• Melissa Volker

To outline or not to outline - that is the question...


I've been thinking a lot about writing...the act of writing, the putting of words to paper and making it real, rich, honest.

All writers approach it differently. Some outline, some don't, some do character sheets, others let it happen organically. It's a debate that rages as hotly as politics, religion, and bacon vs. no bacon. I've read pieces that say you absolutely must outline and you are doomed without it; that you need your story and character arcs before anything is put down on paper; that if you don't outline, you'll wander around like some lost babe in the woods, sans breadcrumbs, leaving you easy pickings for the wolves.

Feh. Call me a rebel, but I disagree. Sort of. Look, Stephen King has said he doesn't use outlines. I know another writer who lives in a sea of notes jotted on receipts, matchbook covers, napkins, and other scattered bits of paper. I, personally, have notebooks into which ideas go...not outlines, mind you...ideas.

In the end, it depends on what type of writer you are, I think. Not just what genre or style, but what type of writer YOU are. Who are you when you write? Who are you in general? What do I mean? This:

I am an instinctual, empathetic, intuitive person. While I have a strong sense of logic, methodical organization and my brain are not good friends. I write because I feel something. That feeling leads to a character idea, or a scenario, and the pen goes to the paper and I write. Words. Whatever comes out. Characters come out of the situation, out of both the original emotion/spark as well as what develops as I begin to write. Add that to my preferred genre (which, by the way, I kind of think is a bunk concept, but that's a thought for another day), which falls in and around literary fiction (even my YA or genre-specific stuff isn't strictly just that) and the way my stories come about is purely organic, language-driven, emotion-based creations that I coax into being like a gardener growing temperamental, exotically delicate flowers; I must be patient, respectful, open to their specific needs and timing. Sometimes that leads to trouble if I get time-specific with a story...the passage of time, day to night -- without an outline, I often have to go back and be sure my continuity is right. But that works for me. To do it any other way takes what is a very personal, organic process and turns it into a mechanical building project and the emotional content becomes lost.

When does that process not work? The only time I found that it wasn't going to work for me that way was for my juvenile fantasy, "The Thirteenth Moon: a Moya Fairwell adventure." That was my first foray into a more story-driven book, where the events and the content were the focal point, not the character's internal life and struggle. I was telling a story, and that story had turning points, hills and valleys, milestones and a definitive beginning-middle-end. While I began by just writing, I realized I was going to have to sketch out the overall arc, mark the major benchmarks in the adventure and then write the story of how the characters get from one to the next. I did need a kind of outline. Although for me, even there, it wasn't a traditional outline. It was a narrative outline, with some nifty bullet points thrown in from time to time when I just needed to have a list. So if you are truly telling a story of adventure, a narrative of a specific thing that happens over a specific time with particular points along the way (a fantasy, an adventure, a murder mystery, etc), some sort of outlining of major events is helpful. It becomes a roadmap to refer to and ensure you aren't going off track. Or, perhaps, to confirm that your track wasn't what you thought it was and you need to make adjustments!

So do you need to outline? I don't know -- it all depends. The most important thing to find out first, is what kind of writer are you? Do you write from the gut or do you think it all through? Do you have major events or are you exploring a life both inner and outer?

In the end, the rule is -- there are no rules.

I had a young writer once tell me that she plots everything out, and she knows the arc and the climax and the turning points; that her teacher told her they need to have all that mapped out beforehand.

So I told her -- like any good rebel would -- that now that she knows about those concepts, to throw it out and start writing. They will develop naturally. And sometimes, too much structure laid out beforehand kills the opportunity for happy discoveries and for you characters to tell you where they want to go! And they will -- if you listen -- and that's the best part of writing.

Map it if you need to, make a detailed outline if it helps you organize your thoughts. But then tack it somewhere, leave it alone, and start writing. The story will carry you along.

Or, be like me -- just start getting the words on paper. It'll evolve, grow, change; you'll write, erase, write some more and maybe even do major shifts in chapter or paragraph order as the story emerges on its own.

Either way, don't let anyone tell you have to have an outline (or that you shouldn't use one). It's an argument as old as chocolate or vanilla. Just write. Get your story out in whatever way works.

Because that's the point right?


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© 2016 Melissa Volker

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