Monday, December 26, 2011

Sans GPS

Do you outline your stories?

While considered essential for most non-fiction projects, writers of imaginary works are divided on the necessity of an outline for fiction.

Some sketch out a plot so thoroughly it might almost be considered a book in itself. Others belong to the school now jokingly referred to as Pantsers (i.e., they fly the seat of their pants), those who devise as they go along.

Some create a detailed tome describing every step before they even consider starting the actual book. P. D. James, for instance, spends up to a year planning a book before writing a single page.

Others plunge right in with a mere image in mind and no idea where it will lead them. William Faulkner, for instance, claimed to put his characters on a road and walk beside them, listening to what they had to say. Despite this claim, Faulkner did outline (though he may have called it something else), as evidenced by the scribblings for “A Fable” on the wall of his study at Rowan Oaks.

John Fowles said The French Lieutenant’s Woman began with a mental image of a woman standing alone at the end of a causeway. James Lee Burke has said he usually doesn’t know what’s going to happen beyond a scene or two.

Michael Connelly says he generally knows “whodunit,” but “wings it” from there. The late Tony Hillerman insisted he didn’t want to know too much in advance, less he become bored with the story and unable to proceed.

Personally, I’m on the side of these pantsers. My idea of an outline is generally so scant—the mere jotting of a few words, comments or descriptions I don’t want to lose in the midst of the project. To someone else I’m sure it would have no more meaning than hieroglyphs in a language they don’t understand.

In fact, though they may vehemently deny it, most writers do outline—though they may not consciously realize it.

How is that possible, you ask.

Larry Brooks (see, a strong proponent of outlining, points out that stories have an architectural structure and the purpose of outlining is to insure the writer includes all the necessary elements. There’s no denying this is true. Miss one or more of those elements and you have a failed story.

Though pantsers do not incorporate all those elements into a written sort of GPS format it does not necessarily follow that they ignore them. Rather pantsers choose to integrate the elements internally, or perhaps I should say, intuitively—a kind of magic rhythm.

The story is present in the mind, sometimes for years, being mulled, considered from every angle and, eventually, our characters provide direction after conscious thought is more systematically organized in the subconscious.


  1. I definitely fall into the "I admit I outline" category. Mine is a simple outline; it lists what has to happen in each chapter in order for the ending to make sense. (And, of course, it's subject to change as I write.) Rather than restricting me, it gives me a map so I can get to where I want to go.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Patricia. It's always nice (and important)to know where you're going.

  3. Nice Post, John.
    I'm more of a pantser than not; although once I get a story started--chapter one or a prologue--I usually write the ending next. Then I "intuitively" fill in the middle parts.

    There's a lot of wandering around going on. Maybe not the most efficient writer GPS, but when I try to do it differently, nothing seems to work.

  4. I wing it. Every time I try to plan it ends up looking like the idea of a story rather than a story.

  5. Thanks Kae and Paul. A GPS is only as good as the entered information.