From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Danger of an Outline

I should start off by saying that I am a huge outliner. My outlines are basically just a list of bullet points, but I have it organized chapter by chapter, scene by scene, so I know which part goes where and roughly how many words each scene and each chapter needs to be to add up to the desired whole. If I don't know by my outline that I have enough material to fill a whole novel, I get anxious.

But as I've edited the novel I've noticed that a lot of the problems and flaws that I need to fix come from using an outline in the first place. The flaws are much easier to see after having given it some time as well as seeing the novel through the fresh eyes of my beta readers.

There are definite pacing problems, and spots where the emotional arc just does not flow. These things can be fixed, but I think these problems originate from sticking too closely to a laid out list of plot points. When you use an outline it is easy to follow it and ignore the subtle emotional reactions and changes in your characters that might actually influence or even totally change what happens next in the story. This makes the pacing feel off, the emotional reactions forced or unrealistic.

Outlines still definitely have their good points. Many, in fact, or I would not have used one. They keep you moving forward in a deliberate direction, giving your story necessary focus. They help you know where you are going. But I'm learning that even if you know where you are going, which is good, you still need to let your characters move slowly or stumble or run or skip or move forward in the way most natural to them, let them stop at the interesting cabin, look at the clouds, smell the roses. Let what happens happen. If it doesn't work you can always nix it later.

This is what I hope to be able to do next time.

So how many of you are outliners? How do you avoid this problem? If you're a pantser, how do you find the confidence that your idea is large enough for an entire novel?

Sarah Allen


  1. I do outline but keep it flexible... I do feel that without a general plot though I'd be totally at sea!

  2. Outlines are great if you view them like you would a sandcastle. They're temporary, and meant to be swept away and rebuilt. :-)

  3. I tend to make a very brief outline and then give myself permission to stray from it. I never know where the story will take me. :)

  4. I usually start without an outline and just keep a character roster near by. As I get going in the story I make a kind of bullet point list things that have to happen, but in no particular order. It's worked for me so far :)

  5. I think you have to view outlines as malleable. After all, once you have a first draft it's really just a detailed outline for the second draft. Even if you're a panster you have to be able to work from that.

    Moody Writing

  6. There have been time when the story seemed to be heading off in a different direction and I've pulled it back because of my outline. I'm toying with writing my next one with only a vague idea of where I going and see what happens.

  7. Interesting you bring this up because I have written two novels and tried making it up as I went in the first and outlined for the second.
    Reflecting on both styles, there were pros and cons. I think now that I have adopted outlining I would have trouble not doing it.
    So now that I outline, here is my method:
    I create a pretty detailed outline (this is sad but I literally write every detail I can because I am so forgetful I fear forgetting important details).
    Here is the key for me though, once it is all there for referencing, I approach the story organically and only refer to the outline when I get stumped.
    That helps me maintain the flow and keep it exciting but still gives me a guide if I need to use it.

    Thanks for sharing Sarah. You make a really good point about striking the balance between selectively using an outline and relying on one too much.


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