The Outline is more a suggestion than a set of rules.

My second novel The Choices we make, is three chapters away from being done, at least in its first draft form, so now I can speak with the experience of having completed two full novels. And I’m saying to you that outlines are not set in stone. They are just a suggestion, a few road markers on the way from the beginning to the end of your story. Or, like Captain Barbossa would say:

The Pirates of the Caribbean are property of Walt Disney.

 Now the pantsers in the audience will probably yell at me, “I told you so!” while the plotters will grumble, so let me explain what I mean by that. I am a plotter. I find out the hard way that I simple cannot finish a story without having written down at least some kind of outline beforehand. All the novels I tried to “pants” lay abandoned somewhere in the 1/3 to 1/2 of the story, because I either wrote myself into a corner, or had no idea where my story was going. So I outline everything, from short stories, to novels. And with Choices, I went even further and did an in-depth chapter by chapter outline.


But I have noticed something interesting while I was plodding through my first draft. While I followed that outline pretty closely in the beginning of the book, I started deviating even before the end of Part 1, I only glanced at it during Part 2, and threw it out of the window completely in Part 3 because my book had very little to do with the original story idea by that point.



If it had only happened with Choices, I would have called it a fluke and found another topic for a blog post, but when I looked back at EVERYTHING I wrote in the past year, I noticed a trend. It seems that I always throw my map away after the first leg of the journey and set off running happily towards the end of the story.


I don’t think it’s a bad thing (hence the title of this blog post), because when the time comes to deviate from the outline, I have spent some time with my characters already and I know how they will react and act, so I’m more comfortable with taking the back sit and letting them lead the story. But if I ever feel stuck or lost, I still have that map with the nearest road marker circled in red, so that I know where to stir my unruly crew towards.


Some of you might say that doing an extensive outline before sitting down to write the story seems like a waste of time if I throw two thirds of it away in the process. I disagree. By doing this outline, I already “write” this story once from the beginning to the end, and I can tell which parts don’t exactly work and need tweaking. So when I sit down and write my first draft, I usually manage to find a better way to tell that story: a better plot twist, a new and exciting way for my hero to get out of a dangerous situation, a more satisfying ending. This in turn makes the editing phase a lot less painful.


So what’s the conclusion of all this? I will still write extensive outlines for my projects, but I will never feel bad about deviated from them. In fact, if I manage to write a whole story that follows the outline to the letter, I will be extremely worried about its quality and probably spend longer on the editing stage.


And what about you guys? Are you a plotter or a pantser? How detailed are your outlines and how closely do you stick to them when you write your first draft?

2 thoughts on “The Outline is more a suggestion than a set of rules.”

  1. I also outline my books and then wind up deviating from them before I’m halfway through the story. However, once I start to deviate too much, I’ll re-write the outline to fit the new story shape I have in my head. I’ll start deviating from the new outline again, but I continue to re-outline and work off the latest version. By the end, I’ll typically go through half a dozen outlines.

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