Are You an Outliner or a Headlighter?

A few days ago I tweeted this:

It is both frightening and fun to be 33,535 words into writing a novel and still not know what happens in the end.

One of the responses I got was:

What an interesting statement. You didn’t write an outline or have an idea prior? Fascinating!

I didn’t have an outline. I do have an idea – a character, a scene and a scenario, to be exact. But I don’t know exactly where the story is going. My philosophy on creating runs along the lines of this quote by EL Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Here are five reasons that creating via an outline scares me:

1) As I write, I’m constantly learning more and more about my characters: how they think, how they act, what they do in certain situations. What if I insert characters into an outline and then have to make them do things that I suddenly realize isn’t within their character?

2) I was never good with Roman numerals

3) Many of my favorite authors, Tolkien included, never saw much further than their headlights. When Bilbo picked up a ring in that dark tunnel in The Hobbit, Tolkien had no idea what the implications would be. He had no idea that the ring would be the main impetus for The Lord of the Rings. It was a moment of inspiration he never planned. I like the potential that offers. I like the idea that some kind of brilliant, spontaneous inspiration could make my story so much better than I could ever plan.

4) Outlines remind me of my high school senior comp class – we had to provide an outline for our senior paper, and by the time it was due I had already been accepted into a college and virtually guaranteed to graduate. I got a D on the paper. I know this exposes a lot about my own character, but I also don’t think anyone would have seen this coming far enough in advance to place it in my personal story’s outline. This proves that God does not use outlines.

5) Using outlines makes me feel like I have it all together, a feeling I have learned to be extremely leery about.

So how do you blog? How do you write? How do you create? By outline? Spontaneously? Both? What works for you?

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Similar posts include:
I Write Better in the Autumn (Sorry Samuel Johnson)
The Five Best Books Ever Written About Writing
Living 1000 Words a Day

30 Replies to “Are You an Outliner or a Headlighter?”

  1. Sometimes I have a light outline and sometimes I just have an intense idea that I want to explore. Occasionally, I go back and forth rewriting the story conceptually a few times. What’s most important is that the story grabs me and I have an idea how I will make it connect for others.

  2. You mean it’s OK to be a headlighter? I thought all great writings started out as an outline… That’s the way they make it seem in school anyway. I always feel so bound by outlines. I write spontaneously. I am a headlighter.

  3. For me it depends on the topic that I’m writing about. If it’s something that has the potential to be controversial, I usually try to have it pretty well planned out before I start writing, but most of the time, I just write and see where the words take me. And I’m firmly committed to going off-script if my plans are simply not working the way I thought that they would.

  4. I have an idea for a novel bouncing around in my head and one of the reasons I haven’t really started is because I don’t know how to make the first big event in the book plausible. I need to know the plot. I want to plan things out in advance so I can set stuff up and then have a big payoff at the end. I guess you could do that in subsequent drafts though.

  5. I think it ends up being a combination of the two. I am a definite list maker, so I usually make outlines or lists before starting a longer project, and then allow myself to deviate from it if necessary. For shorter stuff, usually no outline.

    1. I like the outline combined with the freedom to deviate. That’s kind of what’s going on in my head as I progress – I’ll have a feeling for where things are going, but if it starts to branch off in another direction then I’ll follow it.

  6. Outlining, for me, takes away the living element of writing. When I outline my fiction pieces, I feel like my characters fall flat, too stock, and dull. I have to move and see what the character wants me to see because I invest a great deal of time in getting to know my characters.

  7. Personally, I hate outlines. I wrote them in high school because I was forced to. But, I can see how an outline might be needed when writing a novel. My thoughts get so jumbled if I think beyond a 1000 words. :)

    At some point, jotting down inspiration on a napkin at a stoplight probably wont cut it anymore.

  8. Oh,Shawn. I am cracking up. “God does not use outlines?” Um…have you read the Bible? It’s a delicately, intricately woven story whose threads tie together in ways that no man or woman could ever hope to replicate. Not even Tolkein.

    I think a loose outline is a good idea. Sounds like you’re actually afraid of outlines. Usually, when I am afraid of something, I make myself do it.

    I work with a loose idea, but I’ve not finished any fiction yet…and that’s why when I start my first novel, I will have a very clear idea of where I’m going and why.

    The book I’m reading is called Story Engineering. It is helpful for people like me who like to know as much as possible in advance.

    1. But that’s just it – I don’t see a delicately, intricately woven story whose threads tie together in ways that no man or woman could ever hope to replicate” as being anything remotely outline-ish.

      I don’t think I’m afraid of outlines – it’s just that, comparing the times I’ve used them to the times I haven’t, my writing has felt much more alive without. I’m sure some people depend on outlines and use them well. It doesn’t work for me.

      That book sounds fascinating though. I’m reading “The Art of Fiction” right now and it’s helping immensely.

  9. once i figure out the ending to a book i usually quit. it was my curiosity that kept me going. HOWEVER i have also learned having a loose, not concrete, outline, allows me the freedom to explore side stories and rabbit trails, and also the power to come back to a story that makes sense, that moves the plot forward.
    so i would say i use both

  10. I usually start with an idea, or a character or a scene as well. I then start writing to see what may come next. Once I start seeing strings or (for me, I prefer thinking in time-lines than out lines because life moves in moments of time) lines, I only lay out what I know. Do I know a character trait or action or thought over a full list of “what should” & “If this happened”? If so then I go with them & explore them further. That may take writing multiple scenarios, some I’ll keep some I wont but the right ones will move me forward to the next scene & the next & before I know it I have a story started that I can see the ending to. I never outline until I have finished a story. Outlining for me is clean up. I go back, make sure points A-B all line up & make sense to lead me to a total Complete. Forcing scenarios or characters into a structure always kills my interest & creativity. Structure them after you know them I say.

  11. As far as blogging goes, I just have a list of ideas written out with no outline. I was used to writing to deadlines as a reporter, which didn’t afford the extra time to draft an outline.

    However, I do go back and edit mercilessly – so perhaps the first draft serves as a de facto outline. How’s that for a non-answer.

  12. Great question and comments. I just recently wrote about this in a letter to someone who needs to know how my book project is shaping up:

    I’m a stormy writer. To lasso the direction I’ll go each step of the way is to attempt to create a blueprint of a summer squall. I write the way the wind blows, which is not to say I’m chaotic and unreadable. I prefer to think of it as the creative process of surprise and astonishment. This is not academic writing with its outlines and logical sequencing. I’m writing from the heart and the mind; the heart goes where it will with the mind serving at times as navigator as well as passenger.

    I think it was Ralph Keyes in his classic book, The Courage to Write, who describes the varied writing habits of many successful writers, some outlined, others did not. There is not a right way to write.

    My creative process needs a whole lot of liberty and flexibility to go where it needs to go. I love hearing about other writers processes. We each find our way, don’t we??!

  13. I love the Doctorow quote/concept, and I completely agree with your rationale for writing outline-free—especially point number five. So wise!

    I don’t write fiction, but when I’m blogging or working on my non-fiction book project I definitely feel like my ideas and my voice are more free and genuine when I haven’t mapped out every step of my journey.

  14. i think i might write with headlights sometimes and other times no headlights at all – just risking it through the dark!

  15. those of us who don’t like outlines probably need to use them a wee bit more, and those of you who like outlines probably need to let them go a wee bit more. it’s maybe about balance? no?

  16. Never outline. I like the process of discovery that freewriting affords me. I feel like an archeologist, or a spelunker–never know what’s going to be under that next rock, or around that corner.

    That said, I do a fair amount of composing in my head before I ever put fingers to keyboard. (Though today’s post is an exception to that practice: literally had no idea what I was going to write before I wrote it).

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