Emily Hanlon

Emily Hanlon

The Fiction Writer's Journey

Why Outlining Your Story Is Counter-Productive

How can you outline the unknown?

Posted 2/4/08 | Updated 6/7/20


Starting your story by adhering to a strict outline is one of the easiest ways to write stories lacking in passion. Outlining is left-brain activity.

Besides, how can you outline the unknown? But if you must outline, and I know some of you must, keep it loose. Writers who use outlines successfully expect anything and everything to change.

You also leave yourself open to the dictates of your Inner Critic if you write from a mirror image of your experience. In fiction writing you cannot be a slave to your perception of reality or truth as seen through the lens of memory.

Memory is notoriously undependable. Just ask someone about the truth or reality of an argument and you'll have as many differing points of view as there are participants and witnesses.

Over-dependence on language is another snare. This may sound odd, since language is the vehicle of writers. The catch is that language resides in the left side of the brain. If you begin writing by looking for the best words, you are doomed to never finding them. The critic won't allow it.

Paradoxically, language is far too complicated for the primitive workings of the right side of the brain. Images, feelings, colors, these are the language of the unconscious.

The White Heat of the White Rabbit

I'm not suggesting that you give up your love of language. I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't fall in love with a perfectly turned phrase. I am saying that you shouldn't waste your time searching for them.

They will come once you've fallen down the Rabbit Hole and handed yourself over to your Inner Writer and your characters. They are the ones who come up with the most amazing language, the most brilliant metaphors, the perfect piece of dialogue — and they do so effortlessly.

Have you ever had the experience of writing in a white heat, of hours passing in a matter of moments, and when you finally look up and peruse your work, you find the most unexpected and amazing, dare I say brilliant, writing before you? And you don't know how you wrote it. It sounds so unlike you, so fluid, so, well … good, really good.

Why? How did this miracle happen? It's no mystery. You, with all your judgments and doubts, criticism and fears, got out of your own way. In the language of this book, you fell down the Rabbit Hole. You spent some time in Wonderland.

For those of you who can't bear the idea of not lolling about in language, not wallowing in words or spinning sparkling images, consider this: Being at home in Wonderland actually makes your own mental thesaurus more accessible.

Using language as an aspect of the process, but not as a crutch or the be-all and end-all of the writing experience, is a very important step toward enteringthe magic of Wonderland. After all, what does the White Rabbit know about language or reality for that matter?

"I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date. No time to say hello/ good-bye, I'm late, I'm late, I'm late. And when I'm late, I'm in a rabbit state, no time to say hello/ good-bye, I'm late, I'm late, I'm late…"

The White Rabbit

©2008 Emily Hanlon. All rights reserved.