Failure To Outline: A Cautionary Tale

I took a walk the other day. I didn’t know where I was going. I just started walking. The road had many twists and turns. Intersections, too — go left? Go right? My feet carried me by the 7-11, the post office, the old bridge, the Clover Hill Farm, and before too long, I forgot how I got there. Did I turn back on Flint Hill? Did I come up Pumping Station? I decided to cut across a field of swaying goldenrod to see if I couldn’t get a better vantage and an understanding of how I got there, and then I was attacked by a band of Uyghur rebels and they had a trained bear and he raped me and mauled me while he was raping me and then he left me to die with my guts cooling beneath the swooning yellow flowers. The End.

Epilogue: I’m allergic to goldenrod. Achoo.

Now let me tell you a different, yet similar story.

I started a novel the other day. I didn’t know where I was going. I just started writing. The novel had many twists and turns. Choices, too. Does the protagonist fall in love? Does he get revenge? My fingers danced across the keyboard and carried the story and its characters to many wondrous places: Mumbai, Ottawa, the zoo, a secret moonbase, the La Brea Tar Pits. But before too long, I forgot how I got here and where I was going. I decided to have my character cross the La Brea Tar Pits on a boat made from antelope bones to see if I could dally long enough to figure out where this was going, but then my protagonist was attacked by a band of Tamil rebels and they had a trained velociraptor and he raped my protagonist and bit the back of his head off while he was raping him and the dinosaur left the character and his half-eaten brains to sink into the depths of the gooey tar. The End.

Epilogue: It’s really hard to get tar stains out of your clothes. So, there’s that.

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. If you don’t, let me clarify.

In the first story, I might’ve been served by having a map. Or, at least, a plan as to where my walk would take me.

In the second story, I might’ve been served by having a map. Or, at least, a plan as to where I would take my novel.

Notice the phrasing. “Where I would take my novel.”

Let’s talk about outlining.

I know what you’re going to say. “I don’t outline.” I said as much myself, once upon a time. Writing had the quality of bottling lightning. It was a special event: a rare and magical process. You can’t plan for it. It just happens, and hopefully you’re lucky enough to be there when it does. Outlining was an impossibility. Worse, I feared it stifled creativity, that it somehow smothered this beautiful moment in the rigors of administrative red tape. Writing was a journey, I felt. The journey was more important than the end. A novel was like that: in writing one, I was striking out, independent of the oppression of destination, equal parts Lewis and Clark.

Turns out, I wasn’t Lewis and Clark. I was the Donner Party.

Inevitably, again and again, I found the same outcome: my longer works always felt sloppy and bloated. They felt unfocused. Wasteful. Nine out of ten long projects never saw completion. Those that did often had unsatisfactory endings — supposedly organic endings, endings that grew up out of my meandering tale like a garden left unkempt. Ah, but it’s the journey that matters, yes? Not the destination? Except, who wants to take a long and relaxing walk only to end up in, say, Trenton? That’s what it felt like. What an unsatisfying end: we’re lost in the dark and we have no food and now we have to eat each other. The tale cannibalized itself until nothing was left but bleached bone.

Let me instead translate for you what I really meant when I objected to outlining. I meant, “I don’t enjoy it.” I meant, “This is work, and writing isn’t supposed to be work, and writing is for me, and I’m really afraid that in outlining I’m going to lose interest in the project even before it begins.”

No, no, wait. Let me translate the translation: “I’m lazy, and I don’t want to wear big boy pants. Diapers are where it’s at. Also, I have the self-esteem of a bulimic trilobite. Probably because I walk around with a bag of crap saddled to my ass all day.”

That was me. Your mileage may vary.

Were I to go back in time and talk to my earlier self, I might’ve said these things (not that I would’ve gotten through my own thick skull):

Writing is work. I’m sorry. That’s the reality. It just happens to be work I enjoy.

Writing is not for you. Yes, it can be, but if your reason behind writing is solely for your own satisfaction, I’d politely suggest that you’re not actually a writer. Writing is a craft, not an art. It is carpentry of words. When we write, we write for other people. That’s the point. That’s why we want to be published. Our writing is for an audience. If it’s just for you, great. You can cobble together whatever clumsy, sloppy piece of shit you’d like. Have fun with it. But, the moment you show it to someone else (“Do you like this?”), you’ve betrayed your intention.

You’re trying to write something that is satisfying. You’re trying to write something that makes sense, that feels compelling, that has the proper story beats and character beats and emotional triggers. An outline is an early blueprint to get you there. It allows you to see clearly, to plot the journey. Don’t throw knives with blindfolds on. Nobody’s giving you points for not using an outline. The only thing your readers care about is, was it any good? They don’t care how you wrote it, not unless they’re writers themselves. Your technique is meaningless, because the readers aren’t along with you for your journey. They’re seeing the end result. You don’t get points for improv. You get points for writing well. That’s what matters.

No, it does not steal your creativity. If your creativity is so sensitive a thing, if it’s a trembling little rabbit who might have a heart attack and die if you fail to speak softly, you will not hack it in this business. Your creativity must not be lorded over by the muse. The muse is fickle. You mustn’t rely on her presence. If she shows, great. Let her fill you up with her magical muse breath. But if she doesn’t? You still have to do the work. Your creativity is dependent not on her, but on you.

Writing an outline is an expression of that creativity. It doesn’t matter when you decide that, in the third act, the robot is the first robot to have a robot baby out of its robot womb. Do you think the moment is less special because it happened in an outline? It’s still an exciting choice. It’s still your creativity at work. It’s no less awesome in an outline, and in fact will only be made more awesome in the final product. Moreover, you are allowed to deviate from the outline. You will not receive an electric shock. You will not be denied your food pellet.

Working on a long-form project can be a slog. You’ll have good days, and you’ll have bad days. But it’s very hard to see the forest for the trees. Remember my post about being in the weeds? This is that. Outlining, as noted there, will get you through the weeds.

One day, I changed my mind-set. I went from hating the outline, to disgustedly trying the outline, to loving the outline. It happened when I mentored with Stephen. Stephen wanted to see outlines and treatments. I didn’t want to do them. I just wanted to write. Let me at ’em, boss, I’d think. Let me just dive in. Let’s see what happens. Except, the project I was working on at the time kept stalling. And stalling. And stalling. I wrote an outline. I hated doing it. And what happened? The project shot forward like a pig with a dart in its ass. It raced to the ending. The end was satisfying. The elements I had put forth added up instead of subtracting. I felt good, but fuck my feelings. My feelings don’t matter in the end. What matters is, it read well.

Ready for the bad news, non-outliners?

You want to be a professional, you’ll outline.

Why? Because others will demand it of you. You want to get an agent? Get a publisher? Get a producer or studio interested?

They will want to see the outline. Trust me on this.

I know what you’re going to say next. I’ll let you form the words. Go on. I’ll wait. “But some major writers — like Stephen King — don’t outline.”

I say to that, oh, okay. So, you consider yourself a major writer, then. You’re on Stephen King’s level! Good for you. I didn’t know. This post isn’t for him. It’s for everyone who isn’t him.

I’ll also quietly add that, while I admire Stephen King and think that some of his work is truly admirable, some of his work certainly feels like he doesn’t outline. Ever read It? Great characters. Great ideas. Well-written. But it lumbers. It stumbles. And it has one of the worst endings in a Stephen King book, ever. You don’t have to agree (if by this point you think I’m writing this blog to seek your assent on all matters, you might be mule-kicked). But, coughcoughcoughgiantspider the ending didn’t work for me, and it felt like he had written himself into a trap. (Also, if I remember correctly, writing that novel took him years and years.)

Your next objection, well, I’ll beat you to it — outlining is about plot, and we poo-poo plot, because what matters most is characters and story. I’ll suggest that this objection is already a bit tenuous, as a plot cannot stand alone without good characters and story, but in a perfect story, the characters and story are married thematically to the plot, but okay, I understand the objection.

You’re wrong, of course. (Did you expect me to say differently? C’mon.) Yes, an outline may detail the skeletal plot elements. But an outline should be written with all elements understood and included. An outline can hit character beats, story beats, important metaphors, themes at play, and so on, and so forth. Those things will be present in the end product, and so they should be present in your outline.

After all is said and done, I can’t tell you how to outline. Tentpoles? Roman numerals? Detailed treatment? Character beats? Mind map (ahem, flow chart)? I don’t know if it matters how, only that you do.

Go ahead. Now’s where you silently — or, in the comments — object. Tell me that you don’t outline. That you don’t need to.

That’s okay. You don’t have to outline. I won’t make you. If you’re really good enough where you don’t need to be constrained by the fetters of outline enslavement, good for you. Me, I’m not as talented as you. I must subject myself to that tyranny.

I wish you luck on your meandering journey. Just don’t get raped by a bear or a dinosaur. I am the type of jerk to tell your cooling corpse “I Told You So.”