Creative writing has few hard and fast rules, and certainly there is no rule—or consensus—on whether to outline or not when you start a novel. (A nonfiction book is different.) Open any book on writing, attend any writers’ conference, talk to any successful novelist, and you’ll get a variety of answers. My answer to whether you should write an outline or not is a resounding … sometimes.
As I wrote here, just as different authors take different approaches to outlining, different books can require different approaches. To be simplistic, an outline might be essential for a plot-driven novel, such as a mystery or thriller. A character-driven novel is more of an exploration of the characters, and they might prefer to find their own way. One of my favorite quotes about plot and the question of outline or not is from Ray Bradbury: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
If you decide to outline, there are various ways to handle it. There’s the minimalist approach, as outlined (yes, pun intended) by Philip Gerard in Creating Fiction. His recommended outline consists of six parts: title, one-sentence description of the book, list of major characters, list of major locales, list of chapters with a one-sentence description of the central event, and what he calls “your concept of the ending—not in exact terms, but a recognition of what the ending must address.” And there is the in-depth Snowflake method, which one of my clients has used and highly recommends.
Another method to deal with the outline or not question is to write several chapters, maybe as much as half the book, and then pause to take stock. Outline where you have been and then where you’re going. By halfway through the book, you probably have a good idea of the major events still to come and where you expect to end up. Putting all of that down in an outline can help to keep you going in the right direction. It might also speed up your writing, since you know (generally) what is going to happen.
And that can be the deciding factor of whether to outline or not. Do you prefer to know what your characters are going to do, what will happen to them, before you begin writing? Or would you prefer to, like Bradbury, follow their footprints in the snow?