Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

To outline or not to outline?

with 4 comments

Many novelists hate outlines. And with good reason. If followed too slavishly, they can result in a novel that feels artificial and contrived. They make it hard to follow your characters wherever they’re willing to go. They discourage, or so it seems, those happy accidents that are the high points of every writer’s life. And, perhaps most dangerously, they can lead to boredom on the part of the author, which, if left unchecked, usually carries over to the reader as well.

Me? I outline the living hell out of everything. I outline like it’s my second job. For Kamera and for all of my short fiction, I tend to outline things down to the level of the individual paragraph—and sometimes the sentence as well. One portion of my outline for “Kawataro,” a novelette that is coming out in Analog in June, was 1,800 words long, with more than two hundred separate items, for a section that ended up being just over 3,800 words in the final draft. And while this is an extreme example—a short story is usually much more compressed than a novel—it isn’t entirely atypical. I love outlines. And I couldn’t write much of anything without them.

Which isn’t to say that you should do the same. Outlining, like everything else that goes into a novel, is a very personal thing. Some writers will be happy with a page of notes that lays out the novel’s structure in very general terms, while others will want an index card for every paragraph. Every writer eventually works out his or her own favorite approach. And that’s fine. But I strongly believe that you need some kind of outline before you begin writing, even if you take for granted—and you should—that the outline will change drastically before you’re done.

Why? It’s simple: a novel with an outline is about ten times more likely to be finished than a novel without one. This is true for literary fiction, mainstream, genre, and everything in between. Finishing a novel is hard enough even with an outline; without it, and many writers aren’t likely to get past the first few chapters. It’s just too easy to lose your way. Yes, it’s true, as E.L. Doctorow says below, that you can get home at night using only your headlights—but only if you’ve driven the road before. Or have a map. An outline is a combination of both.

What about the risk that an outline will rob the novel of surprise? In my experience, it doesn’t happen. For one thing, the creation of the outline itself can be full of surprises, assisted by some of the creativity tools I talk about here, here, and here. More importantly, when I sit down to write every day, I have no real idea what to expect. I can experiment, I can take a different tack than planned, but only because I know I have an outline to fall back on. Example: in Kamera, a dead body is discovered in the second chapter. Halfway through the writing of the novel, the identity of the killer shifted from one character to another. It surprised the hell out of me. But I knew that the rest of the outline was sound, which gave me the confidence to make the change. And it elevated the entire novel.

Another point: I believe that the first draft of a novel should be written as quickly as possible. Kamera took more than two years to bring from initial conception to final manuscript, but less than three months, spread out over a longer period, was spent physically typing the first draft, often at the pace of a chapter per day. Why so fast? As I’ve said before, writing is revision, and the sooner you have that shitty first draft, as Anne Lamott says, the sooner you can make it good. If you get stuck on a problem in the first chapter, you may find the answer in the twentieth. And it’s much easier to focus on perfecting individual sentences when the weight of the entire novel is reassuringly there in the background. It exists. And the only way to write a first draft so quickly is with an outline.

Basically, an outline is a sketch. You put it down lightly on paper, make it as detailed or vague as you like, but not so heavy that you can’t erase it later. Once you’ve got a sense of the overall shape, you fill in the blanks, keeping what works, throwing out what doesn’t. And as these stills from Clouzot’s Mystery of Picasso illustrate—and as you can see more clearly in the video here—the overall composition can continue to evolve long after you’ve begun laying down the paint. But make that sketch first. Six months from now, when you’re still staring at that canvas, you’ll be glad you did.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2011 at 10:26 am

4 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, Alec. I think this is pretty true for narrative nonfiction as well — a good outline done in advance might have saved me a year’s worth of difficult structural edits on my book. (I’m hoping to avoid that again, so now I’m sitting around tinkering with a 15,000-word outline for #2.)


    January 26, 2011 at 1:02 pm

  2. Great post! I followed the snowflake approach when I first found my novel-i have a one page summary of the major arc of my novel which reminds me where I’m going, who my major characters are, etc. Otherwise, I let the characters talk to me. If I had more time I would love to finish my shitty first draft (love that essay-I assign it to my class every semester) in 3 mos. but I would have to give up sleep entirely. I love outlines also-esp when I write legal briefs/academic papers. I’ll give it a try now-do you think it’s worth it to start outlining mid stream or just keep writing a little more everyday? Thank you again for a generous and illuminating post!


    January 26, 2011 at 1:29 pm

  3. Eric: Very true. I have a feeling that most readers don’t appreciate how much structuring and selection go into a good work of nonfiction—although it’s more obvious when that structure isn’t there. (The same is true for documentaries, too…)

    Samantha: Glad you liked the post! And I definitely think it makes sense to start an outline now. (Just the process of writing it out will generate ideas and connections that wouldn’t occur to you otherwise, if you were only taking it one day at a time.)


    January 26, 2011 at 2:00 pm

  4. For someone who writes outline even for the journal, it is hard to imagine that a novelist can do w/o. Interesting post Alec.


    January 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm

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