Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Outlining vs. Non-Outlining

Writers are generally divided into two categories: those who outline and those who do not. I fondly call non-outliners "SOP" writers: we write from the seat of our pants. We usually have no plan, unless it's in our head. There are also outliners, however: those who use outlines to structure their stories.

Each type of writer often looks upon the other with suspicion. Old and grizzled outlining veterans sometimes claim that outlining is the better way. Equally grizzled SOP writers claim the opposite. Truth is, they're both a valid way of writing a novel. Different people prefer different things.

This post is something of an analysis of both, with my own opinions shamelessly inserted.

First off, outlining.

What makes it preferable to non-outlining?

First, it gives you a direction. Many SOP writers (myself included) can write themselves into a corner and have no idea where to go next. Outlining makes it so that you always know where you're going. This doesn't make you immune to the common writer's vices, such as procrastination and "writer's block", but it helps.

Outlining also gives you clarity. It's easier to make it clear to the reader where the story is going if you actually know where it's going.

It's also a huge help with foreshadowing. This is probably the greatest use of outlining for me. With outlining, you can foreshadow things that are going to happen later in the book because you actually know what's going to happen. SOP writers like me (that plan vaguely in their heads) can do this to a lesser extent, but for intricate detail work and shocking twists, outlining has no equal.

Outlining can help you with your speed. If you know where the story is going, it's possible to write faster. There are exceptions to this, of course. I did NaNoWriMo 2011 with no outline at all, and wrote over 45,000 words in nineteen days. (Needless to say, I think I burned myself out...) However, when writing by the seat of your pants, speed can sacrifice quality. There's quite a bit of plot revision I need to do on The Prophecy of Einarr, for instance.

This method also eliminates excess prose. Outlining often helps your story to get where it's supposed to go without wandering around too much. Some SOP writers struggle with thousands of words that don't need to be there. An example of this would be Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle. As much as some people love his books, the plot is almost nonexistent in some places.

All right, so those are the perks of outlining. How does SOP writing compare?

First, SOP writing provides a certain amount of freedom. SOP writers who try outlines often complain about how it "restricts" their writing. Restriction isn't bad, but many writers prefer freer prose. Anything can happen. Tolkien famously wrote, for instance, that he was as surprised as Frodo when Gandalf didn't return to the Shire.

SOP writing also can have unpredictable plot. Christopher Hopper, author of the White Lion Chronicles, writes that "if I don't know where things are heading, I'm confident that my readers won't either." This lends a certain amount of superiority over outlining, since it's easy to make an outlined novel predictable. You have to go back and foreshadow the plot twists, of course, but it is nonetheless a good way to keep things unpredictable.

In some ways, this kind of writing can also help keep things realistic. The plot of a novel is one big chain reaction. Everything happens because of something else that happened. Sticking to an outline can sometimes cause plot problems when the outline backfires. Something may happen in the outline that should cause something else, but doesn't.

At first glance, it looks as if outlining is far superior to SOP writing. After all, outlining gives you direction, clarity, speed, good foreshadowing, and keeps you from writing useless prose, while SOP writing keeps things unpredictable and is rather fun to write. The pros of outlining outnumber the pros of non-outlining.

However, here is where my analysis stops and my own opinion begins. Here's why I am a SOP writer:

I usually don't have to worry about clarity. I know where I'm going in my plot. I don't know it as good as an outliner, of course, but I know it well enough to write it. I also don't have to worry about excess prose. I naturally write straight-and-to-the-point prose that doesn't wander around...too much. I've already proven that even SOP writers can write with speed just as well as outliners.

That strikes out three of the pros of outlining. Now SOP writing and outlining are evenly matched: SOP writing provides unpredictability and freedom, while outlining provides direction and a chance to foreshadow things before you write them.

Here's what makes me a SOP writer, though. When I write outlines, I generally have to work very hard on them in order to make it so that it's not boring.

Those who read The War Horn may say otherwise, but The War Horn took an enormous amount of work to make it as good as it is today. (The War Horn is my only novel so far that was fully outlined.) By far, it was the hardest novel I had ever written, partially since it was a historical fiction story. With outlines, then, I lose unpredictability and I have to work harder. (Hard work isn't a bad thing, though. The War Horn did turn out pretty good!)

That makes SOP writing verrrrrry tempting. Not only is it easier (and rather fun for a character such as me), it provides a balance to my tendency to creating boring plot. That makes SOP writing a better option for me, as a writer. I can write more and write better if I write with no plan.

So that's why I'm a SOP writer.

And as a side note, there's a weird hybrid method that I used on The Book of Shaldu, which I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2010. I wrote the outline of the next chapter or two, and then wrote those chapters. It was like shining a flashlight down a twisting tunnel: I couldn't see the end, but I could see my next few steps. I never fully outlined to the end, actually. Most of the way through, I tossed out the outline and just wrote from the seat of my pants again.

That method allowed me to do NaNo at a speed that I can't achieve now: over 2,000 words an hour. I got the benefits of outlining—direction and speed—with the benefits of SOP writing: unpredictability and balance. You might try it sometime. I prefer the pure method of non-outlining now, but it might work for you!

In summary, outlining offers guidance, foreshadowing, and direction. If you can write up a good plot but you have a tendency to go on rabbit trails, outlining is the thing for you. On the other hand, you have fingers. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) On the other hand, seat of the pants writing offers unpredictability and balance to the novelist who has trouble coming up with great plots.

Of course, there are other reasons you might choose one or the other. Can you think of any?

So what about you all? What do you think? To outline, or not to outline, and why?

Join the discussion!


Writer4Christ said...

Some times when you do outline, I try to outline briefly so that I still have room to be surprised in some areas.

Kismint said...

Ha! I got pretty sick of reading Paolini's...jumbles by the time I had toiled through the first 400 pages of the entire series.

I like the quote by Christopher Hopper. It makes perfect sense.

Personally, my issues of writerness all revolve aroud procrastination and writing myself into a boring point of plot. Once that happens, I start to lose intrest into my own work, and abandon project entierly.

Depressing, ain't it?

Perhaps outline is the way to go...

Hannah Joy said...

I am an SOP writer. Pretty much because I've tried outlining, and every book or story I've outlined has failed because I know what's gonna happen next and it's often not good enough, so the surprise is ruined for me and there's no point in writing more if that makes any sense. I usually have the general idea of where my plot/characters are going, but not a full-out outline. :-P

But I think it depends on the person. I find it annoying to outline, and I like my book to be a surprise, so I am a SOPser. Outliners, I guess, like to know where there book is going. And that's fine. I mean, if their book is good, who am I to complain? ;-)

daNinjaGirl said...

me, I'm a little bit of both. I like having a loose--veeeeeeery loose outline, so I have an idea of what's gonna happen, but I'm free and easy to do whatever else I want. I'm mainly a SOP writer, though(luv that term!)


Starsinger said...

I'm definately a SOP writer, mainly because I'm too lazy to spend time trying to figure out a good plot etc, and partly because at the moment with writing I'm just going along for the ride. Which is why I am in the middle of so many stories at once, but what I like about that, is that I make a whole range of character, and then I can steal the good ones and seriously write a book with them in.
-Plus that fact that I'm trying to discover what works/doesn't work for my writing style.

Abbey said...

I'm not exactly sure what I am.... I outline, but not heavily. Some people outline every single chapter. I outline every part.

For example, story starts with Bob and Joe going to the supermarket. Then Bob and Joe buy pickles. Then Bob and Joe go to the video store and buy a video. Etc. etc. etc.

I think outlining is a good idea because you know where you story is going. When I don't outline, I tend to write for a bit, then lose where I'm going and leave the story behind.

I think lose outlining is a good idea. =)

Silverlake said...

I guess I would be a little of both. I know where my stories start, I know where I want them to end, and I know the basic outline of what will happen in between, but I usually write SOP throughout the middle. Though, there are some scenes that I will outline in my head if I know they will happen later in the book and I need them to go a certain way. But, other than that, I'm a SOP writer.

Writer4Christ said...

I like to be SOP sometimes when I want it to be a surprise, and when it is a short story or poem. That way, it is easier to edit than if it were a very long book.
But for longer books I try to make sure I know what is going to happen loosely. So I sort of know the joys of each.

Lark said...

The only two stories I've finished, surprisingly, were the ones that I didn't outline hardly at all. I usually have a few scenes in my head, which is basically what I do--- how to get from this scene to the next? So it's more like a timeline than an outline...
Is grizzled even a word? It sounds cool! Grizzled.. grizzled... grIZzled... grizZLED...
Sorry, I was just having fun there.
Some books (like Paolini's series) I just hardly can get through because there's NO PLOT at ALL, and it just goes on... and on... and on... I'm not the sort of person that can wade through stuff like that. But here are readers like that, so I guess that was the intended audience...

Anonymous said...

If you do it will, there are no cons to outlining. And because of the way successful stories are structured (see ), it's better to plan it out before you punch up Final Draft.

Anonymous said...

Of course, I meant "well" and not "will" in the above post.