Why Outlining Fiction is a Problem

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’re probably aghast right now. Mouth open, coffee halfway to your lips, going “WHAT? But you said…” 

It’s true. I’ve always been an advocate for outlining. In fact you can find several posts on this blog about outlining. I love it. 

For non-fiction. 

Non-fiction is writing in which you’re dealing with a known quantity and a set of information that isn’t fluid. In other words, you’re not trying to weave together a story. You’re not dealing with human emotions, decisions, and actions. You’re simply compiling information into an organized format that’s easy to digest. Or not. Depending on your readership. (Academic articles for a journal, for instance, would not be easy to digest for most people.) 

I still stand by that. Outlining for non-fiction is probably the best way to make sure your articles are clean, precise, organized, follow a logical format, and are usually of much higher quality than articles you write without an outline. 

For fiction, though, I think outlining is probably one of the best ways to set your story up for failure. 

When you’re writing fiction, most of the time you’re writing about people. What they do, how life unfolds, decisions they make, people they meet, and so on. You’re trying to make the story believable. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a goal. Obviously you should know what your story is generally about. Say, a group of people trying to save their country from a dragon. Whatever. You’ll likely have to do some amount of thinking ahead of time, sure. A lot of thinking, actually. Sit with the story for awhile. Figure out basic things, like your characters maybe, or what the main goal of the story is. Which you’ve already figured out. 

But along the way things start to get a little paradoxical. 

Everything in a story affects everything else. So you really have to work the story forwards and backwards at the same time to make it feel real. Everything that is has to be affected directly by what was. But what was can’t exist without knowing what is. It’s a fluid, circular way of dealing with your topic. 

Outlining, on the other hand, is quite linear. It’s analytic. It’s cold. 

Let me put it another way. Think back ten years. If you could have outlined your life ten years ago over the next ten years, would you have outlined it the way it actually happened? Probably not. 

Why? Because life happens. Life is messy and circular and you screw up and things happen that you didn’t expect and almost nothing ever goes as planned. 

Which is exactly the problem when you plan fiction. 

We all know the general issues surrounding life. Your life is about you accomplishing whatever set of goals you deem important, hopefully attaining them, and then the happy aftermath of that. We hope. But getting to those goals is almost never going to happen the way you expect or want it to. 

So why should it be any different for your characters? 

Stephen King agrees. In his memoir On Writing he offers a lot of advice for writers. He sees stories as something you excavate. I love that. Because it’s true. If you go out to a dig site, you more or less know you’re going to uncover a fossil. I mean that’s why you went there. Writing a story is uncovering that fossil. Outlining a story is deciding what that fossil is going to be. Boooriiinnngg. 

It takes the fun out of it! 

I read a blog the other day that I really love. I do. But I was shocked when the author suggested that you should always know the ending of your story. 

My feeling is if I know the ending of my story, I’ll write like I know the ending, which means I will subconsciously give away the ending almost at every turn. If I’m not surprised, my readers probably won’t be, either. 

Outlining fiction also means you have to make awkward segues between scenes you’ve plotted out. Well shoot, how does Johnny end up on the roof when he just broke his leg in the last scene? Cliches, coincidences, and other cheap writing tricks are all you’ll be left with. Because when you plot, you probably didn’t expect Johnny to break his leg. You just put “struggle to get out of the rebel base, meets with conflict, escapes”. Or something like it. 

Most outliners will tell you that outlining is all about the “what”. What does the character do. What do people do. What happens. Leave the why and how for your writing. 

That’s extremely dangerous. 

Look, all you really need for good writing is to open up in the ordinary world, have a call to action, escalate the tension, and so on and so forth. It’s the typical “hero’s journey” method of writing. I don’t really call that outlining, though. I call that telling a story. Without those elements you really have no story. 

If you offer no baseline for the character’s ordinary world (even if it’s not our ordinary world), the readers won’t know that anything drastic has happened. 

If there’s no call to action, your character has nothing to achieve, which means you have no story. 

If your character doesn’t initially refuse or have doubts about this crazy call to action, he’s not human and nobody can relate to him. 

You see? 

If Sam in Lord of the Rings had just trotted off with Frodo and never said “This is it, Mr. Frodo. One more step and I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been,” it would have seemed a little…odd, no? 

Wouldn’t you have been curious if they just skipped off together towards a fiery mountain of doom without a care in the world? 

Of course you would have. So telling you that your character or characters should be somewhat reluctant and apprehensive about this huge call to action is, or should be, unnecessary. 

I like to use the Hero’s Journey just to make sure my story is, you know, a story. But I don’t outline with it. I glance at it with a core idea in mind, and go…okay great. And dive right in. 

Stephen King dives right in, too. He believes a draft should be finished in three months, and if it takes extensive amounts of editing and revision, it’s probably not right. And he trashes it. 

Of course, he trashed Carrie, too, before his wife fished it out of the trash can, made him submit it, and essentially launched his career, turning his life around forever. 

But…I’m sure that was just a fluke. 

I’m not saying King’s style is right for everyone. But he makes some excellent points about why outlining is a bit unnatural and can lead to awkward stories. 

For me, putting myself in the world of the character, seeing it through his or her eyes, and trying to think to myself what would reasonably happen next – without being boring – is the best method. 

If something happens that I haven’t explained earlier, I can go back and write it in. I can work forwards and backwards simultaneously. I can make the writing fluid and realistic. 

Outlining is for academia and non-fiction, in my opinion. 

But it takes the excitement out of fiction for me. And if it takes the excitement out of the author, it will surely take the excitement out of the book for the reader. 

Half the fun of writing fiction for me is seeing where the story goes. If I already know (past the inescapable ‘the hero succeeds’), I no longer desire to write it. 

I’m not saying this is the end-all be-all method of writing. But it’s something to think about. If you’re feeling trapped by outlining, plotting, and pre-designed web-weaving, this might provide you some freedom. 

Let me know what you think. Are you an outliner or do you prefer to write organically? 


2 Comments Add yours

  1. blondeusk says:

    Great post – I think I will outline more and follow you 🙂

    1. courtneyherz says:

      So glad you like the post, and happy to have you following! 🙂

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