The Problems that Result from Outlining Novels

In today’s Journal

* The Problems that Result from Outlining Novels
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

The Problems that Result from Outlining Novels

in which we explore, through a pair of digressions, a statement of fact, and a summary, the problems that result from outlining novels.

Literally millions of writers out there outline novels before they write them. Why? Let’s explore that.

An Initial Digression—

They outline because they were taught Fear and Insecurity: that they needed the safety net of an outline, and that they’re incapable of writing a novel without one.

Of course, in reality there is nothing to fear, and they’re completely able and competent. They only need to trust themselves and their characters and get on with it.

But they won’t. Because their learned, imagined incompetence was compounded by their instructors. They were also taught that they are incapable of writing a story cleanly the first time through. Or by themselves.

Those writers were taught that for any story to be any good at all, it must be tightly controlled. It must be outlined, then written, then revised, then submitted to others for critique, then rewritten X number of times, and finally polished. Miss any of the steps, and you’re doomed. That is a lie.

The truth is, if you follow those steps, the original story is long-since gone, along with your (and the characters’) unique voice.

A Second-Level Digression—

Some writers outline not from robotic obedience to some irresponsible teacher (who probably has never written a novel) but because they don’t trust their characters to live out a satisfactory story (fear).

Okay, but why don’t they trust the characters?

Well, for one thing, at no time are writers taught to trust their characters and simply record the stories that the characters (not the writers) are living.

“But,” the instructor reasons, his hands spread as if to embrace the class, “why would any writer trust the characters?” He beams his best evangelical smile. “They aren’t even real people, are they?” He laughs lightly. “They’re only made up, aren’t they?”

And the writer-students nod at the instructor’s sage wisdom and scribble a quick note in their notebook: Characters are not real.

And unbeknown to the students, in the recesses of their mind hundreds of characters are scowling and crossing their arms.

Because all of that “characters aren’t real” nonsense ignores the fact that when the characters first appeared in the writer’s mind they were fully formed and doing and/or saying things and often even reacting to or instigating situations.

Hmm. Just as if the writer had peered through an interdimensional doorway or pulled back a curtain to witness part of a story that is ongoing even when s/he isn’t watching. (I guess that was a third-level digression. My apologies.)

A Digression Back to the First Digression—

On top of everything else, if the writers in the first five paragraphs of this confusing, convoluted mess of an essay, having completed all of the required steps—outline, write, revise, submit for critique, rewrite the required number of times, then polish—(a brief pause to take a breath)

if those writers are still trapped in the traditional-publishing way of thinking, at that point they’ll begin submitting their mangled manuscript to literary agents, most of whom will request yet another rewrite before deciding whether to accept the manuscript for representation.

And if the agent DOES accept the manuscript and if s/he places it with a publisher, the writer can (and will) receive even more requests for rewrites from the assigned editor. And that’s fine, because that’s what the writer’s been taught to expect.

Primarily because no human urge is stronger than the urge to change another writer’s work. End of digression.

A Statement of Fact—

The problem with outlining is that when the writers have finished their outline, two things will happen:

1. They’re bored with the story because they’ve already written it, albeit in much-condensed form. So there are no surprises left. The writer knows how the story begins, any major twists and turns, and how it ends. So what’s the point of writing it? As evidenced by my own production of high-quality fiction I couldn’t agree more.

At this turn of events, many will give up altogether on writing fiction. Not openly, of course, or intentionally. It’s just that suddenly pretty much anything else takes precedence, and there are only so many hours in the day, and you know how that goes.

Many more will give up on writing only that particular novel. It seems too boring now, though maybe they aren’t quite sure why. So they’ll move on to outline the next novel. (Gosh, I wonder how that will go.)

But a few hearty souls will go ahead and write the story after they’ve finished the outline. Of course, they still know the beginning, every major twist and turn, and the ending, so they’re still bored to the bone.

But that isn’t all.

2. The novel they’ve outlined, whether or not they decide to write it, is not the authentic story their characters would have lived had the writer trusted them and left them to their own devices. So it isn’t the authentic story the writer always dreamed of someday writing.

And deep inside, the would-be writer knows that.

S/he felt it in little tweaks and twists of the gut (that’s the creative subconscious trying to pull the writer back to reality) at various times as s/he revised and rewrote. Each time s/he knew s/he was getting farther and farther from the original story, but s/he couldn’t help herself.

By the way, I’m betting everyone who’s reading this has experienced those little tweaks and twists of the gut. I know I have. Once you let go and commit to writing into the dark, those all but vanish. (Oops, a fourth digression. My sincere apologies. Won’t happen again.)

But as long as I’m in the fourth digression, I’ll answer a burning question: Don’t some of those who attempt to write without an outline also freeze up and stop writing?

Unfortunately, yes. Some succumb to fear and find some other, “easier” (to them) form to write. But in every case, the fear is an unreasoning and unreasonable fear. Be bold, Writer. Believe in yourself and Just Write the story. There are no (zero) negative real-world consequences. But back to the convoluted essay:

Having outlined the story, and having decided to write it anyway, these writers will stick close to the outline and their chosen structure (3-act, 5-act, 7-act, whatever) to be sure they don’t miss any of the “rising action” or “mirror moments” or “try-fail sequences” or climaxes or any of the other components their non fiction-writing teachers told them (in an attempt to sell them another book) are absolutely necessary in a good story.

All of that is a result of employing the conscious, critical mind. Typically, if the characters want to take the story off in another direction, the writers force them back into line.

Note—That is not to say structure isn’t necessary—it is—but you’ve been learning story structure all your life. If you trust it, what you’ve learned will come through your creative subconscious as necessary as you write.

(If you missed them, see my rants on critiquers and on others who pass along bad advice.)

And these, my friends, these are the folks who—having outlined, written, revised X number of times, received critiques and applied X number of fixes, rewritten X number of times to appease whomever, and tried in vain to teach idiots like like me the terrible error of our ways—these are the folks who refer to the process of writing fiction as “sheer drudgery” when they finally attend their foofoo launch party.

All I can say about that is No Wonder.

As for them trying to teach the rest of us anything at all about writing, fuggidaboutit. They can’t.

All of that said, believe whomever you want to believe and write in whatever way you want to write. Meanwhile I and others who have learned better will be putting new words on the page.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

What Is an Unreliable Narrator?

Note: I remind one and all that “unreliable narrator” is a critic’s term, to be applied (or not) after the critic has finishe reading a work. It is something you might learn about your character as you write, but not something to force the character into being.

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1410

Writing of Blackwell Ops 24: Buck Jackson Returns (tentative title)

Day 1…… 3724 words. To date…… 3724
Day 2…… 3706 words. To date…… 7430
Day 3…… 2110 words. To date…… 9540
Day 4…… 3243 words. To date…… 12783

Fiction for April…………………….….… 49044
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 274836
Fiction since October 1………………… 577892
Nonfiction for April……………………… 15570
Nonfiction for 2024……………………… 144290
2024 consumable words……………… 419126

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 7
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)……………… 89
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)……… 239
Short story collections…………………… 29

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing are lies, and they will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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12 thoughts on “The Problems that Result from Outlining Novels”

  1. I can attest to feeling bored with a story after outlining (when I used to do it). I did end up writing most of what I outlined but it was always boring. No fun. No excitement.
    Now, with zero outlining (besides perhaps an opening scene in my head sometimes) I never find writing boring. I love when something happens that I wasn’t expecting and how it flips the story upside down so to speak. Its amazing what the characters can do if you just follow them without trying to place them in chains and force them to do whatever you tell them.

  2. For a while I’ve collected writers who confessed that they write in the dark.
    It was kinda long list, from sir Walter Scott to David Gemmel.
    I’ve stopped it when a prolific writer whom both of us know wrote to me in a email that 90% of top authors he knows don’t use it.

    • I’ll bet that “top author” has a lot of non-fiction books and/or courses on writing to sell too. So spreading the myths and keeping them alive benefits him financially. Also, most writers who write into the dark don’t admit it in public. The readers heard all the same BS myths as they grew up that we heard. So if a writer admits s/he writes without a lot of planning, plotting, rewrites, etc. the readers think their books can’t be any good.

      I don’t worry about it. I love WITD because it’s so very freeing. I don’t have to depend on anyone else, and I don’t have to outline, revise, rewrites, get critiques, etc. so I can spend that time writing new stories (practicing).


    • I’ve read an interview with David Gemmel where he told us how one of his most popular character were born. He tried to write even to a different series, and when he started to type, there The Character stood and made him tell his story.

      • Doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. There are a lot of us out there. Most just don’t talk about it.

  3. Talking about snowflake method (you mentioned it about 2 years ago) I would say that it doesn’t work even for the author of it.
    Looks like last fiction from this author was published 10 years ago. And he wasn’t must prolific at all –
    The only big and prolific author who outlines a lot is probably R. L. Stine. He says that he writes one before starting… but not sure does he follow it.


  4. Outlining makes me don’t want to write the story. If I have a story element that is “important” to put in, my brain freezes, and I lose my flow moment. It occurs sometimes, but it always makes me procastinate the writing…

    Every time I hear people talk about outlining they say that they doesn’t even follow it. What makes me wonder, then why is the outline? And if they insists on following the steps, then some problems always occur. Like the truth would have wanted to see the “sunlight”, whatever. (Were these the right words?)

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