One tool writers like to debate the value of is outlining. The argument against outlining states it’s too restrictive and doesn’t allow the story to breathe. The pro-outliners write that the anti-outliners are still stuck in that rigid outlining method learned in the 5th grade. I think the latter is correct.
Yes, there are a (very) few people who can just start writing and end up somewhere great and not worry about dead ends, corners or poor endings. What outlining is not is a rigid, blow-by-blow plan of every detail of a book. In a shorter work like a short story or article, okay, an outline can be more detailed. For a novel, think of it as a roadmap with the best places to visit.
I take the storyboard approach, which, I suspect, is not original to me (Morgan Busse talks about storyboarding in a recent post). I even taped a long roll of paper on the wall initially, though this proved a bit problematic referring back to. I soon transferred it all to a notebook. In this storyboard, I put the main events I see occurring (or “set pieces”) in their approximate locations (and this must always include the beginning and end). Then this is followed with a sprinkling of other events, people and details throughout. Then the writing begins, sort of like connecting the dots.
In front of you there is a path, but you are uncertain of what is going to occur along the way. You do know where you want to end up. Just like using a roadmap, you don’t always know what will happen between point A and B and that’s where the fun begins.
Most writers are quickly surprised that their story will take on a life all its own when carving out these paths. New characters show up that weren’t planned. Locations that weren’t on the original map. C.S. Lewis wrote how Narnia “all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” Then “Aslan came bounding into it” pulling the rest of the story behind him. I think that is what he was talking about, the moment a story writes itself. The instant in time the author knows they are onto something big.
It all starts with a handful of ideas and characters in the mind’s eye of an author waiting to given life. Outlining may help you do just that, but in either case, nothing will happen if you don’t start writing.