Outlining: Necessary or Not?

An Outline. Some writers depend on its structure; some writers consider it the death of creativity. Do you outline? In detail? Why or why not? First we’ll hear from some of our WinR’s, then we’d love to hear from you!

Jackie Houchin

And nope.

For me, outlining is crucial for writing FICTION. I need to see the story, or at least the plot points, all neatly displayed. It can be a literal A-B-C outline in a ruled notebook or Word.doc, or a tabletop covered with index cards or Post-its.

Seeing everything together at once helps me identify potholes, traffic jams or major disaster areas, and I can easily shift, shuffle or scuttle what doesn’t work.

In my “Great American Novel” (Ha!) that is currently residing half-finished in a bottom drawer, I have three major characters. Each of these girls gets a color. As I lay out my “deck” of index cards that represents their lives, I can see clearly where they cross, collide and ricochet off each other as they each push towards their individual resolutions.

If I’m writing a mystery, I map the paths of the victim and the killer in one color, then the sleuth and the killer in another. In these bare bones of the story I check for illogical leaps and inconsistencies.

Next, using a third color, I slip in the other suspects and red herrings, making sure nothing is too obvious. Then – usually in gold – I hide the tell-tale clues that will keep readers a bare half step behind my crime-solving sleuth.

Lastly, I pack in points about the weather or setting (in green, what else?) if they are important to the story. (Yeah, I know, a virtual rainbow.)

And then, of course, I must write the fully fleshed-out yarn from these tiny scraps of data.

Now for NON-FICTION, I hardly ever outline.

My interviews and reviews usually come “pre-loaded” with their own paths to follow. Maybe I’ll clump facts into two or three vague sections, i.e. intro, main, conclusion, with a possible “research” column, but that’s all. I simply write these articles “from the seat of my pants.”

Or wherever else I’ve scribbled my notes.

The Great Debate by GB Pool

When I first started setting up author panels for Sisters-in-Crime at libraries and other venues in and around the Los Angeles area, one of the questions I asked the panelists was: “Do you outline? Why? or Why not?”

After asking the same question for about a year, I came to the conclusion that half the writers did outline and the other half didn’t. The half that did was fairly prolific in their writing. The half that didn’t outline was just as prolific. Both sides were very strong in their decision to do the outline or not.

Everything I have written to date was not outlined. I started with page one, wrote a little, edited and little, wrote more, edited more, and finally came up with a book. It took about a year to finish a novel, except for the spy trilogy. They took ten years, but they are long and quite detailed with historical facts and many locations, all of which required loads of research to get right.

So, after hearing some pretty good writers like Pamela Samuels-Young who is a lawyer and who outlined her books (In Firm Pursuit and Murder on the Down Low) and Bruce Cook who is a physicist and who also teaches screenwriting as well as an author (Philippine Fever and Tommy Gun Tango), I decided to try my hand at knocking out an outline.

In a matter of two days I blocked out the main plot points of the next in my Gin Caulfield Mystery series, Damning Evidence. I then started to write the story.

I can’t say I write any faster with an outline, but I know where I am going. And I don’t feel the panic of wondering where the story will run off the tracks or where I will have to plug up the holes. That alone was worth the two days it took to do the outline.

Another thing writing the outline prompted me to do was write out brief sketches of the main characters in the story. I now know exactly who the bad guy is. I know why he is doing what he is doing. And most importantly, I know the roadblocks he is going to be throwing up along the way to thwart my heroine.

Something I learned from examining one of my own stories was that the bad guy in a mystery, if he is going to play an active part in the story and not just do the crime and leave the scene until the hero tracks him down, is the person who runs the show. Every thing the protagonist does is basically a reaction to something the bad guy does.

Remember: if the crime hadn’t been committed in the first place, nobody would be doing anything about it in the second place. The villain now has a vested interest in not getting caught. He or she will do anything to stop anyone from discovering their identity.

By writing the outline, I know places where the bad guy will be waiting to set a trap for the hero. If the hero gets too close, the bad guy will throw a monkey wrench into the works. But the villain runs the show, always trying to stay one jump ahead.

The outline made it much easier to set those traps, throwing the hero off kilter, making the hunt a mental exercise. It will make for a story with more tension if it is plotted that way rather than letting the story flow in a more random pattern.

I’ll see when I am through with the first and second draft if this theory holds true.

Books have been written in many ways, so the best advice is to write the way you find that gets the job done. Finishing is the goal.


Jacqueline Vick

I’m afraid I’m going to be wishy-washy.

When I first tackle a novel or short story, I always have the plot in mind. I doodle questions on a pad of paper. What would this character do in that situation? What else would he do?

Since I write mysteries, I want to know the crime, why it was committed, and how. I’ll assign possible motives to the other suspects, building the relationship between them and the victim.
That’s a sort of outline.

It’s after the first draft that the outline comes in handy. A brilliant writer I know (initials GBP) suggested that I outline the story once I’ve got it all on paper in order to show what’s missing. It works like a charm. I pretend I’m preparing the outline for an agent or publisher, so it has to be detailed and it has to spell it all out.

The canyons of missing information, the stuff that doesnt’ make sense, it all becomes clear in that post-first draft outline. It’s too embarassing to tell you what I’ve discovered missing. It’s like looking down in a crowded room and discovering that you forgot to button your shirt. And not in that hot-body-on-display kind of way. In that threadbare-bra-exposed-bellyroll kind of way.

I’m too arrogant to believe that my characters speak to me and that they’ll move the story in the direction they see fit. I speak to them, and it’s usually to say, “Move your fanny!”

One thought on “Outlining: Necessary or Not?”

  1. Gayle, I loved your “in the first place” and “in the second place” points. Clever and revealing. And I liked your honesty too.

    Jackie, I like how outlining AFTER you write works. It's the best of both sides of the picture. (However, you “could” write an outline, then the book, then “compare” it to the outline… Nah…too much work!)


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