On Plot Outlines

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Plot outlines come in all shapes and sizes. At one extreme we have “pantsers” – people who just sit down with an idea in mind, and start writing. At the other extreme we have people like me who wouldn’t dream of putting two words together without a detailed outline of the book.

The thought of working like a pantser brings me out in goose bumps. I have to have an outline before I start writing. I like to work with 60 chapters, so I start with 60 lines on a spreadsheet, and type in at least one line for each chapter. For me, writing a novel is like climbing a cliff face. The 60 notes are the footholds that will get me to the top. I spend weeks rearranging these notes, adding to them, shuffling them, testing each one for strength. I may even use index cards to help get them in the right order.

Under time pressure I might start to write with some of the footholds missing, hoping that they will come to me as I go along. But each of these is like a chasm, and as I approach one I have to stop until I’ve filled it in. Faced with a chasm of two or three chapters I become cranky and absent-minded; anything bigger than that – say 5 or 6 chapters – and I wake up screaming. It really is just like balancing on a tiny ledge with nowhere to go, trying not to look down.

Sometimes I come to one of my footholds and find it’s not strong enough to support my (i.e. the story’s) weight. I know it seemed okay when I wrote it, but now it’s turned to dust; there’s nothing there! I need to replace it before I can continue. Often when this happens, I can simply eliminate the chapter – jump up to the next foothold – and carry on.

Pantsers bemoan the necessity of outlining. They say a detailed outline stifles creativity and removes the fun and excitement of writing. I couldn’t disagree more. As I write, my outline changes (a lot). New ideas come to me and are incorporated into the story. Often, whole new characters are added while others disappear or merge. There’s plenty of room to be creative.

I can see how creativity could be stifled if your outline is too detailed, when you might feel you were writing in a straitjacket. I suppose, the trick is to start with an outline that is strong enough to get you through to the end of the story, but not so elaborate that you can’t breathe. To use yet another metaphor, I think it’s useful to think of the outline as a skeleton, the narrative the flesh that gives it form and life.

What about you? Do you outline or are you a wild pantser?

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