Outline? Yea or Nay.
by James Thayer
Explaining the reason eleven years passed between
Bonfire of the
Vanities and A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe said, “I always
recommend to people who ask me for helpful hints on writing that
they start with an outline. Naturally, I didn’t take my own advice
and do an outline until I was years into this project.”
A special terror is generated when you become lost in a forest, as
you realize you have no idea which direction to travel, and that you
are clueless in the deep woods. This fright is much like having
written five chapters of a novel and then realizing you are utterly
What happens now? Do I introduce this character? Does the
motorcycle run over him now or later? Is now the time for that one
allowable coincidence? Does she meet her great love here, or maybe
a couple of chapters later? At times like this, the chapters you
have already written seem worthless, and the end of the novel seems
as far off as your Caribbean vacation.
A chapter by chapter summary written before you begin the novel
helps avoid this turmoil. The summary need not be intricate or
long. I use one page of summary per scene, listing who appears in
each scene, what the setting is, what the dramatic events are, and
what additional research I may need. Just a few lines—sometimes
just a few words--per item. I prefer not making the outline too
long because I want most of the composition to be on the manuscript,
not on the preliminary outline.
You’ll discover that as you try to outline the later scenes, the
outline will be more sparse. This is natural because you’ve thought
most about the novel’s beginning. You’ll make the outline more
complete as you write the novel, adding scenes and other elements to
the outline as they come to you while you are writing the earlier
This is how I do it, but starkly different opinions on this subject
exist among writers.
Novelist Joe Lansdale told me he does not use an outline, but rather
begins a novel and lets it travel where it may. Same with Elizabeth
Berg, who finds an outline too limiting. “It just doesn’t work for
me to try to plot a novel. The few times I tried, it was as though
the book rebelled—it went another way entirely, and then all those
notes I’d taken to follow that ever-so-neat sequence of events I’ve
planned were in vain.” Stephen King is convincing:
I distrust plot for two reasons; first, because our
largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable
precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe
plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible….
My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much
Asked how much he knows
about a work when he begins to write it, novelist William H. Gass
replied, “Very little. . . . I’m always surprised by my discoveries
and I never outline anything.”
Charles Dickens invented his novels as he progressed through them.
Half a year before the serialization of Oliver Twist was to
end, two versions of the novel were already being produced on the
London stage, including the ending, which Dickens hadn’t yet
written. The novelist wrote to one of the stage managers that
“nobody can have heard what I
mean to do with the different characters, inasmuch as I don’t quite
Other writers use only a
barebones outline. Mark Twain’s biographer, Justin Kaplan, notes
that Twain began Tom Sawyer “with no clear idea of where it
would end.” Twain’s entire outline: “1, Boyhood & youth: 2 y &
early manh: 3 the Battle of Life in many lands: 4 (age 37 to [40?],)
return & met grown babies & toothless old drivellers who where the
grandees of his boyhood. The Adored unknown a [illegible] faded old
maid & full of rasping, puritanical vinegar piety.”
Then there are the
novelists who use sizable outlines. P.G. Wodehouse’s outlines were
often 30,000 words, about a third as long as the completed novel.
Horror novelist John Saul’s outlines often run to a hundred pages.
He describes the process of writing the novel with the outline in
front of him as filling in the blanks, which he can do in as little
as thirty days. Edgar nominee Robert Irvine drafts a seventy-page
outline, which includes dialogue, descriptions of the main
characters, and the plot, chapter by chapter.
Other novelists use
different devices to organize their work. Novelist Shirley Conran
makes huge charts with many ink colors to track her plot and
characters. Robert Ferrigno uses Post-it notes on a white board.
Erle Stanley Gardner was reputed to have used a wall-sized board on
which were mounted wheels. Each wheel represented an ingredient of
the novel, such as motive. That wheel would be marked with
motives such as revenge, money, love. The weapon
wheel would be marked with pistol, dagger, garrote, and the
like. He would spin the wheels, and, voila, there was the
plot for the next Perry Mason novel. I’m not sure I believe
this, but it’s a good story.
Before you begin your manuscript, you should organize your story in
a manner that works best for you. You may not yet know what that
method is, so try this: use an outline, but make it fairly brief so
that most of your time is spent on the manuscript, not the outline.
A page of outline per scene is a good target.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet;
Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in
March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of
Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service