How to Write by the Seat of Your Pants: Outline or No?
by Owen Banner
There are some debates that will rage into eternity. Isolationism or Interventionism, Free-will or Pre-Destination, Team Edward or Team Jacob. Among writers, there are quite a few debates as well. One of the chief among them is whether to outline or not. Both sides have their merits.
- Focus: Unecessary bits of dialogue and action are easy to see and are avoided
- Direction: the plot takes a planned course towards a pre-determined destination
- Efficiency: Knowing where you are going and how you are getting there speeds up the writing process
- Control: Pacing, balance and rhythm are easily maintained with a plan.
- Momentum: Having an outline means that you don’t have to wait until inspiration strikes to know what to write next.
On the other hand, going without an outline offers a writer:
- Authenticity: Outlines can sometimes sound rigid and forced, but writing in the moment lets narration, dialogue, and description flow naturally.
- Discovery: Most of the time writers don’t know who their characters are or what the real theme of the story is until they have written most of their way through it. By eliminating an outline, a writer is free to discover character’s true intentions and motivations and allow those to take the story to places the writer would never have thought to go.
- Empathy: Writing according to an outline often forces a writer to focus on the required actions of the story instead of letting its characters drive the action. This results in wooden characters that function as pawns to the storyteller. These kinds of characters are hard for readers to connect and empathize with, making it difficult to care about what is at stake.
With the benefits to both outlining and not outlining, it’s hard to just pick one side. Thankfully, you don’t have to. When I write, I begin with a premise or the story’s climax. Hindsight, my novel, begins with its main character falling eighty feet to the pavement with a bullet in his shoulder and another chewing through his lung. Now, I have two questions: “How did he get there?” and “What happens next?”
I didn’t really know the answer to either of those questions when I started writing. I decided I didn’t want to just plot it out, because that typically leads to your generic action/thriller story. Instead, I developed my characters. Each of my characters has an index card with physical descriptions, personality traits, and history. This is something of a reverse outline. By outlining your character’s pasts, you can more easily see what decisions are going to be critical for them to make as your story progresses. Knowing this, I put a few of those characters in the first scene and let them interact with each other. Inevitably, this generates possible paths that the characters could go down on in their relationships with each other. Seeing these possible paths, I can start to sketch a loose outline that lets me know what issues my next couple of scenes need to address. If I don’t already have the story’s climax in mind, it starts to take shape at this point. I continue these steps until the novel’s plot, themes, and characters are absolutely clear to me, then I’ll revisit it on the drafts and make sure to fill in any of the pieces that are missing. By doing this, I can write a novel that is both clear and tight in its construction and one that is focused on and driven by its characters.
How about you? How do you write? Outline, no outline, hybrid? Team Edward or Team Jacob?
“I am hurtling eight stories to the pavement. There’s a bullet in my left shoulder and another chewing through my lung. I am going to die.” – Shirley O’Shea
When Shirley got out of prison three years ago, he committed himself to being there for his sister, Haley, and his aunt, Winnie–the only family he has left. Then he met Isaac, a man with connections to his grandfather and to the IRA. Isaac said he owed Shirley’s family a favor: deliver a package and get some money. But things are never that simple, are they? What should have been an easy drop-off blows Shirley’s world apart. Now he’s on the run, a continent away from those he loves, trying to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in order to keep his family safe.
But Shirley has a few skeletons of his own banging on the closet doors, and the hinges are starting to come off.
Buy Now @ Amazon
Genre - Thriller
Rating – R
More details about the author