It’s a universal question every writer has to ask himself or herself: do I need to write up an outline of the story I want to write? Outlining is essentially plotting, mapping out the story. Deciding what should happen in advance. What happens that the protagonist(s) must overcome, do they overcome it, what are the consequences? And so on.
Whether you write an outline or not, at minimum I think a writer needs to decide a few important things ahead of time, simply out of respect for a reader’s attention. If you have a lot of ground to cover over the course of the story, this helps you determine the space between each chapter or scene. Does the story span hours, days, weeks, months, years? With outlining comes a deliberate observance to pacing, so it’s sort of built in. What you get if you don’t do this right is a potentially evenly-paced book with a rushed ending. Even authors I greatly admire suffer from the rushed ending. I’ve been accused of that myself, and I don’t deny that it tends to happen. (I think I’ll save talk of pacing for another entry, though.)
Anyway, now that I’m writing something strictly on my own, should I try and outline the whole book?
If you write a book for some publishers, like Wizards of the Coast, you have to, no matter what. They want to know the basics of what happens, where the story goes, what characters show up, what monsters appear, and how the story ends. No big secrets. And when you’ve got a cap on how long your book can be, outlines help make sure you're on track the whole way through.
If I remember correctly, Stephen King (in his book On Writing) advises you to not think too much about outlines, but to just get to writing, to let it take you along for the ride (to discover it, he presumes), and worry later about fixing it up appropriately. R.A. Salvatore, I've heard from several interviews, puts together a superficial outline for his WotC books (again, because the contracts demand it) but then just makes it up as he goes anyway. Both are extremely successful authors. Can I afford to reject their patterns? Maybe not. But of course, they’re sort of anomalous in their respective genres. They’re not the everymen of fiction writing.
The truth is, I did find outlining to be extremely helpful when working on The Darkwood Mask and my second WotC book. In some ways, making an outline makes the story-writing itself less fun, because you feel constrained by it and you already know everything that happens. But at the same time, my favorite elements usually come up in the writing, not while creating the outline. As an example, the character of Aegis (a warforged bodyguard) never appeared in the initial synopsis nor in the outline for TDM. However, by the time I created him as a side character, he was absolutely necessary to the story and its conclusion, both as a character and a plot device.
I am at that stage where I’m beginning to outline, or at least write up a synopsis.
For you writer-types out there, what do you think of outlines? Are they for people who don’t know what they’re doing? Or necessary evils? Or something else?