Don’t Tell Anyone, But Outlining is Secretly Awesome

Road Map

Outlines. Love them or hate them, they’re pretty much a staple of the writing life. You can’t wander through the verdant fields of writing advice for five minutes without tripping over someone espousing the marvellousness and wonderifity of outlining. For those of us who self-identify as ‘Pantsers’, it can feel a bit like being bludgeoned over the head with a blunt trout.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve waxed loquacious about outlines more than once.

It all started back in May 2011, when I blogged about how writing is like an episode of children’s show Banana’s in Pjyamas. In this post, I said:

Once you have your outline, and you begin to write, it’s easy to get so fixated on following your outline that you don’t even notice what’s going on in your story. And when your characters start wanting to do things that you haven’t planned, you react by trying to force them back into the outline you’ve prepared.

But then in August 2011, when writing a post about overcoming Writer’s Block, I recommended writing an outline if you’re stuck on what should happen next in the story:

If you haven’t written an outline, write one. Interview your characters. Make notes. Design the history of the world. Whatever you need to get you back on track.

Admittedly it wasn’t a glowing recommendation, and it was definitely in the realms of “only outline if you absolutely must”, but it was a vast change from the earlier Outlines Are Rubbish! post.

Only a month later, in September of 2011, I wrote about how writing is like doing a jigsaw (and vice versa) and thawed out a little more on the idea of outlines:

Regardless of whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, have a plan. Maybe it’s a 100-page outline. Maybe it’s a “brief history of the world” in 50,000 words. Maybe it’s a series of index cards, or notes in Scrivener (or another writing program), or just a vague plotline in your head and an image of a character or scene. It doesn’t matter. Choose the plan that works for you, but make sure you have one.

OutlineUntil the unthinkable finally happened in June 2012. I blogged about writing an outline for my WIP. I had caveats. It was an accidental outline. It wasn’t a real outline, because it was actually only a list of plot points.

Then two interesting things happened.

Thing the First

I went back to writing my novel, and it was… easier. Much easier. Crazy easier. I’d sit down and know what happened next. Not exactly, of course. My not-really-an-outline might say something like: “They escape from bad guys.” And so I’d sit down and let my characters work out how they were going to escape. Often, it surprised me. But at the end of the chapter, my outline had been fulfilled. They had, indeed, escaped from the bad guys. And then I could move on to the next point on the kinda-sorta-an-outline, without having to spend hours (days… weeks… months…) wondering what happened next.

Thing the Second

I finished my manuscript and handed it over to my critique partner. Her feedback was very helpful. Especially when she said: “The second half, after [transition scene] is great. It’s fast-paced, and everything makes sense, and I couldn’t stop turning pages. But the first half feels like you keep repeating the same information over and over, and it’s a bit slow in places.”
Ah-ha! Do you know what happened at that transition scene to change everything? Go on, take a guess.

Yes, that’s the exact point I wrote my accidental outline.

Who knew? Outlines not only make writing easier, they also make it better. Outlines are secretly awesome.

The Intentional OutlineI started a new WIP a few months ago. I managed a grand total of 7,000 words before I realised I needed an outline. So I wrote one.

Yes, I was shocked too.

It wasn’t easy. My Pantser heart rebelled at the idea. It took two weeks of head scratching and swearing and foiled procrastination attempts. But it worked. And every night when I sit down to write, I pull out my outline and check what I’m supposed to be writing, and off I go. Faster than the speed of two hundred startled gazelles! (As my father used to say.)

It’s true. Outlines are secretly awesome.

But don’t tell anyone.

Outlines! Do you like them? Do you use one? 

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39 Comments

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39 responses to “Don’t Tell Anyone, But Outlining is Secretly Awesome

  1. Outlines make it so much easier. It’s amazing how much it keeps you in line. I’ve blogged several times about the concept. Some authors come back and say it doesn’t work for them, but some say they’ve tried it and it helped. Thanks for the blog post. Now the secrets out 🙂

  2. I too have long been a pantser parishioner, but have recently succumbed to kneel at the plotting alter. I do like the idea of a hybrid system. Give those characters room to find there way, and leave the door open for your muse. Thanks for sharing your conversion, Jo! 🙂

  3. I love this, Jo. I try so hard not to trout-bludgeon anyone with my mad passion for plotting! (If anything, I usually catch “outlines are for fascists” flak.)

    The way I see it, there’s no One True Way to write. If you like outlining, fantastic. If you need to free-form, equally fantastic. But they’re just tools. It’s not a moral issue. For example, I wouldn’t care if Jim Butcher storyboards his entire Dresden Files series with Polaroids of Barbie dolls, or just dictates the whole thing from a Ouija board. I would just ask for the next release date. (No judgment, Jim.)

    • Haha. You made me laugh out loud imagining Dresden as a Ken doll with a fairy wand for his blasting rod… But I’m right there with you on not caring how Jim Butcher designs his novels. And that’s probably half the point, isn’t it? As writers we can sometimes get all tied up in pseudo-moral issues about the “Best Way” to write, but readers don’t care what happened behind the scenes. They just want a good read. And hot, hair-dressing, emotion vampires.

  4. I’ve never used one. I don’t get emotional about about it (I know people who “love” it or “hate” it, which seems a bit extreme to me). To me, it’s like first person vs. third person. I don’t have a preference — it’s all about what the story needs, and different stories need different things. I wrote a series of mystery stories and they worked well in first person, but then when I started Stevie One I knew it had to be in third person. So, that’s what I did.

    As my father used to say, there’s only one rule in writing: write well.

  5. I’ve just started to outline my next WIP and I struggle to understand how anyone can write without one. That said, I always use an outline as a guide rather than a set if instructions. If a during the writing process a character rebels, let them. The one piece of advice I would give is to work hard on your characters before you go too far with the outline, as it’s much easier to understand how they will behave in certain situations. Most of the changes I’ve made from outline to finished story have been because I didn’t truly understand a particular character’s motivations at the planning stage.

  6. I’m definitely sliding in that direction. My last novel got finished in three months instead of three years because I had to write a synopsis (read “outline in narrative form”) for a contest (and because it made the finals in that contest I finished it, following the plan, in time for the Golden Heart deadline. And it finalled there, too.)

    I’m also becoming a serious user of Scrivener, which offers both integrated outlining and cork board planning. Time to get busy on a road map for the current WIP!

  7. Haha! This felt like you were speaking straight to me, and I’m sitting here nodding, saying, “Yes, yes–oh, yes. I did that. I do that. I’m doing that now.”

    Who knew? Who knew a crazy pantser could fall in love with the anti-pantsering approach? And you helped! Whatever you said to me in P&P–the lightbulb clicked, then the heavens opened up and poured out the sun.

    I’m still learning and feeling my way through. But for the first time in months I feel excited by the process. I see things I never could wrap my brain around before and I know exactly how to amend them.

    Even better, that new knowledge has unlock the floodgates of my creativity. For some bizarre reason, I am no longer “locked into” a particular bent in storyline. I can imagine other possibilities.

    Wheeee! 😛

    • That’s so great to hear, Denise! I’m not sure how I played a part in your epiphany, but I’m pleased to have helped even a little bit. I love seeing your passion rekindled, and your enthusiasm is incredibly infectious. 😉

      (I’m also pleased to hear it’s not just me who had to go through this long, arduous journey to plannerdom!)

  8. I like your final approach and use it myself – enough of an outline to give me direction and allow me to lose myself in creating a scene but still keep to flow. Great write up, thank you.

  9. I wish I could have a topic and an idea and an outline and write a book. Mostly I can email friends really long emails and I used to blog. 🙂

    • Sweetie, you can do anything you put your mind to. Now may not be the right time, but dreams have no expiry date. (Except dreams of winning gold in gymnastics. We may both be a bit past that.) Also, your friends LOVE getting long emails from you. 🙂

  10. Such a great post Jo. I, too, have been forever resisting the dreaded outline, but recently found that having even just a vague idea of where I want each chapter to go can be enormously helpful, and liberating, in terms of moving ideas forward. I still haven’t mastered being able to outline the whole novel, I tend to do a couple of chapters at a time, but I’m getting there!

  11. Outlines you say? Nah, never use them…Although, I never have actually finished a story that I’ve begun. Maybe this outlining thing is worth a shot! 😉 Great Post, Loved it!

    • Hahaha. Best of luck! If you’re going to take my advice on anything, don’t dive straight from no outlines to complicated outlines. Just wait. Next time you get to the point of being stuck or not wanting to keep writing, make a list of what happens in the story. You’d be amazed how much it helps. 🙂 (And from there, outlining is just one slippery slope away!)

  12. I normally start by giving each of my chapters a one sentence descriptor of what is going to happen (eg from my current WIP chapter 1 – Mila wakes up in body bag). Then I flesh out dot points (maybe a few hundred words per chapter) on exactly what is going to happen and most importantly where the characters need to be physically and emotionally at the end of the chapter (especially important when using rotating POV like in my current WIP). I use the program Storybook for my outlines, I love it, helps me keep track of everything and I just always have it open in the background while I’m writing. The program also holds all of my character and location descriptions aswell.

    • I’ve heard of Storybook, but not used it. I’m pretty happy with plain old Word and Excel most of the time (though I’m working up the courage to try Scrivener). It’s good to see you again, and to hear you’re still working hard. (Also, I love your chapter one description!)

  13. Hubby insists on outlining his entire story (especially if it will cover multiple books) before working on the project. This means he will work on a story for MONTHS before even beginning the first chapter.
    I’m more of a pantser, but most of my stories are short or one-offs.

  14. So yes, I think it’s possible to pants your way through a fantasy story. Do I recommend doing it all the time? No. I think it tends to work better for short stories or maybe even individual scenes. If you’re taking a more “micro” approach to your fantasy writing (starting at a small place and then going outward), I think there is more leeway.

  15. I’m always interested in whatever methods people use to outline their stories and whatnot. So that little picture there at the end has me super curious… what does this outlining method look like in full-detail?

    Also: yes, I outline. Unless the story is short. Or I choose not to outline on purpose, for the reason that I want to brainstorm the story outside of the box or something like that.

    • It’s a simple outline to assist with what was/is (to me) a more complicated plot. Basically, I’ve got two major plots happening at once, interwoven together through the book. The primary plot is that of the protagonist, but he’s also a witness to a second plot which acts as both a mirror and foil to his own plot. Each could exist on their own (in fact, although they intersect thematically throughout the story, they never directly influence each other). So my challenge when I started planning, outlining, and writing was how to keep both of those plots happening in every chapter, and not accidentally lose a plot threat.

      Thus, this particular style of oultine. It’s a spreadsheet with chapter numbers/names along the x axis, and a break-down of plots (and sub-plots) along the y axis. I have four plots that occur during the story:

      * Main Plot 1: Protagonist’s position and life under threat.
      * Main Plot 2: Secondary character threatened by mystery man.
      * Sub-plot 1: Parody/humour sub-plot.
      * Sub-plot 2: Romantic sub-plot.

      Then I have all those lovely boxes to fill in. By making sure I can say what’s happening with sub-plot 2 in chapter 12 (for example), I ensure that none of my plot threads get lost.

      • Cool.

        It’s funny, but even though I’m a hard-core planner, I don’t get meticulous about tracking the frequency and occurrence of different plot lines. I mean, it comes out in the way I outline, but I don’t have a mapped-out view of how frequent it is. I insert scenes from different story lines mostly based on my own feel for the rhythm and flow of the story.

      • I would normally do the same, I just found this story particularly complicated. Which is odd, since it was supposed to be a light and easy comic novel. Apparently humour is harder to write than I anticipated.

      • Actually, I always hear that humor is the hardest genre to write…

      • My father always used to tell the story about the writer who was dying. A friend went to see him in the hospital, and it was obvious that the writer was in a lot of pain. His friend sat with him for a while, and then he said, “Dying must be really hard.”

        “Dying is easy,” the writer said. “Comedy is hard.”

        Also, Joss Whedon has said that he frequently casts actors who have worked in comedy. “Comedy is the hard one. If they can do that, they can do drama.”

      • Funny story. 🙂 And I have found that to be the case. As much as I find myself giggling along to what I’m writing, I definitely find it tricky to get the beats right, and to remember to keep the comedy relevant to the story. I have a tendency to spiral off into funny bits, and then to realise that I’m so off track, I’m going to have to hire a native guide to get back.

        Thus, the outline. 🙂

      • Jo: I learned this from my father by negative example. As a writer, he could never resist a good gag. And he had good taste in humor — if he thought a joke was good, it was. But you can make the readers laugh and lose them at the same time, if you go outside character. I had a line once that I thought was really funny, but that character would never have said that thing in that situation. I knew my father would have put it in, but I held it back (until I had a chance to use it, said by someone else, three chapters later 🙂 ).

        Stephen: My father (I may have quoted this before here) said that the two most difficult types of writing were humor and poetry, because they’re the only ones where one wrong word can sink the whole piece.

  16. Pingback: The Slow Accumulation of Words | The Happy Logophile

  17. the Faceless Storyteller

    I agree with you. Outlining really helps in creating an effective plot and pacing.

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