To Outline or Not to Outline

A while back I posted about creating an outline for my short stories, in addition to my novels, and argued in favor of having some semblance of structure before you start writing. I think most writers would agree on the need for at least a rudimentary outline before you start writing a piece of fiction – writing poetry, I imagine, is a much different process, though any poets out there should feel free to correct me.

While I still believe in having an outline, I read an interesting article by Brian Klems last week arguing the opposite. Klems offers six tips for how to write without an outline, and he makes some really good points. For example, he suggests “following rabbit trails” – in essence, if an idea strikes you while you’re writing, follow the path and see where it takes you – as well as ongoing reevaluation of your story as you write.

I can definitely see value in what Klems is saying. At the moment I’m working on the next chapter of my novel, where I introduce three of my major characters. I have sketches for all three of them, but I’m finding it really neat to develop nuances of their behavior as I write. For example, one of my characters is wandering a marketplace, and I’ve been developing the layout of the marketplace and how she interacts with the setting paragraph by paragraph, instead of outlining the scene beforehand. In a way, this character is showing me how the scene should flow; it’s really neat.

My thinking is that the best writing method is a balance of outlining your plot and leaving room for the story to just emerge while you write. What I’ve done with my novel so far is write a basic outline of my chapters and scenes, with room for me to create specific details while I write. The same is true of my characters; I’ve jotted down information about their backstories, mannerisms, etc, but left myself room to develop subtle nuances like body language and responses to specific situations. This way, I have enough pre-planned structure to keep my writing focused, but not too much that it takes the fun out of writing.

Not sure if this writing process works for everyone – actually, I’m sure it doesn’t – but if you’re having difficulty with your writing, give it a shot.

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