Most of us have horrid flashbacks to high school English whenever we hear the term, “outline.”
We picture pages and pages of camel-backed indentation spanning multiple alphabets and at least a couple of numeric systems, all punctuated by the red ink of our disapproving teachers. Oh, the horrors of unparallel sentence fragments in the same thought group! And an orphaned numbered item without at least one other to match it? You can forget about getting into college, young man!
So it’s understandable why authors might bristle at the notion that we have to start creating outlines again if we ever want to finish a novel, let alone write a good one.
But is it possible to avoid the hassle of creating an outline and still meet your book-writing goals?
The answer to that is going to depend largely on the individual — experience level, writing ability, memory skills, personal and professional situations — and it’s a topic that strikes deep into the soul of the writing process itself.
One of the dividing lines that splits writers into factions quicker than throwing a sprig of cilantro into an otherwise innocuous salad is the question of whether you should “plot” or “pants” your way to a finished novel.
For the uninitiated, “plotting” means that you plan your novel out in detail before you start writing, while “pantsing” means that you start with a general idea for a story and then let your characters lead you through the plot — you’re writing by the seat of your pants, in other words.
Stephen King is a famous pantser, while Sylvia Plath is well-known for her epic planning efforts.
There are others in both camps, famous and not, so clearly an outline is not necessary for producing a stellar novel in all cases.
But it may be in some …
What About You?
For instance, if you work a full-time job outside of your writing efforts and can devote only an hour or two to your novel each week, you may find it hard to slip back into the story and remain true to your original vision. Without some scaffolding, you run the real risk of losing the center of your masterpiece.
An outline can also be a powerful tool for chunking up your work and giving your writing sessions a definite focus that may be lacking if you let the story lead you rather than the other way around.
The good news is that creating an outline doesn’t have to be complicated, and it certainly doesn’t need to be the work of art that Mrs. Danner demanded back in sophomore year. All you need is a solid skeleton to get started.
In a few simple steps, you can create an outline that will take your novel a long way:
- Write out your basic plot in a paragraph or two.
- Start a numbered list and write down the structure points of your book, one per numbered bullet. So, if you’re following the seven-point scaffold, your list will look like this:
2) First Plot Point
3) Pinch Point 1
5) Pinch Point 2
6) Second Plot Point
- Under each numbered item, write down the high-level ideas that will move your story forward.
- Read through your list and break it down further, into cohesive units that are related but somewhat independent. Repeat this step until you have chunks that “feel” like chapters.
The whole process shouldn’t take more than an hour, and even that may be pushing it.
Your outline does not need to be perfect, or even complete, because you can and probably should tweak it as your novel develops.
But you will be much less likely to stray far off course or waste your writing sessions looking for direction once you have that story compass in hand.
So, can you write a great novel without an outline?
Some folks certainly can, but working without one is risky for the author who is busy in all other areas of his life.
Most of us would do better to invest a little time upfront to make sure we have a solid roadmap that leads in the direction of our finished novel.