So I’ve already admitted to being a planner, not a pantser myself. But even if you’ve never written with an outline before, you have probably wondered about it. You might have read an article on it or heard a talk from a successful author about it. Lots of authors swear by the technique. Why don’t you?
For myself, some of my first few attempts at writing novels started with an outline. Sometimes the outline was a point-by-point breakdown of the plot of the novel; sometimes it was just a couple of paragraphs explaining what would happen in the novel, and when, and why.
These novels never got written – and in many cases never even got started.
In my experience, and for many other writers I’ve discussed this with, this is the primary drawback to writing with an outline. They rob you of momentum. They steal the magic from the process of writing.
And you can even lose that momentum halfway through writing the plan for a novel. By the two-thirds point, you hit the wall and there’s no coming back. You don’t care about the characters any more, you don’t care about the ending, you just want out. And you file that outline away, and never look at it again.
Sometimes, though, you’ll actually finish an outline, and maybe even draft the book from the outline. It might be a short story or a novella, and maybe you did it for an event like a novel marathon or NaNoWriMo. But the book lacks something; it’s too rigid, too mechanical.
I know a novelist of some fame who is an avid outliner; he writes extremely detailed breakdowns of each part of the novel, to the point where every single scene is described in detail before the first draft starts.
I’ll confess that I don’t like his novels. For me, they are clockwork novels; everything is so formally constructed that the twists and turns aren’t interesting and the big reveals are always telegraphed. It feels like a slog to get through the books. I like the author very much, but his books leave me a bit cold.
His novels strike me as the product of too much planning and outlining. And that’s the second major problem with outlines: sometimes the novel feels like it was built to serve the outline, not the other way round.
So these are what I see as the major drawbacks to writing outlines. We can all agree that a non-fiction book needs an outline – especially publishers, who don’t offer a contract without reading an outline first. With fiction, there needs to be a little bit of the unknown, a little bit of magic – a little bit of art – in the books you write.
And if an outline dims that spark of magic, you’re better off writing without one.
Although there are many advantages to writing with an outline. We’ll talk about those next.