Should you outline your project?

The short answer is yes. But I understand your hesitation. For years I resisted outlining, preferring my stories evolve organically. And this worked for me… kinda. Really interesting twists would show up, characters were able to define themselves on the pages and I wasn’t trying to force anything to conform to a preconceived idea. But this method came with it’s own set of problems and the largest was that I would write myself into a corner and have no idea where to go.

I started keeping a separate notes document a couple years ago and it helped alot, but I would still run out of steam or lose my train when writing. Halfway through the Silent Apocalypse I realized I wasn’t sure where to go and I really wanted to finish it.

Enter my first outline, old school skeletal model, with a lot of empty points that I still hadn’t worked out and from there the story rode steadily toward completion. I have since used outlines to plot out all my stuck stories and, most recently, plotted Summer’s Circle in outline before I wrote a word of the story, allowing me to power through from beginning to end of the 89k word first draft in one month.

But outlines still intimidate some authors and I understand. However, hear me out.

First off, there is no one way to outline. Robbie Blair has an article on Lit Reactor giving 8 different methods for outlining including summaries, the expanding snowflake method, the skeletal method (my fav), and free writing. A fellow author I know told me he writes a sentence to summarize each section of a chapter he is working out. And further more, no one says your working outline needs to be a completed outline. You can leave all the blank spaces you want for organic development.

So why keep a working outline?

  • It allows you a working structure of your novel to keep momentum
  • It is an easy method for fleshing out a concept or stuck story
  • It gives you an end to work toward
  • It allows you to weave in foreshadowing, hints, clues and build a steady mood toward events and climaxes
  • It makes plot holes and roadblocks apparent
  • It can prevent story burn out
  • It cuts down on work
  • Cuts down on amount of filler between scenes
  • Allows you to keep all your thoughts and ideas organized and easily accessible
  • Acts as a place holder for plot points you haven’t figured out yet

Whatever format you choose to outline in, it should include:

  • Characters and key points
  • Problem/Conflict
  • Rising action
  • Climax
  • Solution/Ending

It can be as loose or detailed as you want. The reason I like the skelital format is because it allows me to insert in new points as they come to me, where ever they are in the story. It is easy to change and easy to follow.

Here’s an example of how my outlines look:

  • Nancy works at the bakery
    • She likes puppies and diamonds
    • She recently broke up with her boyfriend Charlie
  • Nancy overhears the baker plotting to hide smuggled diamonds in the cake flour
    • She determines that diamonds are being used to fund puppy mills
    • The baker is plotting with a known dog fighting boss
  • Out of desperation, Nancy turns to ex boyfriend Charlie
    • Charlie steals the diamonds when Nancy shows him where they are
    • Nancy chooses to go on the run with him
    • Brief rekindling of romance
    • Charlie double crosses her
  • With no diamonds, no Charlie and all the puppies on the line Nancy faces off against the baker and the dog fighting boss
    • She makes a deal with the cops and the SPCA
    • She does something heroic of something
    • She’s shot but the bad guys are caught
  • All the puppies are saved, Nancy is awarded a medal, recovers from her injuries
    • She finds Charlie and switches out the diamonds for ring pops and dog turds
    • She hands diamonds to the police, except for maybe a few.
    • At the end, Nancy is running a puppy rescue organization and dog treat bakery from her estate in the mountains.

Next time you have an unformed idea, a stalled story or too many ideas and not enough time try an outline. You might find that it changes your writing for the better.

Do you outline? Do you hate outlining? Tell me what you think.

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