To Outline or Not to Outline Your Novel

Image of pen and pencil inside journal by rafaelsoares, via Flickr

by rafaelsoares | via Flickr

Today’s guest post is from blogger Tania Strauss of NY Book Editors.


For many writers (myself most definitely included) the hardest part of writing is starting. One thing that can mitigate this difficulty is planning ahead in the form of an outline, or at least jotting down notes on character and story.

The question of whether or not to plan, and how much planning to do, is a particularly weighty one when it comes to novel writing. Because novels are heavily reliant on structure, and because they are such a massive undertaking by any measure, outlining might seem both practical and necessary—a way to make the abyss of the blank page feel a little bit less … well, abyss-like.

But is outlining actually necessary? Of course not.

When it comes to writing a novel, the only thing that is necessary is actually, you know, writing it. How you get there is entirely up to you. But should you outline?

Though advice often comes in the form of absolutes (you must write every day; you must show, not tell; you must kill your darlings), I’m wary of them under any circumstances, and I think they’re especially useless when it comes to process. While not knowing how to proceed is a very common problem, the particular psychological hurdles of starting (let alone finishing) a project are individual. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Zadie Smith has a great essay on craft in which she names two categories of novelists: the “macro planners” and the “micro managers.” I recommend you read this piece—it’s smart and enlightening, and might help you think about your own process in a more deliberate way, as it did with me. However, while I recognized plenty of my own habits in what Smith described, I don’t quite fit into either one of her categories.

I’ve started two novels in the past two years, and have gone about planning them in different ways. They’re different kinds of projects, with different storytelling goals in mind, and as such they’ve developed differently in my head.

The first novel is more plot-oriented. External forces, such as setting and historical events, play a strong role in putting the story in motion. I have a very solid sense of what will happen to my characters because of these factors, how their emotional stories and relationships will be affected, and what the crisis points will be.

As a result, it felt natural to do a broad outline of this novel, sketching each character’s overall story and planning out several pivotal plot points. And the writing I’ve done has been non-chronological—I penned several big scenes and key character moments as they became clear to me, figuring that eventually I’ll put all the pieces together and smooth it all out into one coherent narrative.

The fun of this strategy is that it’s like putting together a puzzle. The hard part is that conceiving all the smaller moments that hold the novel together is incredibly challenging. To make it all work, I’m probably going to have to change some (or maybe a lot) of what I’ve already written.

The second novel has involved a nearly opposite approach. This one is a deep character portrait, where the narrative will be driven by psychological and emotional forces rather than external events. I know exactly who my protagonist is, what her voice will sound like, where she’s coming from, and the internal journey I want her to take. But how I’m going to get her from point A to point B, in terms of exactly what will “happen” to her, is something I’m figuring out as I write—starting at the beginning and going forward, this time.

The pleasure of this is that writing is like living my character’s life alongside her—rather than be omniscient, I discover things as she discovers them. Sometimes I’m absolutely astounded by the way the story seems to write itself when I work this way. But when I get stuck (and I do get stuck), I’m very much staring at a blank.

As a result, I think that when I get back to this project it would be useful to try plotting it out a bit. But I didn’t need an outline to get started—establishing the character, her voice, and the key conflicts of her story was more than enough to get me through some very promising first chapters.

So my advice about planning your novel is this: do whatever will give you the confidence you need to get started.

If diving right in works for you, that’s awesome. If you need an elaborate outline, write an elaborate outline. However, if you do outline, I want to give you two points of caution. The first is not to get too married to that outline—the act of writing often causes our ideas to shift, and feeling like you have to be loyal to your initial plan might wind up holding you back. The second is, do not obsess over your outline instead of actually writing your novel.

Logo for NY Book EditorsThere definitely comes a point at which planning a book ceases to be productive and morphs into a neurosis. Usually this is a semi-conscious attempt to avoid the scary leap of faith that is facing a blank page and filling it with words.

You don’t want to fall into that trap, because then you’ll wind up with no book to show for all of this planning. And why would you be reading advice about how to write books if you didn’t want to actually write one? So get to it!


Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, check out the NY Book Editors blog, where you can find more editing and writing advice.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , , , .
Tania Strauss

Tania Strauss

Tania Strauss is a blogger at NY Book Editors, a concierge service that connects authors to editors from the Big 5 publishers. As a writer and a veteran of the publishing industry, she teaches authors about best writing practices and shares insider perspectives on editing and publishing on the NYBE blog.

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18 Comments on "To Outline or Not to Outline Your Novel"

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[…] Blogger Tania Strauss of NY Book Editors discusses whether you should outline your novel before beginning to write.  […]

Michael E. Henderson
I agree that it’s a matter of process, not a matter of how it “should” be done. No matter how you do it, the end result must be the same, structurally. The only argument I’ve heard in favor of doing a detailed outline before starting is that it saves time. I’m not sure whether it does or it doesn’t, but what difference does it make? I believe an author should have some idea of where the story is going to go, but that will change, at least in the details, as it’s written. I’ve tried sitting down and outlining, and… Read more »
nakeliwalters
How funny that I’m dealing with the exact problem. My first MS was plot driven and this second one is character driven and I approached the first with an outline and have tried to be “pantser” with the second but found myself stuck on chapter 16…how do I get my character to this point to move the story forward??? I’m in the middle of a move and my first daughter graduating so when my life gets a bit more settled I think I’ll have to go back and do a little outlining to regain my focus on the story. I’ll… Read more »
Heidi Peterson
Fantastic post — thank you! With my current novel I started with a very detailed outline and it’s consequently undergone multiple shifts. (No big problem as I was expecting the phenomenon ;)), but I think I’ve recently struck a good balance. I know the high points I need to hit — the midpoint, third plot point and on to the climax, etc. — but I’m letting each section up to those points develop more naturally — all those initially terrifying, mysterious little scenes that I had no idea what they would be when I started. 🙂 And since I’ve loosened… Read more »
betsyashton
Great post. Thanks. I’ve always been a panster. With two novels in print, I used several tools including a detailed plot index, a character index and a timeline. Then I was asked to evaluate James Patterson’s master class on novel writing. I almost skipped his two lessons on outlining. I am so glad I didn’t. In about fifteen minutes, his lesson showed me that I needed to take a step sideways and write an outline for my WIP. I’m on my 6th draft and have problems with consistent character development. The idea of writing a detailed outline appealed to me.… Read more »
Pearl R. Meaker
This is a well written post, Tania. I’m an intuitive plotter – pantser is an ugly sounding word that is usually used to indicate that people who don’t do outlines can’t produce a well written novel, so I don’t use it. 🙂 I’ve tried outlining and can’t use that technique. I write a cozy mystery series and I don’t start a new book until I firmly know who-done-it, how, and why. I know the beginning and the end of my story, but I let the middle be organic. I also use a program that lets me create a thought bubble… Read more »
Vivra
A wonderful post, one that removes my guilt about not using an outline! Though after reading it, I think I will start. An author friend (historical romances) told me she wrote an outline of 1110,000 words for submission to her publisher. Wow, that, for me, would be the whole thing, not merely an outline! I know the idea of a “story arc”, I know my first three chapters and the last three–I do get stuck on what happens in the middle–I have ideas and several scenes, but can’t seem to jigsaw puzzle them together! I’m working on it! Thanks for… Read more »
Vivra

Sorry, that should read 110,000 words!

Lon

I’m curious, being an outsider, a voyeur visiting for the first time, as authors, do you think that it is easier to write a script or novel?

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Lisa V

My first novel I didn’t outline and it flowed easily and naturally. My second WIP I thought I would try a more structured approach, and that one has come to a screeching halt trying to make the words fit the outline. Now I’m 45,000 words in and trying to decide if I should ditch the whole thing or try to salvage it piece by piece. Any suggestions?

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[…] on writing and marketing novels, so if you’re not following her blog, please start. In this guest post from Tania Strauss of NY Book Editors, Strauss talks about making the decision to outline or not. […]

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[…] planning out your story before you write can help prevent this, but as we know, not everything always goes according to outline. A potential way to search for gaps in logic, contradictions, or other narrative blips after […]

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[…] planning out your story before you write can help prevent this, but as we know, not everything always goes according to outline. A potential way to search for gaps in logic, contradictions, or other narrative blips after […]

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[…] know, I know. EVERYONE has an opinion on outlining. Give it a go. Just keep in mind that you don’t have to stick to your outline. […]

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[…] Source: To Outline or Not to Outline Your Novel | Jane Friedman […]

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