To Outline or Not to Outline?
By Tova Mirvis
I had no idea where I was going. It was my third novel, and I’d started it as I had my prior two, with a few ideas but no clear plan. I worked for months on plot lines I later excised, spent years inching toward a first draft. I was writing a multiple perspective novel and had so many different trajectories that I felt like I was running a day care filled with unruly children.
Should have made an outline, I chastised myself every time I came up stuck, each time the scenes and themes swum formlessly in my head. I made a few beleaguered attempts at an outline but always came back to the same problem: any plan eluded me until I had already written the scenes. The scenes eluded me until I really knew my characters which I could only do by writing my way, in disorganized bursts, into the novel.
I felt lost, all the time. In a life that was rife with distraction and interruption – no order there either -- I had the urge to hold the entirety of my book in my head, wishing my mind could be stretched to make room for an ever-widening scroll of paper. Years passed, with so many times I was certain I would never extricate myself from the maze I had created. I needed my characters’ arcs to rise individually yet also intersect with and be catalysts for one another. I wanted there to be a sense of balance. I didn’t want to leave behind any character for too long. How easy it is, safely arrived at the completion of a novel, to look back and talk fondly of the struggle to write it. I too love the E.L Doctrow quote about how writing a novel is like driving in the fog and only needing to be able to see a few feet ahead. But what of the experience while you are driving, the terror that you will plummet off the edge of the road?
I turned to an outline when I finally had a draft. I couldn’t have made one before I had a completed draft, but now that I did, I couldn’t move forward without one. Now more than ever I needed to see the whole. In a cross between a kid’s art project and an act of creative industriousness, I taped sheets of paper together, posted it on my bedroom wall and with magic marker, tried to sketch the arc of the book. I bought colored index cards and wrote scenes down, and laid them out across my table. But neither of these gave me the sense of order I was craving. I still felt the intense anxiety of disorder, the discomfort of strands left dangling.
Finally, I put away the art supplies and made a basic outline on my computer. I used no roman numerals, but wrote out what happened in each chapter, the characters that appeared, the major events that took place, noted scenes where one character intersected with another.
I listed how many pages each chapter was. I noted how many pages I spent per character, accounting both for pages where I was writing from inside a character’s perspective and where they were appearing inside another character’s perspective. It was like creating an X-Ray version of the book. I counted how long any one character was absent from the novel and revised so no one was absent for too long. Usually color coding is just an excellent way to waste time but here it was extremely useful as I assigned each character a color on the outline so I could visually check the sense of balance. When I rearranged chapters, I first experimented on the outline, where I was able to see how one chapter affected the next. Because the plot lines were so intertwined, I used the outline to make sure that a move didn’t upset the overall flow and balance.
It felt so nicely compulsive, so uncharacteristically methodical. When I created my outline, I was not a novelist lost in a book but a scientist studying my lab data. By the end, I was so proud of my outline I wanted to send that off to my agent. Forget the book. Publish this instead!
If a novel is the attempt to impose shape on messy life, the outline is an attempt to impose shape on the unruly novel. Only in the outline was my book something I could hold entirely in my head. But only after I had traveled for many years without this trail map could I see where I’d gone and where I needed to go. That long-desired sense of order could come only after getting excruciatingly lost.
Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in many anthologies and been published in newspapers and magazines such as The Boston Globe, The New York Times Book Review, Commentary, Good Housekeeping,and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Award and has been a Visiting Scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.See other articles by Tova Mirvis