Outline? What Outline?

Does anyone else feel like the sole purpose of outlines is to be thrown away?

Maybe my characters are just particularly unruly, but it seems like the second I sit down to type, my careful planning goes out the window. Oh, sure, elements of it remain; but I generally have to re-outline halfway through, and then that one gets tossed as well.

The funny thing is, I can’t work without an outline, even if it’s not what I’m writing. For example, last week, I got to a point in my manuscript where I had just strayed too far from my plan, and I got stuck fast. I knew what needed to happen, but there were too many scenes and parallel timelines getting tangled up in my head. I wrote and scribbled and doodled and made arrows and charts and it all failed. Finally, I stuck my little Scout in her stroller and dragged my husband out for a walk so that I could talk it through in the open air with lots of wild hand gestures.

It worked! The sequencing was clear, all the characters were taken care of, and everything had its place. We walked home, I made a simple, neat flow chart, and was satisfied. The next day, I sat down to write what I had charted the day before.

And that darn Cabel went veering off into left field, taking all the other characters with him.

So my flow chart is relatively obsolete, but at least parallel enough to what’s really happening that I can keep leaning on it.

What about you other outliners? Do you stick pretty close to what you’ve planned, or do you find yourself writing something completely different?



  1. I try to outline ahead of time (like, in Oct before NaNoWriMo) just to get the characters and main plot points fleshed out. But in my mind the outline is more of a guide rather than a strict “do it this way”. And if the story strays from the outline, oh well. I might go back to brainstorm possible variations, but it helps me walk through the story so I’m not totally lost.

  2. I’ve been analysing plotting versus pantsing a lot lately and my conclusion is that the most successful novels are heavily plotted. The author does stray form the plot at times and changes directions as dictated by the character, but the plotting method is still integral.

  3. I used to be such an outliner, especially when writing collegiate papers. They were my lifesaver. But now, I don’t like to outline for my creative writing. However, I am finding that it helps to at least have a rough sketch of what will happen. Do I always stay to it? No, but at least it’s something for reference.

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