Some people think they are evil things that suck the creativity right out of the work. Writing, after all, is the spontaneous overflow of felt emotion, the stream-of-consciousness, muse-inspired, spur-of-the-moment wit—or so the theory goes. What is this wickedness that I speak of? The dreaded outline.
I am being a bit melodramatic, but I have seen far too many writers (and self-help books and literary pontificators) banish the outline out of hand. And I, too, used to think the same way . . . until I started writing longer fiction. You never become so acquainted with contradictions, character inconsistencies, and deadends until you try to sustain a narrative for more than 30 pages.
Let’s get the objections out of the way. First, not every writer has used outlines, and some have been quite famous—but that isn’t to say that they wouldn’t have been even better if they had (or that we should follow the example that person set). Second, not every work requires an outline—though most would benefit from having one. And finally, the outline does not necessarily limit what you can do with your work.
Outlines are often seen as straitjackets, but they don’t have to be. Writers often want to jump into their ideas head first, and this is understandable—the immediacy of the idea makes it exciting. But this is exactly the reason for relying on an outline.
A good outline serves two main purposes: to test the idea and to refine the idea. How does it test the idea? Well, let’s imagine that you’ve just had an epiphany about what would make the next great novel. You’re ready to hop on Google Docs and get it down. Ah, but the wise writer takes time to work up an initial outline. About halfway through, you see that it’s just not flowing the way you’d like. So, you let the idea percolate for a while longer, come back later, and either make a new outline or drop the idea altogether.
That’s what outlines do. They help you see if your idea is appropriate for the frame you’ve given it (i.e., novel, short story, novella, etc.) or if you want to pursue it. I find it much more discouraging to get 7 or 8 pages into a work and decide that the idea doesn’t work like I want than to abandon it after outlining it. This isn’t to say you can’t write a “test” scene, but outlines make the job of “idea management” much easier.
The other main purpose of the outline is to refine what you’ve got. There is virtually no idea that isn’t benefited from being developed further before the writing begins. The outline will help you see ways that your idea can have more subtle nuances carried throughout the work.
As far as style of outline, there is no one superlative method. Use the style that works for you: whether it’s the classic Roman numeral type or a mind map. Just pick what you’re comfortable with, let it sit for a few days, and then don’t be afraid to revise it.
I, too, would prefer to jump into the writing part without the work part. But an outline is a creative expression—just as much as the story itself.