Why I Don’t Like Story Outlines

I’m one of those writers…the kind that doesn’t use an outline.

I’ve tried using outlines. Oh, how I’ve tried using outlines! I’ve even been vaguely successful a few times.

When I wrote independent comic books, I outlined. For series stuff I’ve worked on, I make notes that could be deemed outlines. Rough outlines, but outlines nonetheless.

But for me, the best way to get a good story out is to just charge in and write it. It’s a method that works for some known writers.

Why I Don’t Like Story Outlines

As I come to the close of the first draft of the latest project, I’m reminded of why I don’t like outlines: they take the fun out of writing for me.

The current project, a young adult novel(la) called Old Man, was originally started as a comic book project, and ended up a screenplay. Screenplays make damn-fine outlines. But there’s a problem with them: when I sit down to write, I know what’s going to happen.

Working from an outline, there are no surprises. Writing then becomes a tedious act for me…so much so, that it’s hard to enjoy. It’s more like transcribing something than writing.

Were it not for the handful of new scenes I’ve written along the way to keep myself interested, I’m not sure I could say I’ve enjoyed this project. I know the finished story will be good (as a screenplay, Old Man was almost picked up by a major studio and optioned from a smaller production company). But working from a detailed outline, the act of turning it into a novel(la) hasn’t excited me.

It’s Not the Destination, but the Journey

I’ve heard plenty of people say that when traveling, it’s the journey that matters — not the destination. Obviously, it’s all those things (and more). But there’s something magical about the journey, in the “getting there.” It’s a sentiment that also applies to writing.

For me, the best “outline” is a finished novel. I get there by having at least a vague beginning and end. Once I have that, I can jump in and start writing, even though I may not even have character names. I jump forward, writing scenes out of order, and then loop back to earlier scenes when I know what happens later in the book.

It’s just the way my mind works.

Somewhere along the way, it all comes together in a flood of excitement that keeps me wanting to write more than doing most things in my life! That excitement in infectious.

When working from an outline, I sit down and think, “Okay, time to write what I already know.” There’s little excitement in the act; it’s like driving from point a to point b without even looking at the scenery along the way.

What about You?

What about you? When you write, do you use an outline? If so, how detailed do you get — what’s your process?

This entry isn’t to condemn the outline; what’s important is finishing stories no matter how we get there. Outlines work wonders for some. I always try to outline, but it just doesn’t work that way for me.

I’m interested in hearing about what works for you.

Comments

  1. says

    I do see what you mean.

    I have to say, whenever I have written, worked on sewing projects, and even danced, I only like having some details known. Certain key points to hit at certain times, then filling in the blanks and making changes along the way.

    Funny thing for a person like me — I don’t like mapping out every little detail and sticking with them completely either.

  2. says

    I say whatever works, works! :)

    I started out as a dive-right-in writer, and gradually moved to a on-so-brief outline writer, thanks to NaNoWriMo. Like you, I don’t want to know all the details before I start writing. That’s tedious. But especially if I’m working on a deadline (during NaNo) it helps to have some structure so I don’t end up with a tangled mess at the end of the month (which has happened). My mind simply isn’t that organized on its own, unfortunately.

  3. says

    My outlines are far more detailed during revisions than for first drafts. But after several first drafts where I charged right in and then discovered I couldn’t find anywhere to go, I’ve realized that I need to do some amount of outlining at the beginning of projects in order to distinguish viable plots from vague ideas.

    Plots don’t come easily for me, and if all I have at the beginning are some characters in an interesting situation, I can write tens of thousands of words without coming up with anything plotful for them to do. When I was a less experienced writer, that was entertaining enough, but now I find it frustrating. This is what went wrong the last few times I tried NaNoWriMo, following several more successful attempts when I had a full plot in mind at the start.

    From now on, I’m planning to outline plots in advance to make sure I have an idea that includes a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not a stickler for adhering to outlines I’ve made, so I expect I’ll still have plenty of room for the discovery and adventure that’s so much fun.

  4. says

    I don’t outline. I’ve tried, and I lose interest in the outline before I’ve gotten to a full page. On series stuff, I do take notes — characters I might want to introduce, scenes I thought of while driving. Now, whether or not I use all the notes is another matter. Sometimes a note from, say, book two won’t get used until the end of book four. Sometimes the notes merely exist to get my brain working in a certain direction.

  5. says

    Lisa: The closest I’ve come to outlining was when you mentioned SuperNotepad — I love the program! I want to outline and put it to good use, but as CMS says: Whatever works, works. But I like your bit of info about revisions having a better outline. It is nice having a quicker glance of a novel than digging through it, looking for parts. I’ve scrawled notes about finished drafts on notecards so I could lay them out on the floor and see everything before me. So I guess, like you, when I reach a certain point, I like an outline to see how to make a finished draft stronger.

  6. says

    CMS: Yes, whatever works. I occasionally chat on Twitter with a writer who lives by her outlines, and because she does, she rolls through drafts. I know others who outline and then BOOM! sit down and throw down a draft in no time. I try, but it just doesn’t work for me. I see how [seemingly] calm those who use outlines are when they write because they know where they’re going. I respect and even strive for that, but I seem to function best when making swimming in the chaos of it all.

    Cynthia: Yes, as organized as you can be, it’s interesting that you just get that vague idea and go…filling in the blanks along the way. It’s how I write. When I’ve written with outlines, I can move along [sometimes] faster than normal. It’s just never as much fun as charging in…and in the end, never as strong as the stories I’ve told by figuring out when I’m struggling to keep my head above the surface in the deep end.

  7. says

    Shawn: When I wrote comic books, I kept notes like you. Not really an outline — just what you mention…points to hit in later stories. Were I to do series work, I know I’d have a lot of notes to keep things together. I’d want to know [at least vaguely] where the entire series is going. I’d map out big character changes and twists and things. But mainly I’d do what you do: make notes for future books.

    In a way, I do that with novels. I write and an idea for later in the book hits, and I either make a note about it, or I leap forward and write it while the excitement is there.

  8. John says

    You mentioned that you don’t outline because it’s about the journey, not the destination. I don’t see your correlation between outlining being “boring” on this premise (unless you’re outlining down to the last detail, which isn’t very helpful anyways).

    All an outline does is give you a structure – it doesn’t detail the specific dynamics and minutiae of every given page.

    Outlining gives you the starting point, landmarks and destination – you make up the rest. It’s about the destination AND the journey.

    It’s also not helpful to suggest that you shouldn’t outline on the strength that there are “famous writers who don’t outline”. That’s like saying you shouldn’t learn to spell because Tarantino has the spelling skills of a 3rd grader and it worked for him.

  9. says

    Thank you for the reply, John. Clearly, we look at things differently. I don’t see outlines as boring…they are just something I rarely use. One of the main purposes of this blog is to share what works for me and…if it works for others, great. If not, I hope people find places that share things that they find helpful.

    I mention that I’ve used screenplays as an outline. I used a screenplay as an outline for my first novel and a novella. I added scenes because simply working from an outline leaves me feeling flat. I wouldn’t say it’s boring, as you seem to think, but when I write…I like new things to develop before me. When I’m working on a novel not based on anything else…well, I said straight-up that, “For me, the best ‘outline’ is a finished novel.” By that, I mean that I like wading into something that surprises me. I like making a mess and then figuring out how to clean up that mess on the second draft. But, for me, not having a solid sense of direction allows things to morph in ways I never expected…and I like that.

    Perhaps I need to put a disclaimer in the About section that the sole purpose of this blog is to share what works for me…and that I make no claims of anything beyond that. I like the work of many writers who outline heavily. But I’ll say this: rarely does their work surprise me or make me stop at sentences and savor them. They are books based solely on action and plot. It’s like this entry I recently wrote: Roller Coaster Writing (and there’s nothing wrong with the roller coaster). I tend to read books that take a bit more time; I tend to write books that develop in ways I never intended.

    But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way a book can be written. I say in that post: What about you?

    Clearly for you, planning and outlining matter. I do reject the bit about you saying it’s not helpful to suggest that referring to Haruki Murakami and others who write and let it all happen before their eyes is bad advice. I’ve seen writers frustrated by thinking that they must outline more…and they are simply writers for whom that doesn’t work. Again, I can only share what works for me and hope it helps others. And it has.

    But I appreciate your reply. There are writers I like who outline things heavily…they are fun reads. Not reads I’ll carry in my heart until my last days like many books that were written over and over until getting things the way the author liked. But there are plot-driven stories I definitely cherish.

    Generally, though…the books I love best — when researched — are books that were just kind of charged into. It can definitely be a mess, but in the end, they turn into books I love. Perhaps I would have been better off to say, “I like charging into a first draft with little idea where I’m going because I see a first draft as an outline more than anything.”

    I’d love to hear what outlining method works best for you. I often wish outlining worked better for me. I see a video like this and envy the hell out of Dustin Lance Black. I often wish I could outline like that and have things still feel fresh. For me, though…it hasn’t worked that way.

    Thanks again for stopping by, and best of luck in all you do.

    – Christopher

  10. says

    Oh, and for the record…I’d never tell someone not to learn how to spell. I’m dyslexic and spelling took a lot of effort for me when I was younger to make it a thing that I can do now with little effort. In many ways, as a writer…I work several times harder than many writers I know who have things come much easier to them. But it seems like your statement, there, has a bit of an edge…and it seems limiting. I have met writers who don’t spell well, and I get it — spelling is what we must do. But I’ve seen people who have innate difficulties who tell better stories than people who do everything the supposed right way, and I won’t knock that — even though I’ve struggled to get words down and know one can overcome certain disabilities. (I was put into learning disability classes when I was younger.)

    That said, there’s a huge difference between terrible spelling and writing what comes to a person without an outline and succeeding in writing. I won’t say I live and breathe writing, even though — factoring other kinds of writing outside of creative endeavors is how I earn 100% of my income — but…I like to surround myself with writing and see that for some, outlining works and, for others…it does not.

    It’s the writer who finds what works for them that is often the writer I find pleasure reading. That includes many writers who live and die by an outline and many who do not.

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