To Outline or Not to Outline Your Novel

Image of pen and pencil inside journal by rafaelsoares, via Flickr
by rafaelsoares | via Flickr

Today’s guest post is from blogger Tania Strauss of NY Book Editors.

For many writers (myself most definitely included) the hardest part of writing is starting. One thing that can mitigate this difficulty is planning ahead in the form of an outline, or at least jotting down notes on character and story.

The question of whether or not to plan, and how much planning to do, is a particularly weighty one when it comes to novel writing. Because novels are heavily reliant on structure, and because they are such a massive undertaking by any measure, outlining might seem both practical and necessary—a way to make the abyss of the blank page feel a little bit less … well, abyss-like.

But is outlining actually necessary? Of course not.

When it comes to writing a novel, the only thing that is necessary is actually, you know, writing it. How you get there is entirely up to you. But should you outline?

Though advice often comes in the form of absolutes (you must write every day; you must show, not tell; you must kill your darlings), I’m wary of them under any circumstances, and I think they’re especially useless when it comes to process. While not knowing how to proceed is a very common problem, the particular psychological hurdles of starting (let alone finishing) a project are individual. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Zadie Smith has a great essay on craft in which she names two categories of novelists: the “macro planners” and the “micro managers.” I recommend you read this piece—it’s smart and enlightening, and might help you think about your own process in a more deliberate way, as it did with me. However, while I recognized plenty of my own habits in what Smith described, I don’t quite fit into either one of her categories.

I’ve started two novels in the past two years, and have gone about planning them in different ways. They’re different kinds of projects, with different storytelling goals in mind, and as such they’ve developed differently in my head.

The first novel is more plot-oriented. External forces, such as setting and historical events, play a strong role in putting the story in motion. I have a very solid sense of what will happen to my characters because of these factors, how their emotional stories and relationships will be affected, and what the crisis points will be.

As a result, it felt natural to do a broad outline of this novel, sketching each character’s overall story and planning out several pivotal plot points. And the writing I’ve done has been non-chronological—I penned several big scenes and key character moments as they became clear to me, figuring that eventually I’ll put all the pieces together and smooth it all out into one coherent narrative.

The fun of this strategy is that it’s like putting together a puzzle. The hard part is that conceiving all the smaller moments that hold the novel together is incredibly challenging. To make it all work, I’m probably going to have to change some (or maybe a lot) of what I’ve already written.

The second novel has involved a nearly opposite approach. This one is a deep character portrait, where the narrative will be driven by psychological and emotional forces rather than external events. I know exactly who my protagonist is, what her voice will sound like, where she’s coming from, and the internal journey I want her to take. But how I’m going to get her from point A to point B, in terms of exactly what will “happen” to her, is something I’m figuring out as I write—starting at the beginning and going forward, this time.

The pleasure of this is that writing is like living my character’s life alongside her—rather than be omniscient, I discover things as she discovers them. Sometimes I’m absolutely astounded by the way the story seems to write itself when I work this way. But when I get stuck (and I do get stuck), I’m very much staring at a blank.

As a result, I think that when I get back to this project it would be useful to try plotting it out a bit. But I didn’t need an outline to get started—establishing the character, her voice, and the key conflicts of her story was more than enough to get me through some very promising first chapters.

So my advice about planning your novel is this: do whatever will give you the confidence you need to get started.

If diving right in works for you, that’s awesome. If you need an elaborate outline, write an elaborate outline. However, if you do outline, I want to give you two points of caution. The first is not to get too married to that outline—the act of writing often causes our ideas to shift, and feeling like you have to be loyal to your initial plan might wind up holding you back. The second is, do not obsess over your outline instead of actually writing your novel.

Logo for NY Book EditorsThere definitely comes a point at which planning a book ceases to be productive and morphs into a neurosis. Usually this is a semi-conscious attempt to avoid the scary leap of faith that is facing a blank page and filling it with words.

You don’t want to fall into that trap, because then you’ll wind up with no book to show for all of this planning. And why would you be reading advice about how to write books if you didn’t want to actually write one? So get to it!

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, check out the NY Book Editors blog, where you can find more editing and writing advice.

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