To Outline or Not to Outline?


An existential question, no, but a question that pops up in writer interviews regarding the creative process all the time.  Is outlining important?  Not to me.  However, it could be important to a writer who needs that structure before beginning to write.  So…what is important is that a writer find what works for him/her and follow it.  The creative process tends to be unique to the individual despite similarities.  Some writers need a detailed outline before they write, others prefer to discover the story as they write.  I’m somewhere in between.

I need to know what I am writing to, i.e. the resolution of the main character’s goal or problem or desire which usually comes to me with the character.  An issue I discovered while studying screenwriting is to have enough conflict, to create enough obstacles, including a worthy adversary, for the main character to face and overcome.  I learned from writing screenplays that it’s easy to come up with an idea or character, but then what?  Ideas can go nowhere after the first act.  So, I have questions that I ask myself:

  • What does the character want?
  • What will he/she do to get it?
  • What are the obstacles/conflicts in his/her way?
  • How does he/she overcome them?
  • Does the character get what he/she wants?

Answering these questions is my way of outlining a story, novel or screenplay.  Nothing is written in stone and the action is sketchy.  Ideas flood in as I work at this stage.  I want to know if the original idea/character is viable or not, and the answer usually comes with the answer to the obstacles/conflicts question.  The bulk of any story is the middle where the main character works toward his/her goal or desire.  The character needs obstacles, the story needs conflict, in order to sustain dramatic tension and movement.  If there are none, there is no story.  I don’t know how many times I’ve had a terrific beginning and an ending but no middle.

Nothing is written in stone at this stage.  I want to get to know the characters and discover the story as I write.  So I leave the doors and windows open to all possibilities.  This keeps the process fresh for me, but presents a real danger, i.e. the possibility of writing off in a wrong direction.  However, I tend to learn from detours, too.

When I began Perceval, the first book in the series, I thought I was writing only one novel, not a series, so that novel is a self-contained story.  As the idea for the series evolved, I realized that I wanted each novel to be self-contained but also another step toward Evan’s ultimate goal — one long story broken into five novels.  I had no idea what Evan’s ultimate goal was, however.  Instead, I focused on the goal of each novel.  At this point, Perceval (book 1) is done; I have the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow on paper; I’ve answered my questions for novel 3, Perceval in Love, and finished about half of the first draft; novel 4, Perceval’s Game, is still in the preliminary note-writing stage when I write down ideas about action and characters before sitting down to answer the questions; and Perceval’s Choice, the last novel, is but a shadow of a story right now, although I know what the climactic scene is — I’ve seen it play out in my mind like watching a movie.  That scene is the climax to both the last novel and the entire series.  When it came to me, I was stunned because I’d done nothing to encourage or force it to appear, and it really does end both the last novel and the series in a satisfyingly inevitable way.  The imagination is a powerful force.

Now I know enough to know what I am writing toward on this journey of exploration and discovery in Evan’s world.

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