To Outline or To Not… Just Don’t Outline

I don’t outline. Go ahead, gasp, roll your eyes, smirk. Whatever. You don’t know me.

Seriously, though. My method is fairly organic. Sometimes I have an ending in mind, or a few scenes I want to fit in somewhere — but overall I tend to just sit down, write and explore. If my preconceived ideas aren’t working, they’re not working. I don’t get hung up on it, I just let the story go where it goes, shaped by what Steven James, author of Story Trumps Structure, calls narrative forces.

I know I’m not going to settle any outline or not debates here, but maybe for a minute you could consider that the only reason you cling to an outline is that no one has taught you another way?* Or at least told you that it’s okay to write another way? We’ve all had outlines beaten into us from grade school to college, and while they can help organize thoughts in non-fiction, what good do they do for fiction?

Think of it this way. If you’ve spent all this time on an outline for your screenplay or novel, you’re going to be really, really interested in making sure that work isn’t wasted and that your story follows that outline — even if it means sacrificing the story in the process. I can usually tell when a writer has followed an outline, because the logical consistency of the story sometimes suffers. Characters don’t always react believably because the writer is so focused on getting from point-to-point on the outline, that they’re not listening to where the story is saying it should go.

Then there’s a whole other level of outliners — those who’ve found some great book or workshop or class with an outline structure that tells you to Break Into Two at page 23 if your screenplay is 120 pages (but page 12 if it’s only 60 pages, etc.) or make sure the All is Lost Moment comes right at the end of Act Two. If you want formulaic fiction devoid of life and art, then, well, maybe you should stop reading. While it’s great to study the structure of successful stories, there’s nothing that says your story has to copy the same structure to be successful.

The biggest objection I hear to ditching outlines is actually a pretty good one, at least at first. What happens when you don’t know what comes next? Then, you just don’t know. That’s a good thing. Here’s Steven James:

When you’re working your way between drafts without any specific plan of what will come next, it doesn’t mean you’ve reached a dead end or have writer’s block. It doesn’t mean you’ve stalled out. It means your mind is working in ways you don’t even notice to solve the problems you might not even be able to articulate.

Good art sometimes needs a lot of incubation. Don’t fear it, embrace it.

So, what about you? Ready to stop planning and just start writing? Still haven’t convinced you, huh? Here’s the perfect time to give it a try: NaNoWriMo. While I think your current project could probably benefit from more of an organic process, hell I believe every project could benefit from more of an organic process, a no-pressure situation like that might be the perfect time to test the outline-less waters. They’re quite nice.

*And, while I’m sure this isn’t you, I know a lot of really great outliners who’ve never written a damn word of their stories because the outline just isn’t finished. Really? For god’s sake ditch the outline and just start writing.