Should you outline your book? There’s an ongoing debate between the plotters—those who swear up and down that you NEED structure for your story before you start writing it—and the pansters, who write by the seat of their pants.
Pantsers (the anti-outliners) say that outlines force your story into a box, and can kill your creative flow. Some argue that the act of planning turns a book into a collection of nuts and bolts to be assembled, rather than an act of spontaneous artistic creation.
Stephen King pulled no punches when he said, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”
Pantsers rightly point out that extensive outlining can turn into a form of procrastination: endless character profiles, overblown worldbuilding, or fruitlessly searching for the perfect ending. In other words, the obsession of a perfectionist, and an excuse to do anything but actually write the book.
“Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” —Stephen King
Plotters counter that outlines help you create the skeleton of your story, so you know roughly where it needs to go, which actually improves your writing flow.
“If you don’t have to think about what’s going to happen in your story, then you can just write and write and write,” say the folks at Novelize.
Neither camp is “correct,” of course. Rather, the right approach depends on your personality and preferred style.
With that politically correct statement out of the way, we’re going to tell you right now that pantsers are silly, and that you need an outline.
Can you write a great book without an outline? Of course.
But I’ve seen too often and first-hand the pantser come to the end of the first draft only to find a fatal flaw in the story that requires a trip back to square one, and another 3-month rewrite; a situation entirely avoidable if the writer had taken the time to do even a back-of-the-napkin outline of the major plot points.
Or, the pantser hits a stride for a series of sittings, only to run out of creative gas, stymied when the muse fails to show up one day, and worse, facing a dark night of the soul after an extended drought.
Why waste your time like this?!
“Your outline is not there to restrict you, but rather the opposite. A good outline will give you the nudge you need to get going with your story.” Great advice from the team at Novelize.
Humans are hard-wired to respond to stories, and as Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Kurt Vonnegut’s Shape of Stories tell us, all great stories follow one of several templates. These forms are universal across cultures and ages.
The act of outlining doesn’t have to mean colouring in every scene or penning each key dialogue. The process can be as light as jotting down a few plot points (get your napkin handy) or one bullet for each potential chapter.
A more comprehensive outline could take the form of a Costco-sized pack of sticky notes arranged on your office wall, organized into a carefully-crafted visual map of the story.
It’s up to you how detailed you want to get—just don’t let the process cross into the territory of neurosis.
Ernest Hemingway said that “Prose is architecture. It’s not interior design.”
Replace “prose” with “outlining” and you get equally sound advice: An outline is a structure; the bones. It’s not intended to be what’s inside the structure; the fine details.
An outline is not a set of handcuffs. You are not married to it, and your writing can still be free expression that allows the story to go where it wants to go.
Outlining your book will help you clarify your ideas and craft a book that feels like a cohesive whole, rather than a jumble of half-baked ideas.
Blogger Bella Pope points out that this will save you time, fill plot holes, sidestep continuity errors, help you avoid writer's block, and better map out the story’s flow.
Isn’t that worth at least questioning your wayward pantser ways?
Want advanced tips for outlining your book? Our expert, author Barbara Radecki, will teach you how in our New Year, New Book program. Apply now!
Michael Pietrzak is a freelance writer, founder of So You Want to Write?, and a Mindset & Habits Coach to entrepreneurs.
He has published dozens of articles in entrepreneur lifestyle magazine, SUCCESS (online & print), as well as men's magazine, Pursuit.
He is a professor of communications at Fanshawe College, and works 1-on-1 with entrepreneurs & professionals to teach improved mindset & habits.
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash
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December 08, 2021
Thanks for this thoughtful, balanced opinion piece, Michael. I always have a good idea in my mind of where my story will go, and sometimes I even make an outline.