Writing Without an Outline

By Seth Mullins

The very notion of beginning a novel - and setting down those first few paragraphs out of a projected thousand or so - can be intimidating enough to deter many people from ever making the attempt. The time and energy required is staggering. So you may consider me crazy when I suggest that you start that book you've been fantasizing about - and, what's more, that you do so without plotting it ahead of time. That's right: write your first draft, from beginning to end, without using an outline.

How long would it take you, anyhow, to draft an outline for a full-length novel? A week or two? A matter of days? Remember that you will be bound to it thereafter; in effect, you will limit your book's impact to whatever inspiration you had over those few days or weeks.

Instead, let your imagination spill out its ideas over the entire course of your endeavor. Composing in this manner allows for flexibility akin to the way our minds naturally work: spontaneously, and by association. Too much structure channels our imagination through select and narrow tunnels. Creativity lives according to its own rhythms, like the seasons. Over-planning can only hinder its flow, or block it, as we try to force it to conform to our own ideas about what is possible or permissible.

We must train ourselves to be alert, ready to recognize inspiration when it comes. Our inner monologue runs constantly, and often great ideas will pass right under our noses undetected. You might spend an hour at your writing desk sweating through one shaky paragraph only to see the whole scene play itself out in your imagination while you're doing the laundry and daydreaming.

If your characters are to bear any resemblance to living, breathing human beings then they're bound to surprise you at every turn of the page. The ones that do so most often will turn out to be the most memorable in the end.

When I began my first novel I conceived of two younger characters that - I believed - would embody romantic and loving commitment. Their relationship was going to be a warm center of stability amidst the swirling conflict all around. Sure enough, within two chapters of her introduction, the woman conceived a shameful passion for the protagonist and became estranged from her lover as a result. As I came to understand her, and know her history better, I realized that this development had been inevitable. The unexpected plot turn affected not only the future course of the story, but also threw its roots down into the past. When I re-read my manuscript I noticed that those particular chapters would've been flat and uneventful otherwise; but because of this love triangle, which I'd not foreseen at the onset, they were filled with drama and tension.

Assuming you take my advice, you may feel daunted, at times, staring at that blank page with no inkling of your story's destination. As if you've embarked upon a sea voyage without a compass. It might help to remind yourself that you ache to write because there is a story within you already. The discipline lies in developing trust and receptivity, not coercing words to manifest on the page. Set gentle goals that you can meet at each sitting so you don't lose heart. When I was working on my rough draft I gave myself a quota of five pages. Each day I seemed to find just enough inspiration to reach my goal; and at that point I had only a vague glimpse of what lay ahead. Just trust that the characters you've grown to love will still be there in the morning, ready to take the next step of their grand adventure.

If YOU don't even know where they're heading yet, imagine how surprised your readers will be.