Outlines suck. Thanks for letting me get that out of the way.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t like outlines much myself, no matter I use them. My tendency to O.C.D.-ness should negate any flying-by-the-seat of any pants and it should be all outlines all the time. Sure, I might be exacting in not breaking a created mythology and a sniper of continuity flubs, but I can admit that I often write out of order and defy my own plotted courses.
I know, right? I feel like I just stood up in a basement meeting room and admitted I have a problem. If you know what I’m talking about, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Do writers need outlines?
Writing advice articles touting the virtues of outlines abound and I can say with all honesty, I wholly agree with them. New writers who haven’t yet trained themselves to think with logic, to break stories down into scenes per conflict or who haven’t learned how to wield all the forces of story construction should make good use of outlines.
Making yourself write outlines helps you apply logic to your stories and helps train your brain into breaking down ideas into chunks that will become scenes. Outlines are an awesome method for spinning together story threads and everyone should learn not only how to write one, but appreciate what you can get out of going through the exercise.
On the other hand, outlines are not always the best friend of creativity and are a separate thing outside of creativity. They’re part of creating a better vehicle for your story (see my 4-part series on Targeted Editing). While outlining is a way for you to define the action from beginning to end and sort out the internal story logic, sometimes? Feeling bound by the confines of an outline can kill your creative flow.
There are two camps in this area, so all I’m saying is, don’t feel you’re doing it wrong if you can’t write in the order you’ve laid out your outline.
Outlines hemming you in?
Some writers can’t write off the cuff and need to follow the course of their outlines and don’t have any problems doing it. I give them full props, because speaking from personal experience? I’m in the other camp. While I always find writing outlines great for hammering out major plot points and for defining the scope of a story, I can’t always write in the order I laid out my own outline.
Psychologically speaking, I think it may have to do with having problems with authority and hating to follow the rules or something, but let’s not digress…
I’m of the mind that whatever it takes to get the story out is the correct way to do it. You can read writing help articles all the live-long day, but if you’re able to produce quality writing (quality being the key word there) going at it from another angle, how is that wrong? I’m not saying don’t write an outline, because it will keep your story tight.
What I’m saying is, when you sit down to write, if you’re stuck staring at a blank screen or notebook and you can’t get the first scene out, why not start with a different scene? Don’t let it hem you in, just because you think it’s supposed to be done that way.
Outlines and the creative writing process are two separate things
Every story starts with an idea. Something that caught our attention and from where the rest of the story grows. And that idea isn’t always the first scene.
For myself, the story idea usually starts with a single scene. Some cool little isolated happening in a void of nothing else, knowing nothing else about the place or the people and is complete unto itself. So I allow that scene life, I write it out, I don’t put pressure on it, I don’t define perimeters around it, I give it some room and see where it takes me.
If I can get to the end of that scene and it has some weight to it, its isolation from any other circumstance sparks a raft of questions I need to answer – who is this guy, why is he doing that, where did that conflict he’s blathering on about come from, where are they, bla bla bla. I use those questions to build my outline.
In a perfect world, that scene I created sparks the entire rest of the story and most often? It isn’t even the first scene. I call it the glue scene, because the rest of the story hinges off it. Once I’ve created my outline, sure, I always make a valiant effort to start at the beginning and backfill up to that glue scene. But if it’s not coming out and I’m drawn to write a scene in a different part of the story, I allow myself to go there. Sometimes? It even makes me change my outline.
Balancing the creative process and the mechanics of written outlines
The creative process is a fluid, magical, alive thing while story construction is full of rational rules and guidelines. We need both, but the two don’t always play well together and one can overpower the other.
An exceptional story often breaks those construction rules, because it employs that ethereal element of story-telling versus technically perfect writing. And that’s okay, because it makes for better yarns. But as I’ve mentioned before, you still need to know what the rules are to know if you’re breaking them for effect or if you’re just being lazy.
Okay, so what are the take-aways here?
Allow yourself room to be creative. Yes, write your outlines, but no, don’t get yourself backed into a corner because of them. Don’t create your outlines to put up barriers for yourself. Give yourself permission to jump around wherever the creative process takes you. Remember, if you write an outline and it’s not working, you can change it. Hop outside of it, go somewhere new with your story and let your subconscious be your guide.
My personal understanding of this is my subconscious is always smarter than my conscious brain. It somehow always knows when there’s a flaw in the logic of my outlines even when I don’t. Not only do I trust that, but I make sure I harness it to my advantage. There’s no rule that says you have to do this, but I suggest letting it happen and see what comes of it, so you can judge for yourself.
When I don’t allow myself to write scenes in a different order from my outline? When I let myself be cornered and don’t give myself permission to “creative” my way out of it, I end up with flat, half-powered stories that aren’t dusted with any story-telling magic.
Apply magic around your outlines and see where it takes you.