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Should you Outline Your Novel or Not?

Always outline or never outline; it’s up to you.

There is no more contentious issue around writing fiction than whether an author should outline their novel or not. Planners - those who outline - insist that it's the only way to write, whereas pantsers - those who write "on the seat of their pants" - claim that their way is best.

Of course, neither is best, but each of these approaches suits different writers. There are valid reasons for and against each choice. Here are some of them.

Two points of view

In How to Write a Mystery, A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, edited by Lee Child and Laurie R. King, two authors discuss outlining. Jeffrey Deaver, author of dozens of mysteries, including the Lincoln Rhyme series, contributed a chapter entitled Always Outline! Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, contributed one entitled Never Outline!. The subtitle of Deaver's chapter is "The why and how of planning it out first," and Child's is "The argument for spontaneity."

Those subtitles give a good idea of why you'd want to outline or not. Some writers want to figure out all the elements of their plot before they write, and others want to write more organically, allowing their subconscious to create the story as they go on.

John Irving's approach is a sort of hybrid. He doesn't plan, but he writes his last sentence first. "By the time I was writing The Cider House Rules, I thought, well, you seem to work best when you begin with the last sentence, and once I know like a piece of music, what it sounds like at the end, where I'm going, I make a kind of roadmap in reverse back to where I think the story should begin. So far, that last sentence is never changed. I see that ending and I write toward it."

The case for outlining

Jeffrey Deaver spends six to eight months outlining each of his novels, and completes his outline before writing any of the story. He gives four reasons why outlining is important.

First, he compares novels to other objects, such as cars or airplanes, and says that these aren't made without planning. You can disagree with this, but he claims that an outline is "an author's manufacturing blueprint."

Second, crime novels, says Deaver, "are about structure as much as fine prose. I'd even say structure is more important." It's true that certain genres depend more on structure, and there are types of fiction that can be a lot freer. But you could also argue that romance novels and fantasy novels depend on structure as well.

His third reason is about the process of writing a novel. Many writers start novels and don't finish them; they have a great first chapter, write 100 pages, then the story starts to flag. With an outline, it makes it easier to get though the process because you know where you are going.

His final reason is one that fits with using Scrivener to outline and write a novel. (See Plan Your Project with Scrivener’s Outliner.) He points out that with an outline, you can write any part of your novel at any time; you don't have to start at the beginning and go to the end. If one chapter isn't motivating you, go on to another then come back later. You can write different sections and scenes and fill everything in without doing it in order.

The case against outlining

Lee Child argues "in favor of spontaneity. And against overthinking, and overplanning, and certainly against making lists." He points out that it is less the plot that attracts readers, but "A strong and confident voice ... telling the tale with aplomb and authority. Through characters who for no obvious reason seem more real than made-up. Whose plight could be yours."

For Child, plots are wonderful, but it's characters that we remember, that resonate with us. "Without them, the plot won't even happen." A novel is based around character, voice, and plot, and, of the three, only plot can be planned. "Ditch the plan," he writers, "Ditch the plot. Just start writing."

Child reminds mystery writers that they know the genre, that, if they're writing mysteries, they've probably read thousands of books. That you have an internal sense of outline, "based on every book you have ever read, every movie you have ever seen, every TV show, every play, and every reaction you've ever had."

It's true that writing without an outline can be risky, especially when you're just starting out, but some writers may feel too constricted with an outline. Peter Robinson, author of the Inspector Banks mystery series, told me, in the first episode of the Write Now with Scrivener Podcast, "I don't do a plan; I'm not an outliner. I do make a lot of notes of possible scenes. I usually begin in my mind with a very visual opening scene. I rarely if ever know what the ending's going to be or how I'm going to get there."

Child concludes, "You know all the plots already. You could plan for a thousand years and not come up with a new one. What you should do instead is trust your voice, and let your characters do what they want. By all means have a vague idea - as in, Moby-Dick is about a whale, and War and Peace is about Russia. But don't sweat the details."

So, whether you outline or not depends on how comfortable you are with your story. If the story and the characters drive themselves, then you may not need an outline. If, however, you're more comfortable creating the scaffolding for your story, then this will allow you to focus less on where the novel is going as you write it, and more on how it gets there. Both choices are valid; it's up to you.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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