The idea of outlining a novel may strike dread, panic or even tedium into a writer’s heart. Are we really expected to have our entire story outlined before we put pen to paper?
It’s all well and good if you write short stories. But can you really know more than the inciting incident and major plot points of a whole novel before you’ve even started writing? Don’t you get to know the details as the story progresses? This is, after all, a creative process, and writing outlines often seems more like maths.
In genre fiction, you’ll have the beats that drive the story forward – the expectations that genre brings to a story’s structure. Literary fiction might feel a bit looser. But the fact is, every genre brings its own challenges and explorations.
If you don’t know much about the story structure you’ll impose on your novel as you start out your writing process, don’t worry. You’re not alone. While outlining can be a good exercise, and a rough outline can make the blank page a little less daunting, many writers dive in without an outline at all, or at least a very detailed one.
In this article, we hear from one such writer: Tess Gerritsen, the bestselling author of numerous novels including the Rizzoli and Isles series. Tess discusses how she can write stories without an outline or detailed plan... So if you’re working on your first novel or your next story and you want to leave yourself more room to explore without a road map, read on!
Some writers wouldn’t dream of starting without an outline
Years ago, I learned that a certain Very Successful (and Famous) Author would say we should have our entire story outlined before we put pen to paper.
Seemingly, he doesn’t start writing a novel without an outline of 50+ pages. He knows in advance every twist and turn of his plot and every crisis, large and small, that his main character and all his fellow co-stars will face.
What a brilliant strategy, I thought. It seemed far better than the disorganised way I was writing my novels, with no clue where my story was going or how to keep driving the story forward.
The ideal vision of outlining a novel
You don’t build a house unless you have a blueprint, right? What I clearly needed was a blueprint. Instead, I’d been the crazy builder who shows up with wood and nails and just starts hammering away. I’d build a room, decide I didn’t like the looks of it, and start building another room facing a different direction.
I’d end up with a shambolic Winchester Mystery House (Americans will be familiar with this reference) where doors lead nowhere and hallways sprout off in senseless directions. Then I’d have to tear apart the mess and rebuild the whole thing so it would make sense.
If I was the architect for your house, you would fire me.
What I clearly needed was a blueprint. Instead, I’d been the crazy builder who shows up with wood and nails and just starts hammering away. I’d build a room, decide I didn’t like the looks of it, and start building another room facing a different direction.
I decided that things would be different with my next novel. I was going to follow the example of the Very Successful Author. I wouldn’t start without an outline again. I determined to go through the process of outlining the entire novel beforehand.
That way, I would save myself the agony of wandering into blind plot alleys and ripping up pages and pages of unusable prose.
I was going to do it the logical way. I was going to become a Planner.
The reality of outlining a novel
So I set about outlining my story.
I then faced the new question of how to outline a novel. In the end, my version differed from the 50-page highly detailed battle plan that the Very Successful Author writes. I wrote only eleven single-spaced pages with scene-by-scene descriptions of my story.
My outline had a really detailed beginning and middle, and just a semblance of an end; by the time I’d written those eleven pages, I wanted to plunge in and just start writing (which is the curse we plungers must deal with. We’re impatient people and we want to just get on with it).
In the end, my version differed from the 50-page highly detailed battle plan that the Very Successful Author writes. I wrote only eleven single-spaced pages with scene-by-scene descriptions of my story.
With the outline of my novel in hand, I was ready to write. This time, I wouldn’t suffer my usual sleepless nights agonising over the plot and my characters’ motivations. This time, the writing would be a breeze. This time, I knew exactly what was going to happen.
And it worked. For about three chapters.
My story took on a life of its own
Then the story took off in a different direction.
I don’t remember if I was just bored because I already knew what was going to happen, or if some new plot twist popped up unexpectedly on the page.
In any case, suddenly the characters weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. It’s as if they stopped and glared at me and said, ‘You really expect us to follow this stupid outline?’
The more I wrote, the more the story deviated from the plan I’d created. Once I started down that different highway, my original route fell further and further behind me until it was just a distant puff of dust.
Suddenly the characters weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. It’s as if they stopped and glared at me and said, ‘You really expect us to follow this stupid outline?’
I was writing an entirely different book, and I was doing it in my usual disorganised way, with sleepless nights and plot agonies.
I’d reverted to my bad habits. I was a failed planner.
Does outlining a novel make or break it?
But you know what? That book turned out just fine.
In fact, it turned out a lot more exciting than the story I’d originally outlined. It had twists I never expected and character revelations that occurred to me only as I was writing the scene.
Yes, I struggled as usual to make all the moving parts work together. Yes, I had to rewrite that manuscript seven times (as I always do) and I threw out about a hundred pages that didn’t fit into the final plot, but that’s the way I’d always done it. It’s the way I now believe I’m meant to do it.
Respect your process
Every writer has his or her own quirks.
Maybe you can’t start your workday without drinking three cups of coffee, or lighting a scented candle, or turning on the theme music to Braveheart.
I heard about a writer who would put on a chef’s hat when her children were young, as a signal that they were not to bother Mommy while she was working. Years later, after her kids were grown and out of the house, she still puts on that now-tattered chef’s hat to write because it’s become part of her process, and she can’t write without it.
I too have quirks I can’t shake:
- I still write my first drafts with pen and paper. The paper must be unlined blank typing paper, because seeing lines on the page inhibits my creativity. I’ve tried typing my first drafts on the computer, but seeing words on the screen turns on the editor in my brain. It makes me stop to edit and re-edit the chapter, and keeps me from getting on with the rest of the story.
- Only after I’ve handwritten the entire first draft do I type the words into my computer. I have to type it myself, because no one else can read my handwriting.
- I never stop to re-write when I’m on my first draft because it stops my forward motion in the story. This means my first drafts have lots of mid-plot corrections, as well as characters whose motives, names and even genders may change by the end. When those changes happen on the fly, I just slap a sticky note to the page reminding myself to fix this detail later, and I keep writing.
Finding sense in the chaos
When I hit a plot wall and don’t know what happens next, I take a break from the book. Because of my chaotic method of plotting – in other words, decidedly not outlining the novel – this invariably happens, so it no longer freaks me out.
I know that somehow, I’ll be able to figure my way out of the mess. I have a few strategies to deal with it: long walks, staring at the ceiling, maybe a long drive, road trip or mindless travel. It may take a few weeks of not writing, but I always manage to figure out what happens next, and why.
Is this an efficient way to write a book? Absolutely not. It’s stressful, it’s unpredictable, and it means I often take longer to finish a manuscript. But it’s the only way I know to do it. After writing thirty books, I’m too entrenched in my process to change it.
That’s the message I hope you’ll all take to heart: there’s no wrong way to write a book. Outlining a novel isn’t the key to its success – or the guarantee of its failure.
If your process works for you, no matter how crazy it may seem, just accept it. Embrace it.
And keep writing.
- A writing class with Tess Gerritsen is available to members of The Novelry. When you join us for a writing course, you can join enjoy our resources, live weekly writing classes, and special guest sessions with bestselling authors, literary agents and publishing professionals.