Some thoughts on outlining novels and stories

Last night at the Arlington Writers Group meetup, we had a workshop discuss on outlining novels that proved to be both interesting and helpful. The topic was popular enough that it forced us to move into the school library to accommodate all of the members who wanted to participate in the discussion. And it was an interesting discussion, and having had some time to consider it, here are my thoughts on the subject.

First, the discussion helped to reinforce my decision to stick with short fiction for now, and to focus on improving my craft there. Outlines take time to write and I’d rather spend that time writing fiction than crafting outlines. Granted, you don’t have to write an outline to write a novel and there are those who just work by the seat of their pants. But as I pointed out last night, in the science fiction/fantasy world, if you are going to try to sell a novel, the publisher is going to ask for an outline and so it is something you’ll have to have anyway. I don’t want to invest the time in constructing an outline for a novel that may fail for other reasons. At this stage of my writing career, I still need to work on some fundamentals of storytelling. Short fiction is idea for that because I can practice and experiment in a story, send it off and start on the next one. And usually, within 30-60 days, I’ll have feedback on the story that I submitted in the form of an acceptance or a rejection. For a novel, it would take a year to write and edit, and then another year or two waiting to hear back from publishers or agents and I don’t have that kind of time. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to make a living as a short fiction writer, but that’s never been a goal of mine, and I’d much rather strive to become a really good short fiction writer than a struggling novelist.

Second–and something I didn’t mention during last night’s discussion–is that it seems to me that outlining is an artifact of the publishing industry. Though Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo is an intricately plotted novel with lots of characters and hidden identities and twists and turns, I have a hard time imaging Dumas writing an outline for the novel. I have a hard time imagining Agatha Christie writing outlines for her novels (she may have, but I just can’t picture it). It seems to me that outlining grew out of two things:

  1. The need for publishers to look at a greater volume of work more quickly (“chapters and outlines”); and to make financial decisions based on those first three chapters and outline.
  2. An industry-evolved attempt at trying to put structure on something that can be difficult to cage.

I’m not arguing against outlines here and if I were writing novels, I would be making extensive use of outlines. But I can see the “pantsers” (or blank-pagers, or whatever you’d like to call them) point about a story growing organically. The danger of an outline is that it does hem a writer into an accepted framework. That said, it is a useful tool to help a writer keep his or her thoughts organized as they plod their way through 100,000 words.

I don’t use outlines for short stories in the same way that I’d use them for novels. I might create a handful of index cards in Scrivener that cover the key scenes of the story. As I write, I’ll add or remove additional scenes and rearrange them as necessary, but that’s about as close as I get. When writing short fiction my focus is on writing and practicing and learning–with a result that is, hopefully, entertaining.

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on outlining novels and stories

  1. I believe you meant, “within 30-60 days,” in your second paragraph.

    I’m amused to see someone else use the phrase ‘pantsers’ when referring to those people who can write without an outline. As a ‘plotter’ I have to know where a story’s going to put it down on paper, and I’m a bit jealous of the pantsers.

  2. Thanks for the correction–it has been fixed. 🙂

    For a short story, I generally have to know how it is going to end, and since my stories tend to involve some mystery or problem (“puzzle stories”) I need to know what that mystery is going to be and how it will be resolved. After that, I can work through most of it with just a few notes. I’m jealous of pantsers, too, but every time I try that method, I fail miserably.

  3. In defense of outliners, kinda.

    Firstly, I think a lot of it is personal preference. For example, when I cook, I don’t normally follow a recipe, but I at least like to know what I am making. Other people don’t follow recopies at all; they just throw ingredients together and turn on the heat. Then others, can’t cook without a recipe, they are methodical, and follow the directions to the letter.

    Everyone who said they outline last night said they did it to save time, to keep from revising over and over and over. While the Blank pagers admitted to doing this, of course the outliners still do revise, over and over again, they might not have to change as much about the novel structurally.

    I also feel like the blank pagers feel like if they write an outline they will be hemmed in by it. This again is a personal opinion thing. But if I wrote the outline, and came up with a better idea, its my outline, how does it hurt me to change it, in fact my outline shows where my change affects earlier parts of the story.

    Although I guess you cant really call what I do outlining, I don’t have a sequential outline, or a timeline, or a this happens in this chapter outline, what I have and use is a map, its a guide, its “this is the information I need to get across in order for my story to make sense” outline, or a “this is why these things are happening” outline.

    But like I said, I don’t like to follow a recipe while I am cooking, however, I do like to know what I am making.

  4. Sara, I’m not knocking outlines, especially since I think I would have to use them if I wrote longer stuff. But I can see some element of artifice in them–not to say, as you point out, that you can’t ignore your outline for a better idea.

    For now, though, I’m sticking to short fiction where I can hone my fundamentals. Kind of like playing for a triple-A baseball club until such a time as the the coaching staff feels like I’m ready for the Big Show.

    Of course, in that analogy, the coaching staff is mostly me, I suppose. 🙂

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