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To Outline or Not To Outline: That Is The Question

9 February 2018
 February 9, 2018
Category: Uncategorized

Yeah, Hamlet was faced with a big decision– whether to live or die. 


But as writers, we are also faced with massive choices. For example, should we create a detailed step outline of our book or screenplay, figuring out all the characters and plot details ahead of time, or should we just let our subconscious lead us  to the people and story we are trying to explore?


I feel very Shakespearean today, and so reveal my feelings on the subject, in this revised Shakespearean soliloquy…


To Outline or Not to Outline: That is the Question

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous numbers of wasted pages

Or to take arms against a sea of digressions

And by opposing end them.

To outline, to panic–

no more– and by outlining to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That not outlining is heir to. Tis a consummation

Devoutly be wished. To outline, to have a blueprint

To have a map of the way– will this exclude dreaming?

Ay there’s the rub

For in that logical outlining will the necessary dreams come?

When we have shuffled off our right brain coil

Will this need for structure

Make a calamity of our creative juices?

This gives us pause.

To grunt and sweat under a left brained life…

But that dread of rambling on and on

That undiscovered country of episodic meaninglessness,

from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will.


Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. And apologies to Mr. Shakespeare.


Really, my answer to the question of whether it’s useful to have an outline, is yes. This kind of preparation can save you from lots of unnecessary wandering. HOWEVER, I don’t believe that every detail should be nailed down in this phase. It’s important that you leave gaps. Things you don’t yet understand or have figured out, so that the process of writing the pages allows you to access the right part of your brain that dreams up stuff you couldn’t possibly conjure with the left.


While I appreciate that some writers do not outline, and that this is their process, for the majority of us, creating some kind of roadmap is useful. Even Aristotle, in his Poetics, suggests, “As for the story… the writer should first sketch its general outline, and then fill in the episodes (scenes) and amplify in detail.”


TAKE ACTION! Even if it’s just a one pager– try to map out the journey of your main character. What does he or she want? What actions does he/she take to get it? Who is trying to stop them? How does this build to a climax? Don’t fill in all the details. Leave yourself room for discovery and those beautiful right brain moments where connections are made.


Don’t get caught, like poor Hamlet, with a skull in your hand, moaning from indecision…


Make a map. Leave some gaps.


You’ll get the best from both sides of your brain!


xo pv

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