Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Outline or not?

Some writers outline. Others don’t. Should you?

One of the benefits of outlining is that when you begin to write, you have a framework that you only need fill in. You know where the story is going, who the antagonist is and how the tension/mystery/action will be resolved.

It’s easier to stay on track and work toward the conclusion you have already prepared when you’ve outlined it in advance.

One of the costs of outlining is that the structure forces the story in ways that might not be beneficial overall. For example, a character might encounter something that changes her, making her less likely to pursue the path you have set for her. How do you address that? Do you have her consider and reject it? Do you ignore it? Do you have her commit to the change? If so, how does that affect the story you pre-crafted?

One of the benefits of not outlining is that you have the freedom to explore your characters’ growth. When they encounter situations that change them, you are free to allow them to do what seems most natural and you don’t have to worry about how that will alter your ending.

On the other hand, a story that isn’t outlined can seem unfocused, as if it’s headed nowhere in particular. This approach can work well with a story that centers on character, but it generally doesn’t work as well in something like a mystery or police procedural.

Perhaps the best solution is to have a broad outline that lacks specifics – something that allows for character growth and change but still demands the resolution you intended from the beginning.

And of course nothing prevents you from changing the outline or the story. But you have to remember that if you do that, you need to go back and revisit all your characters’ motivations and all your plot points to determine if they’re still consistent. I hate it when an inconsistency (that character would never do that) pulls me out of my suspension of disbelief.

You should be doing revisiting the story multiple times anyway, so this doesn’t necessarily add a step. But it does require you to be extra-careful with your revisions. Happy writing.

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