Rule 5: Outline

Continuing with our rules for writing:

Imagine that you’re about to start on a long car trip — one that might take you a year or more.  It’s dark out.  You have only a vague idea what your destination is, or how to get there.  What should you do?

  • Turn on your headlights so you can see the next hundred yards or so, and hit the accelerator. Or:
  • Write yourself some directions before you even get into the car.

Rule 5 says you should write yourself some directions.  I’m sure some writers can keep entire plots and all their characters in their heads, either because they’re really smart or their novels are really simple.  Or the plots and characters just work themselves out as the novel progresses, and there are a minimum of dead ends or wrong turns along the way.

None of those characterizations applies to me.  I have started adding some review quotes to the descriptions of my novels hidden under “Books” at the top of this blog.  It’s surprising to me how many times reviewers point out the twists and turns of my plots, even for novels that I don’t recall as being especially complicated.  But even if you don’t have to carefully plant clues or plan out multiple plot twists, you’re going to have lots of things happening in your 80,000+ words, and it’s helpful to figure out as much of that action ahead of time as you can.

There are two problems with writing an outline for a novel:

  • You won’t get it right.  What works in an outline won’t necessarily work in a novel.  Characters turn out differently; scenes suddenly pop into your head that demand to be included.  (Again, maybe some writers can get the outline completely right; that ain’t me.)
  • You’ll get bored.  You didn’t get into this business to write outlines.  At some point you’re going to need to put the outline aside and start doing with what you really want to be doing.

Still, you’re better off with an incomplete, inaccurate outline than none at all.  What I’ve typically done is something like this:

  • Take notes about plot elements and characters until that becomes boring.
  • Start an outline, and keep fleshing it out until that gets boring.  (It has to take me from beginning to end; it’s the level of detail in between that’s at issue.)
  • Start writing the novel, keeping the outline at hand to make sure I don’t leave out anything important.  I’ll occasionally add to the outline if I get a bright idea for later in the novel while I’m working on an early chapter.

I write the outline as a narrative of the events, just like a novel — this helps maintain my interest. Some of the sentences in the outline may even end up in the novel.  Typically the outline ends up being between 20 and 30 pages.  At that point, I’ve had it; I’ve got to get to “Call me Ishmael.”

Update: MaryA, who apparently never forgets anything, let me know that I cribbed the idea of writing as driving in the dark with your headlights on from E.L. Doctorow, who had a slightly different point to make:

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

He also had this to say:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining …researching …talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.

Clearly he is a believer in Rule 0.

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3 thoughts on “Rule 5: Outline

  1. Pingback: Rules for Writing — Rule 2: Revise | richard bowker

  2. Pingback: Rules for writing — Rule 3: Rewrite | richard bowker

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