Monday, March 18, 2013

How detailed should you make your book’s outline?

By Dennis Mellersh

In figuring out how to write the outline for your book, you need to strike a careful balance between too much and too little in terms of the detail of your outline or writing “blueprint.”

If your outline is too extensive, for example, you might expend a lot of your creative writing energy on the outline instead of on your book.

Too sparse an outline on the other hand might result in you not having enough signposts to keep you on track and going in the right direction.

The nature of your outline will also depend on whether you are writing a book of fiction or non-fiction*. In this article we’ll look at creating an outline for a novel.

Numerous established novelists say that they do not make detailed outlines because it would hamper their creativity is they move along in the writing of their books.
  • They want the characters to develop on the fly
  • They want their characters to develop in ways that are unplanned
  • They want the plot to take unexpected turns

I have heard such novelists say that their characters speak to them and in effect write the words for them. In such a case over-planning would inhibit the spontaneity of the writing. Similarly, the development of the plot and subplots will usually be driven by the actions of the novel’s characters, and often, these actions cannot be planned in advance if they are to appear believable, and not contrived.

Writing a work of fiction is by its nature a creative process and the development of ideas is ongoing and dynamic; it can’t be completely planned at the outset of writing the outline, nor perhaps, should it be.

Wrriting fiction is an organic process and for many novelists, writing an extensive and restrictive outline would reduce the actual writing to a formula or pattern, which would severely limit the writer’s creativity.

There are always exceptions of course, but generally, to keep the writing of a novel alive it should be spontaneous and not be bound to a preconceived “roadmap.”

The basic plot can be outlined and the main characters can have their personalities outlined (such as what motivates them); background and physical characteristics can also be roughly drawn in an outline; and the main conflicts in the novel can be established in your overall planning.

But for the most part, don’t over-plan. You’ll have a lot more fun writing your novel if you if you literally make it up as you go along. That’s really what creative writing is all about.

However, if you are only comfortable writing a detailed outline, you should do so. Just make sure that is like a battle plan which you can change and adapt as you move along in the exciting creative process of composing your novel.

Detailed blueprints are for building houses, not for creative writing such as novels.

*Note: Writing the outline for a non-fiction book is a somewhat different process which I plan to discuss in an upcoming article.

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