Writers: God Wants You to Outline Your Novel!

Father John VS the Zombies is the third novel I’ve written, but only the first I outlined.  Before Father John, I wrote two novels and over 60 short stories, never once working from an outline.  I just began at the beginning and kept writing until I came to the end, or until I realized that the story was a tangled mess and needed to be abandoned.  That’s the way I’d always read stories (start at the beginning and keep going until the end), so that’s the way I wrote stories; no one had told me otherwise (not for fiction at least, and the brainstorm-and-outline methods I was taught in my formal education for essays and papers didn’t seem that applicable to creative writing).  In fact, that was the rub; writing without outlining first (“pantsing,” some writers call it, because you’re flying by the seat of your pants) feels like creative, wild, chaotic writing; outlining seems (from the outside) too ordered, too structured, too—boring.  The first method feels like creating art; the second feels like building a shed from a blueprint.

However, one mission I’ve set myself as a writer is to try to do something a little different with each piece I write (so that even if it’s a complete disaster as a story, at least I learn something from writing it).  For Father John, I decided that I’d try outlining first.  Really try, I mean: I would look at the different processes successful non-pantsers used and take from their experience what I felt could work for me.  I explored a slew of options and through a process of trial-and-error, finally came up with a system that worked really well for Father John, and seems to be working well on my current work-in-progress.

Before I go on, allow me to pause and address the “creative genius” resistance to outlining.  This is the idea that by not having an outline, you’re tapping into your creative genius side.  What this way of thinking misses—what I missed when I thought this way—is that you yourself are writing the outline.  And that you’re doing it creatively—out of your creative genius side.  And that once you start writing the actual story, if you’ve done your outline at a high enough level (more on that later), you’re still working from your creative genius side.  In writing the outline, you’re mapping out the landscape of your story; in writing from the outline, you’re floating over the map you’ve sketched out and filling it in with rich, vibrant colours.  Both are creative.  Skipping the sketch and jumping to painting your map with colours isn’t necessarily more creative; it just means you’re doing both creative things (sketching the limits and filling in the details) at the same time.

And that’s one thing I loved about the process for Father John: it was fun to sketch out the whole story, and take a fifty-thousand-view of the novel so I could see where it stuck out in parts and where it didn’t stick out enough; then it was just as much fun to zoom into that sketch and start to fill it in, to make concrete and vibrant what I’d only so far seen in gray pencil outline, to bring the characters in my mind to life and set them loose on this world so they could walk around in it and breathe its air and interact with one another and make real and concrete this story in my head.

I was also able to write much more quickly than in previous work; or, to speak more accurately, I wasted less time.  I experienced bouts of writer’s block while writing Father John—the feeling that I didn’t have any words left inside of me, that nothing I wrote had any life in it—but most of the time, I sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote.  Because I knew, generally, where I had to take the characters.  I realized that previously, without an outline, I often sat down and had no idea what was supposed to happen next.  So I’d either write in circles for a while until I did figure it out, or I’d get up again and walk away to think about the story some more.  With Father John, once the outline was done, the challenge was to make a story out of that outline, to give concrete form to a shadow.  Not an easy challenge, of course, but breaking the task up proved easier and resulted in better quality work for me than trying to do both at once (create a bit of the shadow, give it concrete shape, create more shadow, etc.).

I’m sure it’s part of most writers’s experience that when you first think of an idea for a novel or a story, it’s never just that one idea.  It’s accompanied by a lot of ideas, by snippets of dialogues, by vibrant or vague snapshots of settings.  It’s an assault of ideas.  An outline helps you organize those into the narrative, and gives you a structure to place new ideas, turns of phrases, and clever (you hope) lines of dialogue as they occur to you.

Having my outline didn’t stifle my creativity, because it was a high-level outline and I still had to figure out the details in each scene—how to convey the main character’s anguish, for example, or what exact words he would use in that situation, or how to get him from point A to point B (the outline just told me he had to get there one way or the other).  In fact, having an outline allowed me to fully immerse myself in a particular scene, because a) I knew (and was easily able to reference) what came before and what would come after, and b) I didn’t have to worry if it fit into the larger arc as long as I ended up at the right place for that scene.

It was such a revelation that outlining felt to me like writing’s best-kept secret.  Suddenly writing was a lot more fun, too; because I could engage in spontaneous creativity of a particular scene without having to worry if it was going anywhere and without having to keep the whole story in my mind.  Strange how having those limits set me free to completely immerse myself in a scene.

With that revelation also came a sudden realization, that something Christ said lined up exactly with those thoughts.  Christ was, interestingly enough, warning people away from following Him, especially if they weren’t willing to commit fully.  He asked them if they would ever start a building project without sitting down first to figure out how much it would cost, and making sure they had enough money before beginning.  Otherwise, Christ said, everyone would laugh at them for laying down a foundation but not being able to complete the building.  It occurred to me that starting a big project like writing a novel was not dissimilar to starting a big project like building a tower; and that a lot of wasted effort (if not public mockery) could be avoided by sitting down and calculating the “cost” first.  What was the scope and structure of the novel?  Who was the main character?  How many other primary characters would participate in this story, and who were they?  How many secondary characters, and who were they?  What settings would the action play out against?  How many scenes, roughly?  Would they all be told from a single POV or from shifting perspectives?  Would the story be told in first-person or third-person narrative, or a mixture of the two?

Maybe I was stretching Christ’s words too far (and certainly if that’s all I got from them, I’d be missing the point entirely), but it did strike me that if I could say God gave any practical writing advice, I could make the case that it would be to outline first—practical writing advice right from the lips of Christ.  And whether because of that, or because of everything I said above about what a revelation it was to work from an outline, I can’t imagine myself ever again writing anything the scale of a novel without first writing an outline.

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Karl El-Koura was born in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and currently lives with his beautiful editor-wife in Canada’s capital city. More than sixty of his short stories and articles have been published in magazines since 1998, and in 2012 he independently published his debut novel Father John VS the Zombies.

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