On Writing: Writing Without an Outline

Writing Without An Outline

Deciding what works for you

Often, the first rule writers are told is: Make an outline. Outlines usually involve chapter headings, and plot points, properly listed under the appropriate chapter heading. Many successful writers wouldn’t dream of beginning to write their books without making an outline first.

Personally, when it comes to making an outline before I start writing an actual book, I like what Jack Hodgins, multiple- award-winning author and master teacher, says. He believes outlines tend to deter a writer from wandering down trails that might:

•lead to a discovery that completely alters the story’s direction

•uncover an unexpected twist

•bring a dim character to life

•or reveal a breathtaking transformation the writer didn’t know existed until s/he stumbled on it.

Steven James—author of two dozen non-fiction books and nine novels—doesn’t like outlines at all. In an article titled Go Organic (March/April 2013 issue, Writer’s Digest), he says he likes Stephen King’s analogy that storytellers are like diggers uncovering fossils. James carries the analogy further with: To plot out a story is to decide beforehand what kind of dinosaur it is. …Here’s the problem with writing an outline: you’ll be tempted to use it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more of that dinosaur left to uncover.

But staring at a blank page and beginning a book without an outline to follow can be daunting. How then to start?

Getting Started

In my previous blog: What Every Good Story Needs, I included the rules that combine to make good writing.

 With the rules in mind, ask yourself:

•What is truly at the heart of your story.

– focus all of your attention at the heart…and you’ll begin to intuitively understand what needs to  happen to drive the story forward.

•Keep track of unanswered questions and unresolved problems. (Steven James, Go Organic, Writer’s Digest, March/April 2013)


For me, it helps to remember that the actual events in my novels are drivers that help move the story forward, but they aren’t the story.

•How the characters experience those events—the choices they make and the tools they use to deal with the things that happen

•Why they do what they do

•And what they discover as they do it—that is the story.

 Tricks to get going again

•Re-read the previous two chapters out loud, and see where the characters might want to go next -Let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening.

•Flip to a blank page, write any scene that jumps into your head

-If nothing is altered, you do not have a scene.

•Use setbacks

-If your characters solve something without a setback, you do not have a story.

•Answer an unanswered question, or resolve an unresolved problem

•Ask: What are readers wondering about, hoping for and expecting at this moment in the story, then give it to them.

Writing without an outline might lead you places where you spend some time before you decide you need to leave. Sometimes you come away with something special gleaned for the piece you’re working on now. Sometimes not. But if what you learned doesn’t work for this piece, maybe it will for the next.