m at the therapist having to recall events, people and tell feelings, and at the end of the day – I didn’t write a word on my actual story!

The messiness of No Outline

I have ghostwritten several books where the outlines for a twenty thousand book, part of a series came to me and was eleven pages. Full details on how to write, what to write, conflict in the chapter, and even cliffhanger per chapter were provided. I hated those projects as I had no idea why the outliner didn’t just write the book themselves as they had a crystal clear picture of the story in their mind. On the other hand, the ones that tell you here are two-sentences on my idea and go; without any outline, you will have plot issues, sequencing, point of view changes, and other concerns, but that is where great editing can come in. I will say about fifty percent of my books started this way, and the other fifty outlined. Sometimes the chaos of no outline will cause a writer to lose the position where they are in the overall project, or the characters don’t stay true to the story.

You can tell from this I can make an argument for either side of the aisle. I can outline when a story needs the structure and is so clear I want to capture details. On the other hand, always leave enough room in the outline for organic storytelling to develop. Outlines, in my opinion, can choke the story and lead a writer down a path that maybe isn’t the best final destination. On the other hand, outlines will keep the characters, sequence, and other story elements fine-tuned and on task throughout. I think somewhere in the middle is where I would say is best. Ensure you have a firm understanding of the characters, motivations, and story you intend to tell, and then let your fingers walk across that keyboard putting all those amazing touches to the final product.

Photos courtesy of Pexels

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