Outline? Yea or Nay.

by James Thayer


Explaining the reason eleven years passed between Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe said,  “I always recommend to people who ask me for helpful hints on writing that they start with an outline.  Naturally, I didn’t take my own advice and do an outline until I was years into this project.”        

A special terror is generated when you become lost in a forest, as you realize you have no idea which direction to travel, and that you are clueless in the deep woods.  This fright is much like having written five chapters of a novel and then realizing you are utterly lost.

What happens now?  Do I introduce this character?  Does the motorcycle run over him now or later?  Is now the time for that one allowable coincidence?  Does she meet her great love here, or maybe a couple of chapters later?  At times like this, the chapters you have already written seem worthless, and the end of the novel seems as far off as your Caribbean vacation. 

A chapter by chapter summary written before you begin the novel helps avoid this turmoil.  The summary need not be intricate or long.  I use one page of summary per scene, listing who appears in each scene, what the setting is, what the dramatic events are, and what additional research I may need.  Just a few lines—sometimes just a few words--per item.  I prefer not making the outline too long because I want most of the composition to be on the manuscript, not on the preliminary outline.

You’ll discover that as you try to outline the later scenes, the outline will be more sparse.  This is natural because you’ve thought most about the novel’s beginning.  You’ll make the outline more complete as you write the novel, adding scenes and other elements to the outline as they come to you while you are writing the earlier scenes.

This is how I do it, but starkly different opinions on this subject exist among writers.

Novelist Joe Lansdale told me he does not use an outline, but rather begins a novel and lets it travel where it may.  Same with Elizabeth Berg, who finds an outline too limiting.  “It just doesn’t work for me to try to plot a novel.  The few times I tried, it was as though the book rebelled—it went another way entirely, and then all those notes I’d taken to follow that ever-so-neat sequence of events I’ve planned were in vain.”  Stephen King is convincing:

I distrust plot for two reasons; first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible….  My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.

Asked how much he knows about a work when he begins to write it, novelist William H. Gass replied, “Very little. . . .  I’m always surprised by my discoveries and I never outline anything.”

Charles Dickens invented his novels as he progressed through them.  Half a year before the serialization of Oliver Twist was to end, two versions of the novel were already being produced on the London stage, including the ending, which Dickens hadn’t yet written.  The novelist wrote to one of the stage managers that “nobody can have heard what I mean to do with the different characters, inasmuch as I don’t quite know, myself.”

Other writers use only a barebones outline.  Mark Twain’s biographer, Justin Kaplan, notes that Twain began Tom Sawyer “with no clear idea of where it would end.”  Twain’s entire outline:  “1, Boyhood & youth: 2 y & early manh: 3 the Battle of Life in many lands: 4 (age 37 to [40?],) return & met grown babies & toothless old drivellers who where the grandees of his boyhood.  The Adored unknown a [illegible] faded old maid & full of rasping, puritanical vinegar piety.”

Then there are the novelists who use sizable outlines.  P.G. Wodehouse’s outlines were often 30,000 words, about a third as long as the completed novel.  Horror novelist John Saul’s outlines often run to a hundred pages.  He describes the process of writing the novel with the outline in front of him as filling in the blanks, which he can do in as little as thirty days.  Edgar nominee Robert Irvine drafts a seventy-page outline, which includes dialogue, descriptions of the main characters, and the plot, chapter by chapter.

Other novelists use different devices to organize their work.  Novelist Shirley Conran makes huge charts with many ink colors to track her plot and characters.  Robert Ferrigno uses Post-it notes on a white board.  Erle Stanley Gardner was reputed to have used a wall-sized board on which were mounted wheels.  Each wheel represented an ingredient of the novel, such as motive.  That wheel would be marked with motives such as revenge, money, love.  The weapon wheel would be marked with pistol, dagger, garrote, and the like.  He would spin the wheels, and, voila, there was the plot for the next Perry Mason novel.  I’m not sure I believe this, but it’s a good story.

Before you begin your manuscript, you should organize your story in a manner that works best for you.  You may not yet know what that method is, so try this: use an outline, but make it fairly brief so that most of your time is spent on the manuscript, not the outline.  A page of outline per scene is a good target.


James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.  He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).

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