When I first began writing I would sit in front of the computer for hours, staring at a blank screen. I hoped that inspiration would strike, but usually it didn’t. So I would force myself to type something, praying that it would turn out to be half-decent. Back then writing was a long, tortuous process.
And then I discovered outlining.
When I made a detailed outline in advance, writing became a breeze. The outline served as a road map, reminding me where I was headed. Because I knew that the story was going someplace worthwhile, I had the confidence to proceed at a brisk pace. Writing was no longer painful.
So clearly outlining is a beneficial practice, right? Stephen King disagrees.
Spontaneity and Creativity
King has strong opinions on the subject. In his book On Writing (which I recommend), he argues that outlining – or “developing the plot,” as he calls it – is “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”
King’s approach is to simply sit down and write the story, allowing the situation and characters to take him where they will. He is a spontaneous writer:
I don’t take notes; I don’t outline, I don’t do anything like that. I just flail away at the goddamn thing.
I can see the benefits of this approach, as well as the potential dangers of outlining. Characters can redefine themselves in unexpected ways throughout the course of writing. And it’s not unusual for a scene to turn out differently than how you first envisioned it. If you are slavishly following an outline, the outcome may very well feel forced – especially if it conflicts with how the characters develop during the course of the story.
Yet isn’t it possible to use an outline as a flexible guide, allowing the story to evolve as you move forward? Creating an outline does not require you to follow it to the letter.
A Useful Tool
A different perspective is offered by Terry Brooks in his writing memoir, Sometimes the Magic Works. Unlike King, Brooks is a firm believer in outlining. He argues that writing an outline can actually help you to be more creative:
Perhaps the best reason of all for outlining is that it frees you up immeasurably during the writing process to concentrate on matters other than plot.
This has been my experience. When I know where the story is going, I can focus more attention on characterization and dialogue. Other parts of the writing process can flourish because I have thought things through in advance.
There was recently a discussion on outlining in our Fantasy Writing Forums. The general consensus was that some writers work more effectively with outlines, while others prosper without them. It would seem that different personality types gravitate in one direction or the other.
What is your perspective on this issue? Do you outline? Or do you agree with Stephen King?