To Outline or Not to Outline?
by Timothy Hallinan
"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far
as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." -- E.L.
Doctorow (Quoted by Anne Lamott)
Should you know your whole story when you begin your book?
Or should you simply have a good idea of what the book is about, who the
main characters are, and what's at stake?
I know writers who believe they need to know everything and who create a
detailed outline before they begin to write. Every scene, every plot
twist, every revelation, is planned in advance. (Many of these writers
came to the novel from film or television, where structure is God.)
And then I know writers (more of them, actually) who start with an
interesting problem, a few characters they can learn to care about, a
setting, and a sense of what the stakes are. They let the story unfold as
they write it. They listen to their characters. They hold themselves open
to new ideas. They don't actually know where they're going. If they have
an ending in mind, they try repeatedly to top it as they write their way
I'm in the second camp. I personally can't stand to outline. My main
problem is that I don't know my characters well enough until I've written
about them at some length, and it doesn't work for me to try to force them
into a story they might outgrow. I want them to grow as I write them, and
then I want the story to grow out of them.
Someone once said, "We learn what we're writing about by writing about
it." For me, and for most of the other novelists I know, writing a novel
is (to use an inelegant simile) like circling a drain. We start out by
working around the edges of our story, and then the spiral narrows as the
story, and our characters, become clearer to us. We center in on the
things that really matter.
I also have to say that -- for me -- writing from an outline is no fun. I
want to be surprised by what happens. I want my characters to develop in
ways I didn't expect. I don't want to know how the story will end until it
does. As Raymond Chandler believed, "the best way to stop the reader from
guessing the end of a story was not to know how it ended yourself."
(Quoted from Raymond Chandler: A Biography, by Tom Hiney.)
So if you want to write from an outline, if you're not comfortable
starting out until you have the entire road map in front of you, go ahead.
But I can't be very helpful to you because I don't (and probably can't)
work that way.
But that doesn't mean I start with nothing. Getting ready to write a book
is, for me, as important a process as actually writing it. If I don't do
this groundwork thoroughly, the odds are the book will sooner or later
rear up and bite me, and if it does that often enough, I won't finish it.
Long before I begin to write a book, I begin to write about the book. I
just open up and let it flow -- no censorship, no self-criticism, no
pressure. I write about the problem, the setting, the characters. I write
biographies of the characters. I let them write about themselves, in the
first person. I do a lot of work on what's at stake -- what it is, why it
matters, how each of the major characters stands on it. (I may even
diagram that.) What's the worst that can happen, and to whom? What's the
best possible outcome?
I make notes for possible scenes and, just for the hell of it, drop my
major characters into those scenes and let them begin to talk to each
other. (Quite a bit of this material later gets cut and pasted into the
book, and then revised as necessary.) I give myself permission to make
mistakes. Sometimes I make mistakes on purpose, trying out wildly
improbable turns of events, writing scenes that have almost no chance of
ever seeing the light of day. Why not? I'm the only person who'll ever
Once in a while, one of these side-trips yields something extremely
interesting, something I never would have thought of otherwise. (One of
the main characters in A Nail Through the Heart, a street kid who calls
himself Superman, came into existence as a result of this kind of
intentional blundering around.)
This process goes on for quite a while, at least a few months. Eventually
there will come a time when I have anywhere from 100 to 200 pages of
noodling and I realize that I'm looking very hard at a possible opening
scene. Then I open a new file, give it the title of the book, and write
There. I'm writing a book.
Granted, I don't know exactly where I'm going. I don't know (yet) exactly
who my characters are. I don't know who will live and who will die, since
I write those kinds of books. If I really allowed myself to think about
it, it would probably scare me senseless.
There's a wonderful quotation from a Japanese director named Yoji Yamada,
who wrote and directed an endless series of films about a decent, somewhat
melancholy traveling salesman named Tora-San. Yamada says this:
"Sometimes it's necessary to make the leap and grow your wings on the way
The amazing thing, for me and for many other writers, is that those wings
do grow. What's more, they find the updrafts in the developing story and
ride them, like hawks wheeling on the wind. They allow us to dive to the
depths of the story, almost touch bottom, and soar up again. They keep us
afloat until we reach the end, and we can fold them and rest.
So I put my trust in the process. I write a sentence and then another
sentence, a paragraph and then another paragraph, a scene and then another
scene. Sometimes it's just awful. The words weigh ten pounds each. The
scenes refuse to develop. The characters say things that are supposed to
be deeply meaningful -- often a hundred words' worth or more -- that boil
down, essentially, into, "Duh." I come to hate the entire book. I come to
hate myself. I decide to buy a new computer. I decide to eat fourteen
donuts. I scour the bathtub.
And then there are days when it's so much fun that I doubt it's legal. The
material comes so fast that my fingers literally can't keep up. My
characters actually seem to be smarter than I am, which is widely supposed
to be impossible. And my understanding of the story deepens and deepens,
and I realize it's reached my heart. And then I can really begin to write.
Odds are that, in the cold light of the next day I'll tear up half of it
and write something else. Over the course of writing a 350-page novel,
I'll probably write close to 2000 pages. Some of those pages will be pure
gold, some will have a few good things, and some will be solid lead. But
there's always a chance that even the most leaden page will have one
teensy particle on it somewhere, sparkling like a fleck of ore in a
miner's pan. If I take that little sparkler and work with it, it can take
me someplace completely new.
Of course, "someplace completely new" can feel like a problem. Why am I
suddenly spending so much time with this character? What is it about this
house by the river that interests me so much? Why did my character do or
say that, and what does it mean? Am I really going to drop this entire
sub-plot? Where the hell am I going?
Here's something that virtually all novelists learn relatively quickly,
but which can turn new writers into quivering lumps of protoplasm. I'm
going to center it on the page so it jumps out at you if you're skimming
The novel you finish will not be the novel you started.
Here's something else:
You don't want it to be.
You want the writing process to be a journey of discovery. You want to
listen to your characters. You want to be open to new ideas. You want to
learn more about what you're writing as you write it. And no matter how
strong your original idea was, you want to be in a position to accept --
and be grateful for -- a better one. And better ideas will come, if you
write regularly and often and if you've got the courage to take a chance
when one makes itself available to you.
When something new and revolutionary occurs to you, entertain it. Say hi.
Give it a seat at the table. Pour it some coffee. Think about it. Write
about it. Where will it lead you? Is it good for your characters? For your
story? For the stakes? What will you lose? What will you gain? Is this a
wrong turn, a short cut, or a map to new and valuable territory?
Unless it seems to be a fundamental violation of your idea -- in its
purest and most basic form -- go ahead. Write the hell out of it. It may
be the discovery that powers the rest of your book into being. It may give
you the fresh excitement you need to keep writing. It may be the thing
that lets you finish your book.
And, by the way, these kinds of ideas often require a writer to go back
and change things in the portion of the book that was written before the
new inspiration materialized. This is not cheating. We all do it. It's
part of the creative process. But I'd strongly suggest that you go back
and do it later. For now, follow the new vein of gold and mine it for all
© 2007 Timothy Hallinan
**Timothy Hallinan is the author of A
Nail Through the Heart: A Novel (William Morrow/An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers; July
2007). Hallinan divides his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia, primarily Thailand, where he
has lived off and on for more than twenty years. As a principal in one of
America's top television consulting firms, he represented many Fortune 500
companies and pioneered new methods of making television programming
accessible to teachers. He has also taught writing for many years. A Nail
Through the Heart is his seventh novel. For more information, please visit