How Outlining Can Change The Way You Write

Andrew Scott

Andrew Scott

Copywriter

Freelance Copywriter

3

Apr, 2018

Whether it’s the feud between chaos-loving Grant Morrison and plotter extraordinaire Alan Moore, or post-modernism vs high-fantasy, the matter of plotting is … divisive, at times. Should you concentrate on outlining or are you better off Pantsing?

 

Personally, I’m a fan. That doesn’t mean I disagree with the other side entirely—I’m not on any team or either side. I don’t even like professional sports. I’m just a lover of plotting and I’ll tell you why.

Outlining Is Freeing

A common criticism of plotting is that it’s too constrictive for a literary type. I disagree. I think having a solid outline of the twists and turns of your story all set out before you start lets you focus on writing the very best sentences you possibly can.

It’s always been surprising to me that there even exists a literary genre called “Literary”. If it doesn’t incorporate all literature it seems like a redundant title. But the reason for this moniker is that the emphasis isn’t on story so much as the sentences that make it up. And there are some very beautiful sentences. For me, though, the very best stories are those that combine the two—plot and beautiful sentences—and compartmentalising your imagination can result in the best of both worlds.

“Outlining your novel can be more liberating than you imagine, and it can also make sure you finish the bloody thing if you can cross off each murder, kiss, twist, torture or trinket found along the way.”

You’re Not Serialising…Play!

Feelings of constriction are definitely understandable when writing but, the truth is, all writing has constraints. Genre, word count, tone, audience—all of these need to be ironed out before publishing, so why not iron out your plot before you get started?

That’s not to say that I think you should set out your ideas and titles in January and stick to them in November even though you’d rather gnaw your fingers off than write another drab word of it. You’re the author. That means you’re the producer, the director, the camera operator and the actor in your story and you can change it at any time. Dickens’s plot outlines were minimalistic to say the least (insert pun apology here). His novels were serialised so he had no choice but to keep some of his storylines open so he could pick them up later on.

It’s unlikely that you’re serialising your story, though, so if you realise in chapter 7 that your protagonist could do with gills, then you’re at perfect liberty to go back to chapter 2 and make her mother a catfish. Plot isn’t constrictive, it’s a map you can use as a bird’s-eye view of your story and, like any omnipotent god, you can change the terrain at any time.

Outlining can help answer these questions even before you start.

Pace!

One aspect of stories I adore is pacing. (It’s one of the reasons I think good short stories can be masterpieces.) It’s often overlooked in favour of equally important aspects such as characterisation, tone, and twists, but I think good pacing can go a long way towards making up for any faults elsewhere in the story. (Eric Ambler is a classic case in point.) It’s not overstaying your welcome nor inventing reasons to leave the party early; plotting the pace of your story coerces the reader to keep following you to the bitter (or sweet) end. Knowing that you have to get to the Goblin’s Market scene can kick your arse into gear and have your protagonist stop chatting with the security officer on the flight deck—if interstellar goblin fantasy is your cup of tea, of course.

All in all, outlining your novel can be more liberating than you imagine, and it can also make sure you finish the bloody thing if you can cross off each murder, kiss, twist, torture or trinket found along the way.

All in all, outlining your novel can be more liberating than you imagine, and it can also make sure you finish the bloody thing if you can cross off each murder, kiss, twist, torture or trinket found along the way.


This post is part of the First Draft series on writing and more.

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