Outline: Yes or No?

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Like most writers, I’ve struggled with the question of whether I should first create a detailed story outline, and then just write to the outline, or to simply start with a strong set of characters, and see where the story leads.  My natural inclination is to skip the outline, start with a “what if” scenario, throw my characters into a mess, and see what happens.  This way, it’s like I discover the story, rather than create it. I can fix structural issues later.

Starting my most recent short story, I decided to shake things up, and spent a whole day outlining. When I actually started writing, I discovered twists and turns in the story that I hadn’t considered when I prepared the outline. In no time, I was off course, and the story led me to new and better places.  Not the outline, the story.

When I look at the picture above, I think it would be perfect for, say, a retirement plan: “Here’s where you are today, here’s where you want to go, and the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” But writing calls for creativity, not technical precision. We’re all different, but when I’m writing, I want to jump off the interstate, and take one of those twisty, winding side roads, and just trust that it will get me where I want to go.

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