Outline or Not?

Age-old question: Should I outline, should I write by the seat of my pants, or should I do something in between? The answer is: Yes and no.

I saw Cormac McCarthy tell Oprah that outlining would be death. Stephen King, in his book “On Writing,” said essentially the same thing. Anne Rice says she’s done it both ways, but generally doesn’t outline. She prefers not knowing what’s going to happen.

When I wrote A Beast in Venice and “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man,” I did not outline.

But, is that going by the seat of your pants as much as it sounds? I say no.

Let’s assume that you have the seed of idea for a novel. In “Self-Portrait,” it was that a man is visited by the Angel of Death and told he has six months to live. I had some idea of how he would respond, and how it would end. I knew the turning points and types of characters that had to be there, and I probably made some notes. But that’s it.

What you find is that as you write, the subconscious takes over. Characters say and do things you don’t expect. Sometimes characters appear that you didn’t know were there. That’s what writing is about. Stephen King says he just sits back and writes down what happens in his mind’s eye.

So, even if I had planned every scene and every turning point in detail, done fabulous character sheets on every character, including how they were raised, their favorite color, and all that bullshit, none of it would have lasted past page five of the first draft.

As you write you are exploring. You may need to toss a lot of it during the rewrite, but often you don’t really know the story until you get into it and see what develops.

Many people disagree with that. Dramatica software is designed to plan the hell out of your novel. There are websites that sell (literally) the idea that every tiny scrap of your story must be planned before you write, or you’re an idiot. All of your characters, down to their inner and outer conflicts, their life stories, hair color, etc., must be fully laid out.

There are certainly people who would need to do that. I see the benefit to it, I guess. But I don’t see the need.

What if you’ve spent months working this all out, you have a lovely outline of the story, everything in glittering detail, but then, when you’re actually writing it, a character comes out of nowhere, and you realize that the character you planned as the antagonist is not the antagonist, but the new character is? You’re going to be pretty slow to change it. Maybe you shouldn’t change it, you’ve already planned it. But isn’t it going to show in the final result?

In the novel I’m working on now, I was writing a scene involving the antagonist, basically as a matter of character development. Turns out he has a son. I didn’t know it until that moment. Turns out the son is a real bastard. Turns out that he’s really the antagonist. He wanted the story to go in a different direction. If I had spent months toiling over this detailed outline, it would have been hard to change it. The whole plan would be out the window. It would be very tempting to stick with the outline no matter what.

Even people who outline will tell you be ready to throw it away. Then why do it?

In his book “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” a book you should have, Dwight V. Swain says, by all means plan your book, but not too completely. All you need in your story outline is:

A focal character
A situation in which the character is involved
An objective the character wishes to obtain
An opponent who strives against the character
A potential climactic disaster on which hinges the resolution.

Otherwise, writing goes from fun to drudgery, and “the idea lies dead as a skinned and gutted rabbit in a freezer…”

Amen.