Process Peek: Do You Outline?

FossilA friend asked me this past weekend: “Do you outline?”

I love talking about the writing process, but I can never seem to come up with a straight answer to this question. Generally, I find that the person asking has one of two motivations: 1.) They loathe outlining and want permission to avoid it or 2.) They adore outlining and want validation so they can put off the actual writing as long as possible.

I’ve been on both sides of the camp. I love soliciting advice from other writers, and I love reading books about writing (my favorite being Stephen King’s On Writing.) When I read these books, I find that I, too am looking for validation or permission–so I sympathize. This post will be my attempt to answer the question: Do You Outline? Are you ready?

It depends.

What’s important to me in the phase before I actually sit down and type “Chapter 1” is discovery. When outlining is revelatory tool, an implement for discovery, I find it extremely valuable. For example, sometimes an idea strikes me, and I realize it’s the ending. I need to know where the story begins. So I might jot down some ideas in reverse order: Okay, the Death Star blows up… but why? Okay, Luke lands a proton torpedo shot right down the ventilator shaft…but how does he end up there? Etc., etc.

But the moment outlining becomes an intellectual exercise, I force myself to stop. Making important story decisions without meeting my characters first is a big mistake. Stephen King talks about stories as “found objects,” like fossils that must be uncovered with fine tools, or the seeker risks damaging the fossil before they can uncover it. In that metaphor, I suppose a good outline is like that first radar image of a fossil: just an impression of what might be down there, and how I might best begin to dig for it. A bad outline is like a jackhammer.

Every story is different and every writer is different: but for me, outlining is to be approached with a pencil, not a pen, and with one eyebrow raised in skeptical caution.

advice, stephen king

Jeff Garvin

Author of SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN and THE LIGHTNESS OF HANDS. Cohost of THE HERO'S JOURNEY podcast. Rock musician, D&D geek, aspiring revolutionary.

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