Why Outlines Don’t Work For Me

The majority of us were taught in high school and college about how important outlines are for our writing. I don’t disagree with this credo when it comes to writing nonfiction or a research essay. In fact, I teach how students how to write them in college. However, when it comes to writing fiction, I cannot use an outline.

That’s not to say that I’ve never tried to use an outline for a novel, because I have. But after a few failed attempts of trying to stick to an outline, I tossed out the notion of ever using one again. Why?

An outline restricts my characters. For me to dictate what my characters should do next is equivalent to placing them in prison. They don’t have the freedom to express themselves when forced to follow a predestined pattern I have designed for them. The writing process also seems stale and flavorless, and indeed it is. If the story seems that way to me while I am writing it, I cannot fathom a reader experiencing anything differently.

What I’ve learned is to allow the characters to do what they feel is essential for their survival. While I might have a general idea in my head of how he/she will act and interact with other characters, I usually find out later that I was wrong.
One of the best compliments that many readers have told me over the years is that they love the unexpected twists and turns that occur within the plotlines of my novels. So do I, as the vast amount of time these twists and turns came without any prompting of my own.

Characters that are allowed to follow their own paths often reveal things to me that I never even saw coming. Such epiphanies would have been lost had I chained the characters to a step-by-step outline. I cannot tell you the number of times I honestly thought I knew a character’s true personality and when a conflict occurs, the character reacts in a way I didn’t plan. Sometimes a new character emerges in a scene where the main character arrives. What I intended to be a brief interaction turns into something greater, which might have been introduced by how the dialogue between the characters unravels.

Ray Bradbury said, “Follow your characters.” This is a dogma I’ve obeyed for many years.

When I had finished Predators of Darkness: Aftermath, I thought it was a stand-alone novel. I never even imagined a second book would materialize. I certainly never imagined an entire series of books. However, a few months after I finished POD:A, conversations between the characters played out in my mind. I took a pen and began writing down what the characters were saying. Bit by bit and scene-by-scene, the story materialized. Last year, I finished Book 5 in the Predators of Darkness Series and have started the sixth book with two more to come after it.

After I finished Devils Den, I decided it would be a good idea to write a novella as a backstory based upon characters I had written about in a novel almost twenty years earlier. To my surprise the characters decided to take over. You see, these characters had been in my mind for so long without ever getting a chance to express themselves or truly interact that once the opportunity for them to be seen and heard on the page, they took the reins and all I could do was watch, listen, and take notes.

What I had expected to be a 40,000-word novella expanded into a 128,000-word epic fantasy and Shawndirea was born. The book stayed in the top 100 paid fantasy novels at Amazon for ten weeks in 2014 and was successful enough to qualify me for membership into the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Now, had I held those characters to a strict outline, the novel probably wouldn’t have been as successful.

Outlines work great for some authors, but I’m not one of those who can use one, at least not in fiction. I’ll always be content allowing my characters to lead me as long as they allow me to write down what they say and do. The process has worked so far.

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