To Outline or Not to Outline?

To outline or not to outline? That is, without a doubt, one of the most contentious issues in writing, both in fantasy and in fiction more generally. Terry Brooks, one of the foremost advocates for outlining in the fantasy world, shares an anecdote in his writing memoir Sometimes the Magic Works that Anne McCaffrey (another giant in the genre), once said that she’d never outlined a thing in her life. Stephen King is also one of those writers who doesn’t really like outlining, preferring to simply throw his characters into a narrative and let them figure out what to do.

Obviously, each of these options has its benefits and its drawbacks. Outlining lets you keep control of the narrative from the beginning to the ending and, as Brooks avers, lets you focus on the other key aspects of writing such as setting, characterization etc. This can be especially useful for those writing in genres such as epic fantasy, in which having an eye on the main narrative can be very important (and can keep narrative bloat to a minimum). On the other hand, not outlining lets you have a lot more freedom, allowing you to really explore the world and characters that you’ve created. For some that’s terrifying, for others that’s exhilarating, just as for some outlining is stultifying and for others it allows them to stay on track.

Personally, I come down somewhere in the middle. I generally have a pretty firm idea of where things are supposed to happen in my narratives, and I almost always have an ending in mind for a series (even if it’s just a snippet of a scene, having this sense of finality is very useful in structuring the rest of what I do). To me, it really does help to know where things are going to end up, even though I try to leave myself at least a little bit of wiggle-room when it comes to how it pans out.

This isn’t to say that I write in anything remotely resembling a linear fashion, because I certainly don’t. When I’m in the first flush moments of composition, I’m often jumping all around the place, going wherever the muse demands that I go (this is true for my nonfiction writing, too). I’m not really one of those writers who has to have inspiration hit, but I am someone who finds it difficult (most of the time) to stay rigidly focused on a particular narrative. So, I just have to go where the urge strikes me.

Now, obviously this strategy has some strengths and weaknesses. As I noted in my post about the advantages working on several different projects at once, it can sometimes get a little overwhelming to try to stay on top of all of them. Similarly, the hardest part about my process is the point at which I’ve really sketched out the broad strokes and need to buckle down and fill in the gaps and/or revise. I don’t know why, but I always find that my forward momentum always slows down substantially during that part in the process, and I’ve had to really work hard to make sure that I build in time for this toward the end of a given project.

As with any writing advice, however, a great deal of what you do depends on what works for you. If you’re a person who really needs structure in your life in order to function or to be productive, then outlining is probably for you. If, on the other hand, you find that you need the freedom to really let your ideas soar and reach their full potential, then maybe, as King suggests, throw your characters into the worst situations you can think of and let them find their own way out. The important thing is not to try to push yourself into a model that doesn’t really fit you. This is the surest way to ensure that you don’t get anything done and that you spend more time focusing on your process rather than on the actual act of writing.

Whatever strategy (or mix of strategies) you adopt, just make sure that you write consistently. You’ll be amazed at what you can do.