I used to be opposed to outlines, I wanted to let my (inevitably aborted) baby novel plots to grow unbounded, to take me in unexpected directions. Around the age of seventeen, sitting in a metaphorical pile of bloody botched novels-that-would-never-be, I decided to give outlines a chance.
My first detailed outline (outside of school assignments) was for a fantasy novel, the ideas of which had been churning around in my brain since middle school. I pounded out a whole outline over the course of a couple of weeks. After I began writing, sticking to the outline but tweaking details, I realized that there were deep flaws in the plot as mapped out. I saw the potential for plot-holes, and I even began to dislike much of the plot and the villain (not the main characters, I liked most of them). I realized that I was relying on the outline as a crutch, and not seeing that the characters and the plot wanted to grow in a vastly different but more natural direction. Confounded, and frustrated that the outline strategy wasn’t magically turning me into a productive writer, I stopped writing that story.
Recently, I’ve been trying to focus on two stories/novels, and I’ve discovered that outlines allow me to figure out where a story is going, to string together plot developments in an organized manner, to pinpoint good places to provide clues or foreshadowing in stories where it is necessary, and to have a vague sense of progress as I write. Outlines will also save you from resorting to a deus ex machina, unless you’re really shameless and you include one anyway. Unless you want to kill off a character, you should not write her into a hard place she won’t be able to extricate herself from. Your outline will swoop in, much like a superhero, and save you from bad plot devices. Okay, maybe not literally. You’re going to have to do some of the work yourself.
I’m not just here to sing the praises of outlining as a writing process. I have a warning. If your characters are not fully conceived before you work on the outline, you will have to force them to fit the outline, when it should be the other way around. This will probably lead to inconsistencies that astute readers will catch. To have a plot, you must have characters that are willing and able to drive that plot.
The main point to take away from this is that you need a bit of structure to keep the plot growing, but that structure has to be flexible. Or, to use an analogy relevant to modern life: an outline is comparable to a GPS, it can be a good guide, but it can also lead you astray if it’s not very good. Happy writing!
P.S. It’s okay to start writing something before you have an outline hammered out.