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Why I Don’t Like Story Outlines

by Christopher Gronlund on April 20, 2012

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.

{ 2 trackbacks }

The Juggling Writer - Neil Gaiman's University of the Arts Commencement Speech
May 22, 2012 at 7:55 am
Screenplay Outline Onslaught: 45 Screenwriting Resources To Help Improve Your Outlines | The Screenwriting Spark
September 21, 2013 at 9:34 am

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Cynthia Griffith April 20, 2012 at 9:42 am

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.

CMStewart April 20, 2012 at 10:50 am

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.

Lisa Eckstein April 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm

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.

Shawn April 21, 2012 at 1:19 am

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.

Christopher Gronlund April 21, 2012 at 8:02 am

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.

Christopher Gronlund April 21, 2012 at 8:09 am

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.

Christopher Gronlund April 21, 2012 at 8:12 am

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.

Lisa Eckstein April 23, 2012 at 7:55 pm

I was thinking more about how I use outlines, and I ended up making a post about it: http://www.lisaeckstein.com/2012/04/bookkeeping.html

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