Why You Shouldn’t do a Story Outline


Why You Shouldn’t do a Story Outline

I have described my preferred way to write—the haphazard approach. I’m not alone in preferring to let the story go where it will. The Atlantic makes The case for writing a story before knowing how it ends. Actually, I feel more strongly than that. I think a story outline is a questionable idea, even for memoirs (actually, I want to say ‘bad’ but I am trying to give the impression of being even-handed. Ha!).

Having an outline can give a sense of security because you don’t have to face the empty page without some support. But this benefit, alluring though it is, also has some downsides which I think are substantial.

An outline reduces the possibility of taking interesting byways

An outline is a roadmap to get you where you think you want to go. It might seem counter-intuitive to avoid doing one.

 But an outline may also encourage ignoring interesting opportunities. You’re writing a scene about your heroine wandering through the forest to get to grandmother’s house. It occurs to you that she might stumble upon a secret conclave of fairies. Wouldn’t that be fun to explore? But the outline points you inexorably to getting through the wood to meet the wolf dressed in grandma’s clothes. It, more importantly, doesn’t allow you to consider that the better story might actually be when Red (Riding Hood) meets this band of sprites and her adventures take off from there. So, it’s not just byways you miss but possibly the real soul of your narrative.

An outline is efficient but not effective

A plot outline is a very business-like way to approach writing. In business, the objective is often to get to the end goal with the least use of time and resources. But news—we’re not in the business of business. We want to create something entirely new. And that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a plan, however carefully crafted. It’s using the wrong tool and hoping for the right outcome.

It may rob energy from the writing

 Surprising, no? But that is why writers (myself included) often don’t like to talk too much about a work in progress. Because somehow talking about it makes it harder to write. It can rob the energy you need for writing much as an outline can.

Say you do an outline. You figure out how the wolf lures grandma into opening the door. He pretends to be Red and the grandmother falls for it (need to establish elsewhere that GM is not a brain trust). You get excited recording how the ruse will work and look forward to the writing the scene.

But when you do, you may find that you can’t infuse your original energy onto the page. A not uncommon event, in my experience.  So save the energy and creativity for the writing, not for the planning-to-write.

It’s not as much fun

It just isn’t. Isn’t the excitement having an idea burst upon you and writing it down as fast as you can, almost as if it is being channeled through you? The ‘Hey, I can do this with the character!’ rather than ‘Okay, what’s next on the plan.’

So, honestly, I think that dispensing with an outline is the way to go. However, I also recognize, especially for new writers, that it is a security blanket which might make the difference between starting writing or not at all. So, the next post is how to do a plot outline if you must.