This topic has been killed to death, or has it?
What if it wasn’t nearly as polar as people have made it out to be?
Yes, the age old debate. Do we wish to endorse the outline method, or the “wing it” method? The truth is that this argument isn’t anywhere near as black and white as people make it out to be. There’s plenty of gray area. That’s why when people ask me if they should make an outline, I’ll commonly ask what they consider an outline.
If you’re scratching out flash fiction, then there’s a reason that you don’t need a fancy outline. It would end up being longer than the piece, and the end result would be anything other than flash fiction. Lots of input, thought, side-plots, and extra thinking in a story so short results in going way over your word count, and then trying to strip all of the voice out to meet your requirement.
This is not how you write flash, but that’s for another time.
The reason flash fiction doesn’t require outlining is because it typically consists of one scene, one or two characters, and a very simple plot. It’s also easy to draft it up in an hour or two. It’s like writing a blog post. You don’t have a lot of stuff to juggle, so your brain can stay fixed on a singular idea without the need to write it down first.
As you move into short stories, and novellas, there is a lot more to keep track of. You are going to have more characters, most likely, who all have their own life and their own story. You might have two or three side plots to weave in. Your story is going to have handfuls of scenes and plot points. And you need to hop from each one to the next. It’s a lot more to keep track of, more to forget, and unless you’re sure that you can get it all done in an afternoon, you might want to write some of that shit down.
This is the core of an outline. It doesn’t have to be some long, institutional piece of work, or a checklist for a billion people to look over. You aren’t being graded. All an outline is, at it’s heart, is a way to keep all of your facts in order. It’s a glance at the big picture.
Let’s go back to that flash piece I was talking about. You might get a killer idea for a short piece of fiction, and jot it down as an idea, like. . .
What if Johnny finds out his sister has been killing and eating people?
What if Jane catches her boyfriend cheating? she doesn’t like him anyway.
What if that coffee spills on my brand new laptop?
Flash fiction consists of simple stories, yet some people will write out this what-if idea and paste it to the laptop or typewriter while they work. This is your whole story, summed up in a single question.
Outlines for longer works don’t have to be that much harder, and there are infinite ways to execute them. Pressfield says that you can write a whole story on a single sheet, one side. The next step up for me would be several lines of text, each one very briefly describing a problem or plot point. Put them all in order, and then hit the go button. If you favor pantsing, then this might be the perfect way to go. You aren’t restricted or held back. You simply chug along with your story as you normally would, but since it’s broken into shorter bits, you lower your chances of getting “middle stuck” around page 100.
Now, if you like hashing out details, this still works. Use the brief list as a guide, chart everything out under subheadings, write up a few character sheets, and you’re golden.
So how do you write an outline? You stop thinking of it like a study guide from high school, and start thinking like a storyteller. An outline is a tool to help you. It’s the roadmap of your story. If glancing at it doesn’t give you an immediate overview of important markers that you need to hit, or points that you need to make, then it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, even if it’s in a Rhodia notebook.
Now, you can drag that out as far as you want. I tend to fill in the details of my outline as I go. I start with four or five major points on the first page of a notebook when I start, and maybe some follow-up data about the main character. Then I go. As the world comes into creation through my words, I keep notes about key points as I go. Before I finish a novel draft, I generally have half a notebook filled with little details, revised outlines, character bios, scene descriptions, maps, political movements happening in the background of the story, even strange flora and fauna that the MC never encountered in the story. There’s even stuff in the notebook that I forgot to put in the actual story, which comes in handy if I’m running below my target word count.
Concluding this, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you need an outline. Don’t keep all that garbage in your head, because it clutters your mind up. I wrote a blog post about that a while back. But here’s the secret: your outline doesn’t even have to look like an outline. It’s a map for you. If you want to draw up a Googlemap, then go ahead, but you can get by most times with a sketch and a list of which exits you need to take, or anything inbetween.
So, have an outline, but decide how much outline is going to be helpful, and how much is going to stifle your creativity.