Sure, outlining is important.
When telling a story, it helps to know where it ends. It helps to understand the setup and plot twists along the way. Or, when writing time is scarce, it gives the writer a clear sense of direction rather than wasting time winging it and having to backtrack or rewrite after a pre-reader or editor points out why a key element doesn’t work.
The problem is it’s easy to overdo outlining.
Some people labor over their outlines for months, sometimes years, tweaking every little detail until the whole thing sings. Or they’ll develop complex backgrounds for even minor characters, things they may not ever use in the story.
At some point you’ve just gotta write. Fish or cut bait. Shit or get off the pot.
I’m not saying character sheets and fat outlines and story bibles aren’t good tools. I’m saying readers don’t buy character sheets and fat outlines and story bibles, they buy finished works.
It’s easy to fall into the “outlining is creating” trap. Hell, I’ve done it a time or two myself. And oftentimes, no matter how meticulous an outline has become, a new opportunity appears halfway through and takes the story in a whole new directly.
We writers like to tell ourselves precious things like “my characters tell me what to do” or “my characters just won’t listen to me,” but the reality is the act of creation is a very organic, fluid process. When we start writing, we start making new connections.
Outlining is creative, but also logical. You might have a killer character and a dynamite scenario, but when you have to put the building blocks together to get the character to the scenario, you have to involve a different part of your brain. It’s effectively math vs art, left brain vs right brain. Is your time better spent solving problems or crafting sentences and making new connections?
As an example, I started work on a new project last night. I feel like I know the protagonist fairly well, as I’ve been thinking about her and her story for a long time now. Until last night, her story has been jammed up behind a few other projects in the pipeline.
Within the first 500 words of the first page, I’d both found and filled a major hole in her back story that I didn’t even know existed, and it made her introduction more effective.
Would I have found that hole by just brainstorming over and over? Maybe, but I doubt it. The brainstorming time was focused on the plot problem, and this was a free-form connection that arose from the act of writing and telling the reader about the character. It sprang directly from the creative effort.
A gift from the muse, if you’ll allow another writers’ cliché.
If you’re all about outlines and character sheets, by all means, keep it up. As with most creative efforts, your style is your own and your mileage may vary.
I’m just saying at some point it’s more important to start creating. Take that skeleton outline and throw some prose meat on its bones. Find out what it really looks like.
The left side of the brain makes important contributions to a story, but the real magic happens on the right side.