The Mark Blog

To Outline or Not To Outline

I tend to cringe at formulas, probably because I was never any good at math or chemistry. If I studied hard enough before a test, I might do okay. But in due time, I’d forget everything. So it stands to reason that when it comes to writing fiction, I tend to reject anything that smacks of formula on principle.

On the one hand, this is good. No one wants his or her work to feel “formulaic.” On the other, rejecting form altogether is problematic and rarely works. For my taste, experimental writing is only engaging when done really well. And even then, you’d probably find some form if you looked hard enough.

But what about using a formula to plan a piece of work before you’ve even begun?

For some work this is totally necessary, like architecture, set design, or rocket-building. But in writing, as well as other art forms, you can begin with no idea of where the piece will be going and hope to find your way along the way.

A lot of writers swear by this. Others outline. The degree of outlining can vary. Some might do brief, broad outlines, just so they know more or less where they might be going. They might even stop the outline before the end, so that at least something can surprise them along the way. Others will outline everything, knowing exactly where they’re headed. Apparently, J.K. Rowling did this with the entire Harry Potter series.

All well and good, but I’m no J.K. Rowling, nor do I want to be– except for the number of books she has sold of course. I still have issues with the outline because I fear it would take the fun out of writing the first draft, the sense of discovery. I’m reminded of the times I wrote treatments for screenplays, an insipidly dull and dry process (which, apparently, few read anymore, anyway).

Many of my favorite writers have claimed not to outline: George Saunders and Aimee Bender come to mind, and I think it shows. Most of their stories feel intuitive and so strange that I have a hard time imagining them plotting everything out. Same with now-classic short-story writers who helped advanced the form, like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and Denis Johnson, who authored my still-favorite linked-story collection, Jesus’ Son. Most of their work does not follow a well-worn path, and, though I’m sure they were all worked on and polished over long periods of time, the best ones retain an immediacy: the sense that the narrator is telling the story in the moment, just opening it up and letting it fly. The trick is to do the work, but not feel the work in the final product.

I’ve only vaguely considered form with some pieces, and probably wasted some time because of it. For my current collection, I’ve re-written stories several times over, without ever considering some of the basic story elements. Once I had characters and an interesting premise, I’d work more at improving the writing itself – finding the freshest language, trimming the fat, making the sentences sing. Yet, all of that time can be wasteful if the basic story falls flat, as happens if I haven’t considered some of the essential story components, like what the character thinks they want, how this may or may not be what they need, how they try to get it, the issue that holds them back, etc.

I think my ideal formula is this: write a first draft with no outline. Then once I’ve got a vague notion of where the draft could go based on that, answer some of these basic questions and, yes, even write a short outline detailing how the story might get from a to b to c.

The only aspect that troubles me, as summarized in the book Wired for Story that I’ve been reading, is the final piece of the puzzle: what does the story have to say about human nature? For me, this treads a bit too closely to a moral, or to over-simplification. That’s why I usually use several thousand words per story. Because, like most things that matter in life, it can’t be summed up in thirty or less!