Outlining Novels

A few years back I thought a lot about whether one should outline a novel or not -- that is, whether it's best to figure out the plot in advance...

Stephen King, in On Writing, says he never outlines his novels. I believe this, ideally, to be the best way to proceed. However, if you've read several Stephen King novels, certain structural similarities become apparent. So some form of outlining must be taking in place in Stephen King's subconscious mind.

The first few dozen times you drive a car, or ride a wave on a surfboard, your conscious mind has to treat the task as a set of ordered instructions to follow. But once you get good at these activities, your unconscious mind handles the mechanics of what you're doing. Is novel outlining sort of like that? Is breaking the task down conceptually a good idea for beginners?

Norman Mailer, in The Spooky Art, wrote, “Over and over again, I discover that my unconscious is going to disclose to me what it chooses, when it chooses. You can, to a limited degree, force it to respond, but that rarely occasions much happiness on either side. Sometimes I think you have to groom the unconscious after you've used it, swab it down, treat it like a prize horse who's a finer animal than you.”

2 thoughts on “Outlining Novels”

  1. Andre Gide, Les Faux Monnayeurs

    X. maintains that a good novelist, before he begins to write his book, ought to know how it is going to finish. As for me, who let mine flow where it will, I consider that life never presents us with anything which may not be looked upon as a fresh starting point, no less than as a termination.

  2. John Crowley, In Other Words — “I recently attended a reading by a fine writer and fellow teacher of mine at Yale. When she was done, there were questions from students, and one asked how she knew, at the beginning, where her story would eventually go. She didn't, she said – that's not how writing is done – as she always tells her students, writers begin with persons, and let them carry the story where they will, the writer discovering it along with them. Listening, I felt a certain concern for the students we have both taught, since I would in fact never say such a thing, and I believe my characters are bound to do just as I tell them, and complete the pattern I have already determined, while seeming to act from free will. How are students to learn from such contrary, and closely-held, certainties?”

    Are we dealing here with a difference between the ways different writers operate? Or rather are we talking about a difference between the ways different writers conceive of how they operate?

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