How often have you heard a writer say that they started writing to an outline, but the characters had their own ideas, and before they knew it, their protagonist had left their job, joined a circus, and hooked up with a cult of giant squid worshipping Kaballists?
Well, maybe not that exactly, but every writer is familiar with characters hijacking their plot. In my completely unscientific, anecdotal opinion, it’s the most common reason for considering outlining a waste of time.
A fellow writer expressed his mystification at this phenomenon, asking how anyone could possibly accuse their characters of taking the plot in expected directions, his general sentiment being: you are writing the story, YOU FOOLS.
He does have a point. Sometimes dialogue or action heads off in unintended directions just because I write whatever random thought grabs me in the moment, rather than crafting it to stay on track. But then sometimes capturing those random thoughts can inject my novel with new life, or sometimes my outline has reflected my failure to think through the plotted situation and what it would really be like, and the character reaction I planned is not authentic. These can be good reasons to let the characters take control.
Tips to stick (roughly) to your outline
* Brainstorm! Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm. Explore your subject matter from different angles in the planning phase. Keep a notepad on you and jot your ideas down. Make your outline interesting enough you don’t have to deviate.
* Detailed scene outlines showing the dramatic beats of the scene. The action / reaction model, where I spent time during outlining considering what reaction my characters would have to each thing that happened in the scene was really helpful. Make your outline logical enough that you don’t have to deviate. Here is a useful template to plan your scene in detail. And here is a discussion of how you can flesh out your outline into scenes.
* Accept your draft will have gaps and mistakes. If your characters are dialoguing off on a tangent, it is fine to write “[and then Fred says something to change Jenny’s mind. No idea what.]” and then move forward as though this has already happened. Just because you can’t think of what he’ll say then and there doesn’t mean you have to abandon that plot development.