The Age-Old Question

No, not whether or not to put ketchup on your ice cream.  Seriously.

I don’t outline.  I’ve said this before.  I feel like outlining takes all the fun out of writing.  Why outline?  It tells you what’s going to happen before you write.  Where’s the fun in that?  It’s like reading the script of a movie before you actually see it.  (I’ve done that with Shakespeare, but never mind that, my lad.)  It’s like… it’s like reading the recipe before baking a cake!

Okay, perhaps not so much, but you get the point.  I write the same way that I read.  I like to discover everything as I go, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”  Occasionally, I’ll have goals in mind that I’m working toward, but once I put them down on paper, I feel almost as if I’ve fulfilled my purpose.  What am I?  A writer.  What am I trying to do with this story?  I’m trying to write it.  What did I do as I outlined?  I wrote.  What is the outline?  It’s the story.  Therefore, I wrote the story.  QED.  Unfortunately, that’s insufficient for obvious reasons.  I’m not just trying to describe what happens in the story– I’m trying to tell it in the most stylish and entertaining way.

Nevertheless, I can’t get past this conviction that by outlining, I’m taking all the fun out of writing.  I love discovering the story and characters and world bit by bit.  I’m writing the book that I’d love to read the most.

Outlining has irresistible charms, however.  The ability to see plot holes before you’re halfway through the first draft?  The ability to foreshadow?  The ability to work toward a conclusive end instead of cutting off abruptly and promising to tie things up when I edit?  When you’re looking for easy editing and a nice, square first draft, these things are priceless.  For everything else, there’s Mastercard.

Because of the obvious perks to outlining beforehand, I try to learn as much about outlining as I can.  I’m working toward a successful outline with every story I write.  Sometimes things work– sometimes they don’t and I’m back to discovery writing.  But in the past few days, I’ve learned a lot that has helped me immensely.  I haven’t yet had an opportunity to put it all to use, but I’m working on it.

Paragraph for each: setting, characters, inciting incident, 1st act break, midpoint, 2nd act break, and resolution. Make it work here first. Basic basics: Inciting incident– first thing out of the ordinary that happens. 1st act break– first action character takes to remedy it. Midpoint — when things progress to the point that there’s no going back- things won’t be the same. 2nd act break – throws out all hard work. Inciting incident = dealt a hand. 1st act break = you decide to bet. Midpoint = all-in. 2nd act break= looks like you have a losing hand. Resolution: you shoot the guy under the table. Or pull an ace. Or remember you’re playing go fish. Or a car drives through the wall.

~Emma Coats, former Pixar story artist

It was extremely interesting to me how much this outlining plan resembles the Hollywood Formula that I talked about not long ago.  In fact, it’s even more detailed.  The end of Act I is more defined, as is the midpoint; the end of Act II is a different look at the same concept of the low point.  I laughed so much at the go fish part.

Of course, this is just one style.  Another thing I saw was the following:

1.) The outline isn’t done until I LOVE the story I have planned.
2.) I think every great story hinges on a few great moments. Writing my way up to those moments, teeing them up, and delivering on them…working my way up to moments that really matter is exciting for me, and very gratifying.
3.) The outline isn’t carved in stone. Things always change as I write. So, I know what’s gonna happen, but ya never *really* know. Ya know?

~Matt Mylusch, author of The Accidental Hero

I was extremely glad for these tips.  Myklusch writes such incredibly engaging stories– humorous in both plot and telling, fast-paced, and twisty.  And yet… he outlines!  He even outlines in detail, which would seem to take even more fun out of it.  That is not the case, however.  He picks out spectacular moments that make the audience care about the character and their plight– three per story at most, he said later.  He writes, building up to these moments by foreshadowing, placing pieces just right, and being excited and flexible.

So.  I’ve gotten a lot of information recently, but nothing works for everyone.  Do you outline?  If so, what’s your key to outlining the story without becoming disinterested in it?


83 thoughts on “The Age-Old Question

  1. I outlined first serious novel, but now that I’m writing the sequel I don’t feel like outlining and I’m just going with it… I understand both ways. I think that outlining saves some rewriting later on, but I kind of treat the first draft like the outline. 🙂

      1. I used Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method, where you take a sentence and expand it into a three-page synopsis.

  2. I never realized how fraught the outline-versus-don’t dispute was! Your post reminds me of middle school, when our teachers made us “mind-map.” As far as I could tell, it was a very boring coloring project that took far more time than I needed. It was completely unproductive. That’s not to say I didn’t (and still manage to) have organized thoughts–I just don’t really like to write them all down and doodle pictures around them.

    If you’re liberal with the interpretation of “outline,” I did with my last novel. It’s a CYOA zombie novel, so I had notes like “#45: Zombie eats adorable little girl” or “#90: Discover helicopter on the roof.” But that kind of “outlining” doesn’t really count as either outlining or pantsing, so I don’t know where I really fall!

  3. I don’t outline much. I am for the most part a discovery-writer. I feel like if I outline, the outline is too restrictive and I’m just writing a plan.
    Now, I did outline the ending of my current WIP. I wrote down everything I thought would happen and now I’m fleshing it out. I wrote it like “DRB (Drake, Rosie, and Blade abbreviated) go to Manor. They get candle. B gets hurt…” I have deviated from it and I like it, but I don’t think I could do this for a whole book.
    Also, if I have an idea for a scene, I write it down. Sometimes (rarely), I stick the scenes I have planned in order of how I want them.
    So… I’m not much of an outliner, but I do a bit.

    1. *sighs* You really aren’t brain dead anymore. And I wanted to try drilling a hole in someone’s head! *sighs again and puts drill away*
      On the plus side, there’s a new post!

      1. You’re immortal, remember? You can’t die anyway. I personally releasing Quirk the demons from your brain would be good for you.

  4. I outlined NaNo ’11’s novel by making a list of Big Events I wanted to happen, and in what order I wanted them to happen, and then I pantsed the stuff in between when I wrote the novel.

    NaNo ’12’s novel… well, I tried to do the same thing, but I could never quite decide how exactly I wanted things to go, so my outline ended up being a big mess of cool ideas and possibilities that I kept expanding on that I knew kind of what order I wanted them in. And I just wrote them. I did make mini-outlines later on, like “this, that, and that thing way over there should happen before Syd gets to the manor, and this conflict, that subplot, and that idea from forever ago should happen after he gets to the manor.” But I never made a solid outline for the whole thing.

    For the sake of comparison, NaNo ’12’s novel was nearly double the word count of NaNo ’11’s novel. But I learned a lot between those two Novembers.

    As to losing interest, I don’t think that’s ever happened to me. I usually brainstorm while I outline, and I love brainstorming, so I don’t get bored.

  5. I finished my first manuscript in September, and I definitely did NOT outline. Turns out, doing it that way makes for an incredibly annoying editing process. However, I don’t think I would have ever finished it if I had outlined everything first. I’d still probably be outlining, trying to make it perfect. I’d rather have an awful first draft than nothing at all.

  6. I’ve tried both. Writing non-fiction, I definitely like an outline, but for fiction — my characters tend to direct the action, so any outline I come up with is subject to revision. I find I can’t force my characters to do things they don’t wish to do. So, I guess with fiction, I have a vague outline and a goal I’m aiming for, but nothing set in stone.

    1. Hmm…that might work better for me. Like I mentioned down there, I’ve always wondered how a pre-determined outline would work when you don’t know what your characters would do or not do.

  7. Although I’ve never read his books, I think I tend to follow the Myklusch approach – or a ligther version of it. I have set points and events, but freeride my way between them to allow for the story to do as it pleases. Which is really the only way I can work, given how my novels tend to rebel against all attempts at following a set line, hee hee!

  8. I used to do seriously outlines. Like, every chapter almost. It took a lot of pressure off me while actually writing, because I just brainstormed with the outline (seriously, a 10K outline…) Lately, though I’ve switched to that…wherever the wind may take me approach. I can’t say it suits me so well though. 😦 I tend to lose my train of thought. Especially if I take a break. Love the Mylusch approach.

  9. “It’s like… it’s like reading the recipe before baking a cake!” < Love that xD And the Mastercard reference…priceless 😉

    As for outlines, I’m in your boat. I see how it helps, but I still wonder a) how people figure this stuff out before they start writing anything and actually know how their characters would behave and what would be logical b) how they don’t get bored, like you said and c) how they stand waiting to write!!!

    So…off to read some of these comments. And love the “go fish” reference as well.

    1. That’s what I’ve always tried to figure out! How do they know what the characters would do, if they haven’t written anything yet?

      Actually, I agree with all of that. I guess that’s why I don’t make much of an outliner.

      1. Oh, that? It sounded about right to me. Outline some, but don’t cling to it and force the story to happen that way.

      2. Oh, sorry. You should’ve told me before.

        Yep, I do. I’m not one much for ideas, so I’d have a hard time trying to figure out what exactly would count and what should happen when, and, oh, who am I kidding. I have a hard time figuring anything out!

      3. Oh, don’t ask me. Major things need to happen just to get me excited about the story again. I need to reshape the main character, the love interest… Most of all, I need to write two, perhaps more, posts and see what people say about what I’m thinking.

      4. Ah. Well, unfortunately, I just did…

        And, well, if you tell me that, I’ll just end up suggesting you do do and post already!

      5. Okay, I didn’t want to leave you just sitting there waiting for me to reply again, so I’m mentioning that I’m getting off the computer now. Have a good…night? 😛

  10. I’ve always discovery written. Always. The only times I’ve ever tried to outline, I pretty much just wrote down an idea of what I wanted to happen, some general ideas of where I wanted it to happen and how it happened….And then when I started to write, most times the outline was thrown out the window. Part of that is because I really like to discover it as I write, so I (often subconsciously) jump at any new idea. And the other part is because my characters are usually so disobedient, they never do what I plan to do.

    I really liked the go-fish thing.

    1. I think it would be interesting to discovery-write an outline, though I haven’t had experience with following such a thing. Neither have I had experience with rebellious characters, since I keep mine flexible.

      1. I’m not actually sure that “rebellious” is the right word. My characters are just so real in my head, and I can’t always properly predict what they’ll do. So when I’m writing, they often do things I don’t predict, and that makes it hard to follow any outline. But whatever they do instead is usually much better.

        It’s kinda funny how my characters sometimes seem to come up with better ideas than I do. I guess that saying is true. Authors don’t really tell the story, they just put into paper.

  11. I outline basic things like 3 main characters the OVERALL setting (like what country? because I am a nerd and I research if they are on this side of the earth what’s the exact weather that should be here and that research is written down on my outline too) then I list some MAJOR problems my character HAS to face and I write down the GOAL of my character…. Then after the 3 characters feel like people to me…. I start to write… And it’s not boring because as I write I continue to make new discoveries about everything! Friends that are going to help make or break the character, new settings, new opportunities to try and stop my character from reaching his goal and etc. Also, I look ahead way too much…. So I am always thinking of BRILLIANT ideas for events towards the end of the novel before I even wrote it…. It’s crazy! Anyway those ideas go down on paper and on my outline in case I decide to use them….

    Also… A tip~ For me, inspiration can come from pretty much anywhere, at any time! So what I do (Actually I don’t yet, but I am trying to start and I am using Morgenstein’s paragraphs again… shouldn’t have read that book… now look at me) is I carry around a small notebook and a pen and I call it my “Idea Journal” 😀 It is (will be) very helpful

    1. I would also like to note… that I see my outline as a list of IDEAS not a RULEBOOK and will not follow it if it comes to that! 😛

  12. In both my serious novel and my time travel novella, I don’t outline. I just have a general idea of how it ends and my story builds up towards it. And every once in a while I use Stephen King’s method of asking myself a “What-if?” scenario. If you think about it, just about every story boils down to that question.

  13. Excuse me, because I’m probably restating points other commenters have said before.
    When I wrote my NaNo-novel last year I sort of planned my story as I wrote it. For example, I would have a revelation about how to build off of a family crisis several chapters ahead of schedule. Or I would anticipate the final showdown and ponder the outcome only halfway through the book.
    When reading a book, you know how sometimes you’ll try to predict the next plot twist, and read on vigorously to see if you’re right? No? Well, this is sort of the way I outline (Or, more accurately, ‘plan’).
    To be fair, this has led me to some big technical questions, such as “Are the spirits actually Immortal, or just really old?”, and “is Serena literally made of water, and if so, how can she masquerade as a human in her post-WW1 road trip to France?”
    Otherwise, this technique was really helpful.

    1. No, this is almost completely new. Never be afraid of restating. I asked for it, after all.

      I had the same sort of ideas, though in much smaller scale. I’d have answers for the next chapter, but not necessarily the end of the book. And I understand completely the tendency to predict plot twists within a book.

      1. Looking back I can see that this planning technique could lead to a predictable book. Hmm, I’ll have to keep an eye out in the editing process.
        How did that technique suit you?

      1. Pavlov was a guy who did an experiment where he rang a bell every time he gave his dog food. After a while, the dog would associate the bell with food, salivating whenever he heard the bell.

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