The Pros and Cons of Outlining Your Novel

22/02/2016 Discussions, Writing 13

The Pros and Cons of Outlining Your NovelSeen as my blogging has pretty much ground to a halt these past couple of weeks due to my lack of internet, I decided it was time to devote some much needed time to my fiction writing. In my New Year’s Resolution post I wrote about how this year I wanted to start writing a novel, so I felt that now was the perfect time to give it a try.

This isn’t my first attempt at novel writing: I’ve been starting (and failing to finish) novels since I was a teenager, and my most recent attempt was in 2014 when I entered NaNoWriMo and managed to get 42,000 words of a dystopian story down.

However, I’ve never yet completed a first draft, and in my mind that’s due to a lack of planning. By nature I’m firmly in the ‘pantser’ writer camp (as opposed to a plotter) and I tend to get so far by just winging it before I’m too deep in plot holes and have tied myself into so many knots that I decide it isn’t worth continuing. Therefore this time I’ve decided to try a new approach and properly plot out my entire novel before I even think about starting. At the same time I do worry this will take away some of the magic of writing: one of the things I love so much about writing fiction is the sense of going on the ride with the characters and not really knowing where you’ll end up, and I worry that too much planning could take this away.

So I’m interested to know how other writers approach outlining their novels, and if they even bother. Do you prefer to write off the top of your head, or follow a strict plan? Here’s what I feel are the pros and cons of outlining, and I’d love to know your thoughts!

Pros

  • You know where you’re heading.

If you were planning on visiting somewhere you’d never been before, would you just set out and hope for the best? Because that seems like a pretty great way to get yourself hopelessly lost, and the same goes for novel writing. With no idea of the destination, how are you going to get there? I’ve found in the past that writing like this can often result in nothing much happening. My characters just end up milling around aimlessly whilst I try and figure out what to do with them, and the plot isn’t being driven anywhere because there’s no where to drive it. It is possible to just start and work it all out as you go along, but I’m starting to think that’s it’s probably easier to decide on the ending at the idea stage.

  • It helps prevent writer’s block.

Often the thing that has ground my many failed projects to a halt is simply not knowing what to write next. A lack of direction in my writing means I reach a point where I just don’t know how to go on, and this in turn can often be the start of the dreaded writer’s block.

  • You can hopefully catch plot holes before you write them.

It stands to reason that working out your entire plot before you start should help prevent any plot holes or incongruencies as you go along. If you know what’s happening every step of the way then it should surely all work out according to plan…right?

Cons

  • You get less spontaneity in your writing.

Seen as fiction writing is a creative activity there’s a lot to be said for spontaneity and just going with it. Part of creativity is being in the moment and creating something from nothing, and writing is no different: you start with a blank page and create something out of it. If instead of a blank page you start with a few notes per chapter then it doesn’t seem quite the same; it can just feel like expanding the plan.

  • It can feel confining.

Whilst planning helps you know where your story is going, at the same time there is something confining about having it all set out before you begin. Whilst you are free to deviate, by writing a plan it can seem like you are committing to going in a certain direction with the story and there’s a risk that you’ll stick to it regardless, even when it isn’t quite working out as you’d hope.

  • You might not follow it…and it could end up being a good thing.

It’s entirely possible that you may plan out your entire novel, start writing and just completely disregard it, and that’s just fine! But when you have wasted precious writing time creating a plan you aren’t going to use, what’s the point of doing it?

So do you outline or not? What do you feel are the benefits or negatives of outlining?

13 Responses to “The Pros and Cons of Outlining Your Novel”

  1. Simone

    For me it’s half planning, half creating on the go. I will outline basic scenes crucial for the story, scenes I know have to be in the story. I think it’s important to know where my story is going and what I want to say via this story. But I don’t get too much into planning because I’m too impatient to spend a lot of time sitting and outlining. I want to dive into the world because it’s shine and new and I cannot resist. This way I have some foundations but there are still chapter in which characters can surprise me, or I get interesting idea.
    Basically, I think outlining is a good think but I personally cannot spend a lot of time doing it. Though I cannot imagine myself writing a story without at least some outline. Sometimes I will follow it and that’s a good thing but there is a chance my characters will decide they want to do it differently and that’s okay too. But I must say I agree with both your pros and cons. Good luck with finishing the first draft! 🙂

    • Laura

      Your method of doing a bit of both makes sense, seen as you’re definitely getting the best of both worlds. I have found that with outlining myself though – I don’t particularly enjoy doing it and have found that I’m eager to get to the actual writing stage (thankfully I’ve finally finished my outline, and so I’m ready to start writing!), although I’m sure I’ll see the benefits in the long run. Good luck with your own writing! 🙂

  2. Pamela

    I love this post, I can completely relate! I have been writing for a long time and have yet to finish a draft! (I did finish one when I was 14 but it was a monstrosity and shall not count).

    I’m trying the outlining method now, and have certainly encountered these cons. However, I do like it, and think it helps a little in feeling less lost and like the story is going somewhere. There’s a book called Structuring your Novel, by K.M Weiland and it’s been extremely helpful for me as someone who is not to keen on a super detailed outline!

    • Laura

      I’m so glad you can relate!
      It’s great that you’re finding that outlining is helping, and I so hope it’s the same for me! I’ll definitely have to check out that book for some tips, seen as I’m not really wanting to do any super detailed outlines myself, I just want to know where my story is heading. Good luck with your writing! 🙂

      • Pamela Nicole

        Thanks! And yes, that book is gold! I use it for reference every time! You can also visit the author’s website, which has tons of advice on structure too. Good luck with yours too!

  3. Ann @ Writing Lunacies

    I’ve found that outlining is exceptionally helpful. I tried pansting it, just to see how long I’d last, but like you, I got tangled in some hairy mess and couldn’t get out so I had to abandon that story and actually write an outline. What I’ve done is use the three-act structure just so that I could see the most important parts of the story, the things I shouldn’t lose sight of; then, I’d jot down scenes.

    Life you mentioned, it can sometimes kill spontaneity, so I write down only the main point of the scene, and leave the hows to when I’m already doing the writing.

    KM Weiland has great books and a great blog site for authors, and Lindsay Buroker and Joanna Pen also have great sites that help plotters and pansters alike. You should check ’em out sometimes 🙂

    • Laura

      I’m glad you have found outlining helpful, and I’m definitely hoping it’s the same for me. I have seen people talk about the three act structure myself and it sounds like a good method of plotting a story. I’ll be sure to check that out, and the websites you’ve mentioned because as an outlining newbie, I need all the help I can get! 🙂

  4. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I hope this new writing style works well for you! I’ve only tried to write one book – for NaNo in 2014. While I technically “won” by having 50k words, I didn’t have a finished book at the end – probably more like half a book. And, like you, I found that my lack of plot planning seemed to lead me astray. I have a hard time sticking with plans in the rest of my life, so I’m not sure how I’d do with planning for a book – but I do think I need to try if I’m going to give writing another shot. One of these days …

    • Laura

      I’m not sure how well I’m likely to stick to the plan I’ve written myself, but I think it will be worth trying it just so that I at least have some direction with my writing. Good luck with your future book! 🙂

  5. Cait @ Paper Fury

    I absolutely DEFINITELY outline. And, tbh, I think it’s how you approach outlining that counts too? Like for your #2 negative…it depends if you LET yourself be confined, right?! I stick to my outlines about 89%. *nods* But if something happens or a chapter takes longer or I decide to cut a bit — I JUST DO IT. I don’t let myself be confined by my outline, even though my outlines are like 4,000 words long and pretty detailed. hehe. I love outlining because I don’t get writers block and I can churn out like 10,000+ words in one day. Althoooough, I still get MAMMOTH plot holes, hehe. One day maybe I’ll figure out how to stop that, but my first drafts = total messes. XD

    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

    • Laura

      That seems like the best way to outline! I’m going to try and do that, where I stick to the outline but don’t allow it to confine my work. If I want to go off in a bit of a different direction and add stuff in or cut stuff out, I’ll just do it. After all, I think first drafts are supposed to be total messes. Once you’ve got it all down you can make it all pretty and sparkling I guess! 🙂

Leave a Reply