To Outline or not to Outline

There is no one right way to tell a story.   While some authors require an extensive outline before they start any project and some authors never outline, I think most authors do both depending on what the project is.   There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and for authors like me who do both, it all depends on the story itself.   I took two opposite approaches with my two latest projects: my recently released Blood, Smoke and Ashes, and my work in progress, Bloodlines.
Blood, Smoke and Ashes was inspired when I was watching Auction Hunters.  I decided it would be fun to have a story based around something someone found in a storage unit.  I created several characters, and villain, and let the characters write the story.  I had no idea how it was going to end when I started.  I had no idea who was going to live or die.  Funny thing is, halfway through the story, I had an idea of where it was going.  How it was going to end.  But then I had a pivotal scene on the stairs between mother and daughter.  And I said to myself: Hmmm… what would happen if the daughter did this… It changed the whole course of the story, and once again I had no idea how it was going to end.  But I was happy I made this change because the final product was much better for it.  Without an outline you, as the author, are more likely to let evolving characters and situations dictate the story instead of you forcing the characters to do things for the sake of the finale.
Of course, the downsides to not plotting… it requires A LOT more rewrites.  As Blood, Smoke and Ashes  evolved, I realized that I had to go back and change a lot of earlier details to fit the new narrative.  It was a lot of work.  And of course, if you are writing a mystery or police procedural or something highly structured, it would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to do it without an outline.  But for the horror and thrillers I write, where the end is NOT as important as the trip, I find that an outline can sometimes keep me too focused, to rigid, and not allow me to adapt as circumstances demand.
Now, Bloodlines… Bloodlines was originally intended to be a serial.  And it may still be a serial.  It is four parts: Abomination, Brutalization, Corruption and Damnation (and maybe a fifth, Extinction, if necessary).  Because I intended for this to be a serial, I needed to outline it.  You can’t wander too far with a serialized story because you don’t have the ability to go back and change what was already written.  You are locked into whatever happened in the previous episode and must use that as the basis for what comes next.  So you need to have a firm idea of what is going to happen.
I remember the show LOST.  I loved LOST.  Well, the first 3 seasons.  After that… I felt the writers had no clear direction, no outline, and the story began to border on the ridiculous. The writers couldn’t go back and say, “That was a bad idea, let’s fix it.”  You can only go forward.   And sometimes the end result is not ideal.
The main advantage to outlining a book is obvious: every time you sit down to write, you know exactly where you are going.  There is no guessing.  No writer’s block.  Just fill in the details.  You know where you are, you know where you are going, you know what story you want to tell.  There are very few surprises and little indecision.
The main downside to extensive outlining is, especially if you’ve spent hours upon hours plotting out the book, you may be less likely to veer of your path as you write, even if inspiration hits.  Even if you feel that a particular change would be good for the story or be more logical.  After all, if you’ve invested hours on an outline… if you start changing things, change the decisions characters make or plot elements, then that outline may be garbage.  And that can be scary, to throw away lots of hard work and set your project back weeks or months, even if it will make the story better.  Sometimes the best stories are written when it is open-ended.
As with most things in life, there are no right or wrong answers, just a differing of opinion.  What works for one author doesn’t necessary work for another.  I can’t work without music in the background and I’ve talked to others who can’t work with any noise.  When it comes to writing a story, you need to consider what works for you and what works for that particular story.  Don’t think that there is only one way to do it.

Brad Convissar is a dentist by day, a writer of dark fiction at night, and a father, husband, and not-so-proud pet owner when time permits.
He is the author of several dozen short stories, four novellas, and will be releasing his first novel, Blood, Smoke and Ashes, a supernatural thriller, in early 2013.
He was born in Georgia, but moved to southern New Jersey before he could be forced to be an Atlanta Braves fan. He spent his formative years living outside of Philadelphia where he latched on to the Philly sports teams and was promptly disappointed for almost twenty years. He spent his college years in New Orleans, where he earned his bachelor's degree in evolutionary biology at Tulane University, then relocated to lovely Newark New Jersey, where he earned his DMD.

After eight years of bouncing around, Brad finally settled down back in south Jersey, only miles from the house he grew up in. He is happily married and the proud father of two children. He is also "dad' to a diabetic, half-blind eight-year-old daschund named Friday who is little more than a lump on the couch most of the time.

When not filling cavities or performing root canals or extracting teeth or fabricating dentures, or writing, he spends his time playing with his kids, playing video games, reading comic books, reading non-illustrated books, and impotently rooting on his beloved Philadelphia Phillies or less than beloved Philadelphia Eagles.

His favorite authors are, but not limited to, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Richard Matheson, Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child, Simon Green, Jim Butcher, and Jeffery Deaver. He likes to think he learned something of the art of writing from each of these authors.

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