What’s the point of an outline? Whether consciously or not, every writer is in search of a process.
A lot of writers want to dive right into their first drafts and start amassing pages. Though there are those writers who claim not to outline, upon questioning (and I’ve asked many of them) I usually discover that they do outline in some form, though they don’t always write it down. Or they do write it down, but they don’t consider note-taking to be outlining. Some writers consider outlines to limit their imagination.
And it’s true that there are some writers who set out to plot their stories so completely, they rule out any surprises along the way. They leave no wiggle room for what their characters may have to reveal down the line.
An Outline’s Purpose
As I see it, the value of an outline is to help writers see beyond their fixed ideas to a more dynamic version. This is important to discover before we lose ourselves in the world of our story. You won’t have to spend days and weeks writing hundreds of pages and committing to story elements that may not survive the next draft.
When we don’t outline, we are at the mercy of our immediate impulses alone. We are left without the basic confidence that comes with ruminating over time on the most dynamic version of a story.
Outlining is often misunderstood as “figuring the story out beforehand” — but this is not the case. Without the element of surprise, we’re not making art, we’re making packing peanuts. The process of outlining involves developing a relationship to what you’re attempting to express through exploring characters in conflict.
Without doing this beforehand, the writer is often in bondage to a thinly explored idea of their story.
It can be helpful to develop a sense of a beginning, middle, and ending before starting the first draft. This often helps free writers from unnecessary anxiety.
With a basic confidence in the story, this can paradoxically allow the novelist, memoirist, or screenwriter to pursue a narrative with abandon, allowing the story to have a sense of surprise.