To Outline or Not to Outline a Novel

Many have declared that it is better NOT to outline. Thereby, the story carries itself. The writer ‘feels’ their way through to the end…

Others have said that an Outline is best as therefore the story is organized and does NOT take off in directions that may lead to nowhere.

I’m currently working on a novel. Definitely I believe that the outline will save my work. It is just too puzzlecomplex to leave to chance. While I know the story that I want to tell, I can’t keep track of the whole thing at once. So outline I will. And to be truthful, the outline itself is complicated. Therefore I KNOW I’m on the right road. If the outline is complex in itself, there is no way I can do the novel without one!

Others believe differently, and I accept that for them writing without an outline is best. But there have been too many novels, some of them bestsellers that I’ve read and pondered the end, which left me wondering if it were just a ‘pat’ ending, as in “I feel cheated as I thought this story was more meaty than this trite ending.” etc. As in, the writer came up with an ending because they had to, not because the story really ended there. Or last but not least, the story was great, the ending fizzled…

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14 thoughts on “To Outline or Not to Outline a Novel

  1. Isaac Asimov would sit down at an IBM Selectric typewriter with women’s stockings on his arms to reduce blisters, and then type for 24 hours plus or minus, with no outline, and he’d have a novel done. no rewrites. If you cant find suitable stockings, I don’t recommend this. And good luck finding a working Selectric. Just realized, you and most folks reading this have probably never seen a Selectric in their lives, let alone typed on one. Point is: many writers use outlines, many don’t. There is no right answer. Guy McClung, San Antonio

    • That must have been quite a sight to see Isaac Asimov typing with women’s stockings on his arms. No one ever said that writing was glamorous I guess 🙂
      24 hours to a novel…The glory of it all!!! I can only wish!

      Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was written in 9 days. (He had to use a rented typewriter –for a fee of 10 cents per half hour–from his library. I think we’d all write a little faster if we were paying per the half hour.)
      I’m pretty sure that the ever prolific Stephen King does NOT use an outline.
      But as for me and my writing, I shall follow an outline…
      As for whether or not I’ve ever used or seen a Selectric, I will never admit to it. We even had an old manual typewriter in the house-I wish I’d saved it!

    • I haven’t understood the sticky notes on the wall trick – though I’ve read about it and heard that it brings great clarity to some.
      I do know that now sticky notes are available that are ‘extra’ sticky called either Super Sticky Notes and/or Full Adhesive Post It notes- or maybe they’re both one and the same- but they actually stick!
      I haven’t tried them but now I want to read up on how this would help me write!
      I also like your comment about plotting. Planning is everything (hence the outline!).

      • There are available some amazing software packages-some not so expensive-which make writing a novel much easier. They track many things, much more than just characters names to make sure they are always consistent. Maybe one of these will be helpful. Also have them for screenplays. Maybe cheaper used on eBay or Amazon.Guy McClung

  2. I write for my own enjoyment and sanity and I never use an outline. I feel it limits me and forces me to go in one direction. A stressful day for me could easily lead my story in a different direction as I de-stress by messing with my characters or messing with the atmosphere of the story. As I said, I write for my own enjoyment and do get great satisfaction by skipping around a plot for fun. That’s probably why I still love to write!!!

    • Definitely a lot of writers feel just like you do~ Stephen King, one of the most prolific authors out there does not need an outline.

      Even if I am using an outline, that is only to get the story somewhat organized and completely on paper- I still leave myself room to create, and go off in different directions. I just get completely lost if I don’t have some kind of plan.

  3. I’ve started (again) on a novel idea. I’m finding I do best if I split the difference — I haven’t outlined the book because I’m still not sure where it’s going over all. But I do outline each chapter. So yes/no on outlining 🙂 I do admire anyone who takes on a novel so complex they outline it to stay true to their dream for the book.

    question — does outlining help alleviate those writer-block days?

  4. Yes, outlining helps alleviate those writer-block days. All I have to do is re-read the outline, and suddenly I find myself expanding the outline, tweaking it-to make it clearer, then rushing to just tweaked parts to re-write. Also, in my case, I’ve known the story I’ve wanted to tell, but have changed major things in it, to better tell the story, so that in the end, I threw out the first draft. Best thing I ever did. That first draft was a learning type thing. Good for practice, good for kindling a fire. It’s true that Steven King doesn’t use an outline. Maybe that’s why I don’t read him much, as I can feel it sometimes (that his writing is not organized) as I’ve read him; but boy is he a prolific writer! I’ve read books that have such fantastic endings, and others that disappointed. Before I write a word, I want to make sure that the book has a great ending. Sometimes all I do during a session is read and re-read the outline and work on that.

  5. Hi Michele,

    Taking the U of Iowa, on-line fiction writing course. One lecture described the approach of E. L. Doctorow who likened novel writing to driving a car in the dark. You can only see as far as the headlights let you, but you can still travel across the country with only this limited outlook. Translation: each sentence conjures up ideas which begin to flow into areas the author never expected. Even the author will be surprised at the ending of the book. I tried this with sort stories. It works. I use an idea board instead of an outline.
    God bless,

    Don

    • Don, I agree with your take on short stories. However, my method is like a sketch. Unless I know the ultimate ending, it becomes guided by the imagination versus the story I want to tell. In other words, That ‘driving in the dark’ is amazing as it fills out the sketch, gives it color, depth, and beauty– but if I leave the ending to the imagination (which in my own opinion is a horse that must be reined in, or a car that must be steered) it may take the story to a pat ending, one that has to be put in place to ‘fit’ the story (where the story has traveled un-reined, and un-steered)., versus, making the story work toward the ending. I think the ending is what the reader is often left with as they turn the last page…

      You’ve written short stories- I agree your method would definitely work well with short stories, where you write and let the story go/ flow– especially since with short stories, especially since I usually know the end anyway 🙂

  6. If you’re blocked, and can outline, why not? Write down a point or event in the story; draw several arrows leading away from it. Then label each arrow with a new direction , event, happening, conundrum , or revelation . Much easier than writing sentences

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