Outline? What outline? We don’t need no stinkin’ outline!

Cat covering its face in embarrassment

‘Don’t judge me! Don’t judge meeeee!’

I have to admit something today to all of you that I’m kind of embarrassed of: for the last 6 stories I have written about my plucky young detective Portia Adams.. I haven’t actually ‘known’ the solution to those cases when I started writing it. Except for the ‘Unfound’ case.. because it was a bit of an homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter (blog post on that homage here), I knew that the missing child would be hidden ‘in plain sight,’ – so I had a solution in mind when I started writing that story.

But it is the anomaly.

The other 5 cases (plus the one I am writing right now) were written with the crime in mind, and no real idea of who did it or how Portia solves the case. Knock on wood, this formula (or lack thereof) seems to be working for me.

All over the web I read blog posts about how to write a good outline, thinking out elements of your story before you actually set down and write it. But it doesn’t seem to be how I write.

How about you guys? Do you write an outline for every story you write?

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33 thoughts on “Outline? What outline? We don’t need no stinkin’ outline!

  1. I never outline either. I do very little planning at all and I can’t imagine working any other way. I just have ‘the main event’ in my head and begin to write and the characters build the story themselves as I go along. People always say this is wrong but it works for me and my motto is, “if it works, then it’s fine.”

  2. Outline? Well some of my notes are stacked on top of each other in a pile that could be an outline, but the lines, arrows and doodles connecting them together make my notes (or “outline”) look more like a Jackson Pollock painting with words.

    • Ha! Tell me about it. I myself am a post-it note girl, so my moleskins look like some kind of deranged kidnapper’s practice run. Thanks for the comment and making me feel less alone in my outline-less writing!

  3. Not for short stories. For novels though, I tend to work best with an outline. Sure, certain things may change when I actually start writing the novel, such as the actions of one character in a certain scene or what the character does for a living. It’s mostly minor stuff though, not major stuff that would directly affect the plot. So yeah, I work with an outline, and it’s been useful in the past, believe me.

  4. I never outline. In fact, I don’t follow the three act play (or whatever the formula is called) for novels. Advice from publishing consultants educated in formulic writing need to change their outlook. Writers must develop their own style, within reason. I do stick with the right POV.

  5. I tend to write a list of things I want to happen and then create the outline as everything falls into place. The story always takes twists and turns, so it’s impossible to stick to a map ahead of time.

  6. My first reaction was, “Outline, schmoutline!” Because with my first novel my first draft was my outline. But I’m inclined to try something different with my second novel. There are emotional climaxes I would like to hit and I think it might be worth trying to map those out ahead of time. I know my favourite author Tim Powers works off extremely detailed outlines, and it seems to pay off big time for him.

  7. I think it depends on how concrete my ideas are at the outset. I usually know the beginning and end of a story, but the characters work out the middle. A great question and interesting comments. Thanks.

  8. Nice post. I think this is pretty common to most fiction writers. For my work, I start with a premise, like a philosophical or moral question in the context of a situation. In my first book, Broken, I was writing about PTSD, coming home and how it affects a family and community. I had a beginning, Danny coming home from Iraq, and something of an ending. The trick then was getting Danny to that ending. A loose outline brought out most characters and hinted at plotpoints, twists, settings and climax.I never get too dtailed with an outline. I like my characters deciding much of their lives. My job is to grow along with them, and keep them corraled just enough to get the main characters to the ending.

    Danny’s antagonist, of sorts, was a character I’d sketched for a short story, about a man who claimed to have survived the Wreck Of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Make him a Vietnam veteran, give him a broken heart and complete him with native American spirituality and he was off and running.

    The other vehicle I employ that challenges me and the reader, is to start with something seemingly completely unrelated to the story, and have it figure large later in the story. An ah-ha! moment. I also like false or unpredictalbe endings, if for no other reason that to take revenge on those fatalists who turn to the back of the book for the ending in case their plane goes down. I have a story to tell, and won’t tolerate cheaters!

    Rock on,

    WC Turck/900poundgorilla

  9. I had absolutely no clue where “Catskinner’s Book” was going when I started it. I had a basic concept of the protagonist, some oddball characters, and a general idea of keeping the action moving by having lots of bad guys jump out and say “boo” a lot. Then I got to 60something thousand words and figured I needed to end it somehow. I’m still not happy with the ending.

    • That is a hard one; why did you feel the need to end it at 60,000 words? If it didn’t feel natural to end there, perhaps you should reopen that story and let it play out to its natural ending? Editing usually cuts out a whole bunch of word count….

  10. Well, mostly I realized that the book was as good a book as I was able to write at the time, and I could either go ahead and call it done or just give up. The thing is, life doesn’t have neat endings. I felt that I had gotten the characters to a transition in their lives and it was as good a place to stop as any.,

    All of the reviews have been basically positive, but all of them have mentioned that the ending is weak. Fair enough, I’ll try to do better with my next one.

    But, about outlines, I just don’t don’t write that way. I write much more like a poet than a novelist, but nobody makes a living as a poet these days, so I’m trying my hand at fiction.

  11. I normally get too excited about writing to fully outline before I start =/ And then I read really clever books with clever plotlines and feel that I should really start outlining if I want complex plot like that. I normally start with a premise and go from there. Having said that, I’ve not done much novel-length writing.

    I’m currently writing what will be a novel-length story, and I’m doing that with a premise and vague idea of what I want to happen, but no detailed outline. I have an idea for another story after I finish this one, which I *will* write an outline for, because it’s going to be a bit more complex that my current WIP. I guess I’ll decide after that which method works best for me!

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