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In Defense of Outlining

Sometimes the Magic Works

 And here’s a tip for how you can improve that execution…

It’s very fashionable to say you don’t plot out your stories before writing them. And it’s certainly the epitome of geekdom to even allow the word “outline” to fall from your lips. It seems very few writers will admit to outlining their work, and I definitely fall into that camp. Most contemporary writers say they take an idea, sit down at the desk, and see where the work takes them.

And that may be perfectly successful for those writers. But bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Terry Brooks presents a persuasive argument for the effectiveness of outlines. He is the author of 22 books and a regular member of the faculty at the Maui Writers Conference so I’m definitely inclined to give his ideas a try.

In Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, Brooks points out that he’s not referring to the outlines that haunted our junior high school English classes. He’s not advocating the Roman numerals and capital letters and all the “litany of senseless conformity and rote invented solely to drive students mad.” Instead, he’s using a very general outline to help organize his books, and, as a tool for improving as a writer.

Writing isn’t a crapshoot. Publishing, yes–but not writing. Writing is a craft. You can learn it, and you can learn to do it better… What you would like to do is reduce the odds of producing a piece of writing that doesn’t represent your best effort.

In Brooks’ philosophy, an outline forces you to think the story through fully.

To some degree, depending on how thorough you choose to be, you will have to juggle plot, characters, settings, points of view and thematic structure in order to assemble your story. You will have to build a story arc–a beginning, middle, and end–that comprises the gist of your book. You will have to consider all the possible choices you can imagine in crucial situations and select the ones that seem best. You won’t do this for every twist and turn the book takes, but you will do it for the big ones. You will take this information and you will write it down in some recognizable fashion so that you can refer to it later.

Brooks states that his nature of outlining instills several key advantages for your writing effort. First, it gives you a record, a blueprint, a roadmap to refer to when you’re months into a project and you’ve been working day and night and suddenly you start getting characters confused and plot twists all out of order.

Second, an outline positions you to recognize instances when you “are being scammed by trickster plot twists and duplicitous characters–all those ideas that seem so good at the time, but in the end will lead you astray.” It’s understood that over the course of writing a book, your outline and your roadmap will change. “But by having already considered most of the possibilities while you were constructing your outline, you can now make a more informed decision” about which one of those apparently great plot brainstorms to pursue. The outline will help you “tell how a change you are contemplating will impact the rest of the book. The end result is that you can do a better job of keeping at bay those plot lines and characters that will play you false,” Brooks writes.

Outlining also helps prevent writer’s block. Brooks doesn’t buy into the myth of writer’s block. He thinks that obstacles of this nature are either indications that you need to take some time away from your work to clear your head or “you failed to think your material through sufficiently before you started writing.”

And finally, he argues that outlining frees you up to concentrate on matters other than plot. Mood, point of view, narrative and dialogue, imagery, word choice, emotions, conflict, secrets, revelations, and so many other tasks are required of you when you write. A solid outline, Brooks argues, will free you up to “concentrate on other matters of writing and thereby reduce some stress in your life.”

These are persuasive arguments and I think I’m going to give outlining a shot. What about you? Do you use outlines or this sort of pre-planning in your work? Is it effective for you?

To learn more about Terry Brooks and his work, please visit his website.