Outlining a Novel

February 1, 2011 Writing Comments (0) 137

I tested some new methods with my new novel-in-progress (currently well past half completed, thank you very much) but my work stalled and I found myself returning to the techniques that worked with my first novel – especially the outline.

I’m a big believer in outlining a novel, and I’m often surprised to hear other writers decry the practice as too structured, or as a betrayal of the characters or the art form. More than one writer has told me how they prefer to “let the characters guide them.”  They write in linear sequence from beginning of book to end and refuse any kind of outline, allowing the plot to go where it will as the characters surprise them with their decisions. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s coincidence that most of the writers I’ve heard advocating this approach are also avid (role playing) gamers.

I see a few problems with this approach. For one, it leads to overlong, plodding stories that often don’t seem to go anywhere, or linger too long in one scene because the author doesn’t yet know where they are headed. More importantly to me, I like a certain something in the plot – call it symmetry, poetry, foreshadowing, call it what you will – that can only be achieved when the writer knows the end of the story at the beginning.

Most importantly of all, an outline keeps me writing. If I don’t have one, I can spend an entire writing session at my computer (and have often done so) staring at a blank screen and wondering what I’m doing. With an outline in hand, even on days when I’m feeling uninspired I can look over my notes, see that my characters are at point [h] and need to get to point [i], and there’s what I’m writing that day.  If I need to skip ahead, I can look for a section of the plot that excites me, let’s say points [s] through [v], and sink my teeth into that, without fear that my characters will “make some decision” that diverts them away from point [s] entirely.

It’s not that my method lacks any creativity or faith in my characters to make their own choices. The difference is that the mental exercise of following a character through a thought process happens not while I am writing my draft, but while I am composing the outline. I don’t lay out the beginning and the end and then lay down tracks from the former to the latter – well okay, sometimes I do, but then if the outline takes another direction I’m forced to scrap or rethink the ending. And I am always free to change things during the draft, if I discover that’s the right thing to do.  That’s the whole idea of a first draft, isn’t it? The writer often ends with a completely different story than he or she began. That’s where revisions come in.

When it comes to outlines, I like the index-cards-on-the-wall approach for the very early stages, when I maybe have a handful of scenes in mind and I’m trying to figure out what order they belong in. Once I have a general idea of the plot, though, I go with a tried-and-true outline in Microsoft Word. It may be a bit corporate, but I’ve been using the software so long that I apparently think in Word format, and I’m able to translate my thoughts into notes with minimal distraction from the interface. I tried using the built-in outliner in Scrivener, which is marvelously conceived and designed, but it just didn’t work for me.  Until I went back to Word, I was stalled.

So now I have a basically complete outline, and with that tool I find myself churning out pages on a much more regular basis. I’m contemplating a goal deadline to have the first draft completed, and the end of March is beginning to seem feasible. I’m not ready to commit to that yet, though.

So what about you? Do you work with an outline in your fiction? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from those willing to advocate the outline-free approach. I’ve tried it, and I can certainly say it doesn’t work for me.

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