It took a lot of living before I figured out that I needed a clear plan and a logical trajectory if I wanted to get anywhere deliberately. It’s hard to say what kind of life I would be living if I hadn’t gone through so many purposeful changes, or if I wasn’t still pursuing the next purposeful change. Setting up a system for self-improvement is a good way to learn to write an outline, it turns out.
When I wrote my first book, I did not use an outline. The next undertaking required that I employ one, for a number of reasons. This is a point I would like to stress before some writers drift away: the need for an outline is more determined by the story than it is by the author. The second point is that any author can benefit from outlining, as can any story. The only reasons to not use an outline is because the author doesn’t feel like using one, or doesn’t know how. They’re not good reasons, but they are reasons. Now let’s look at some of the reasons why outlines benefit the author, especially the author who is or may become interested in taking things to the next level.
There are a bunch of ways to outline, and I won’t recommend anything strongly except giving them all a try. The most basic outline can be a page or two, and the more complicated ones tend to be about ten to twenty-five percent as long as the book ends up being. Somewhere in there, most of us can find a sweet spot that yields amazing results. Another popular way to go about it is by storyboarding; I can’t speak from experience on this yet, but I will be able to soon. My next writing studio upgrade turns the walls into a place to surround myself with the next set of stories as I enter ‘The Year of the Dreamer’. But it won’t just be a storyboard on those walls, and that won’t be my entire outline.
Like a book, an outline has many incarnations. It can also have many complementary aspects, such as the storyboard. As I evolve, and my writing with me, so does the outline I use to write my books. Trying to cover as much ground with as few words as possible has become a natural part of that evolution, and that evolving outline has helped to speed that economy of words along. Knowing what has to happen in a chapter before I even start writing it helps me think about it until I get to it; it also allows the story to speak more clearly to me, rather than see me going back to previous chapters to pick up the storyline or check some detail.
I realize that ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ authors avoid outlines, but even they would benefit from them. It’s especially hard to believe that they are working with no character sheet or timeline, or some tool that keeps them from going back over their own story trying to get details right. A photographic memory would possibly eliminate this problem, or a very oversimplified story, but every other situation surely calls for an outline of some sort. Flying by the seat of your pants becomes a less arduous and dangerous process when we make sure the pants we put on in the morning are made for flight.
Like buoys floating in the water to show you where the sharks swim, an outline helps keep the story within its own parameters as much as it keeps the forward flow on track. When we know what needs to happen in each chapter, we won’t have a wild idea that belongs in an entirely different book pop up to veer things wildly off track. If we do, we can jump over to our outline folder or notebook and make sure the story is saved for another day instead of lost forever or put in the wrong place. These parameters allow the plotter to get in touch with their inner ‘pantser’, and let the story speak with one voice rather than many. There are plenty of surprises for the plotter; they just aren’t the kind of surprises that require massive foundational rewrites after they type ‘The End’.
So I guess I should confess that at this point I left off writing to do more research. Like a good story, this post brought up questions that I needed answered before I went on. Having done most of my research already, like the plotter that I am, this was a welcome detour rather than a halt in the journey that I didn’t realize I had scheduled by not planning ahead. I checked out some blogs advising people on how to ‘write by the seat of your pants’ or talking about how they did it. I ended up as confused as I did the first time I looked up the word selfish.
What I found were a bunch of methods for outlining filed under the ‘seat of your pants’ category. Apparently these folks don’t realize that planning is plotting, or that outlines can exist in your head just as they do on paper. That’s most of the advice I found, folks telling other folks how to plan before getting started and what to keep in mind as they wrote. Other than the inevitable caution about how massive rewrites come with this style of writing, the posts are very similar to one might read about outlining. It’s like behaving in your own best interests without considering the feelings of others…totally contradictory.
That actually both gets that out of the way and brings us back around to the main point of all this: the outline is a custom job. Some of us remember certain details about the characters or key dialogue; it’s seared into our brain, so there’s no need to put it in the outline. (Unless you’re old, and have both lots of readers and an apprentice; then outline EVERYTHING for the sake of your readers and your legacy.) Other things show up when that careful detail is being paid to the outline; they may change the outline, but they won’t muck up your first draft. That’s why I outline in pencil and on Scrivener; a change in chapter twenty-four can have butterfly effects all the way back to chapter one, and even further if this is not the first book in a series. A plan doesn’t hem the planner in; it sets them free to write, with a good idea of where they are headed. If you don’t think there’s any spontaneity in that, you’ve never written a book using an outline.
I can’t imagine even starting my car without knowing where I am headed, or opening my laptop without knowing what I plan to write. I wasn’t always that way; but I learned that random trips lead to random places in the most pleasant and unpleasant of ways, at some point. The only way to get where we’re going, in the story of our life or someone else’s, is to have a plan on how to get there. So without telling you how to outline per se, I’d like to share some of my methods in more detail. My ideas come from all kinds of places, and I doubt any of them are original to me, but here is what I have learned so far:
A notebook outline is great for me. Each page has two chapters on it, with the chapter numbers written at the top of the page and in the middle. A short synopsis of the action and/or dialogue that needs to happen will take up one or two paragraphs worth of that space, in short concise sentences. The rest is left for adding on things that come up later, which I put in helpful bubbles all around the chapter synopsis. Again, it’s all in pencil…some things may need to be changed before the story is written. There should be very few changes to the outline once the writing has begun, because they have all been made as the outline comes together.
That’s kind of what it’s for.
Scrivener has endless outlining options. I have used a couple, in my own way, and they can be adapted to any writing program. I have made a folder for each chapter, storing another synopsis that acted as a timeline in each folder along with the text for the chapter. Just laying out the chapters on electronic format helped me a lot, and for less layered storytelling I have been able to lay out the chapters with the synopses on the same electronic page. When I was done, I read it over again to make sure I had stayed on track and then deleted it. Super simple, and no trees killed. Of course, I’m still using paper for the next big project. In fact, I’m dedicating a room to outlining, time lining, storyboarding and pounding out the pages. My whole new thing will be at-a-glance outlines prepared meticulously before-hand. I look forward to looking back in six months or a year and reading this post.
“Amateur,” I’ll say, all cocky.
Then I’ll write another post, and it will hopefully have some helpful information or advice that I can’t share just yet. But that’s pretty far off; next week we’ll talk about something I do know a little about, researching a story. See you then!
Thanks for reading!
All the best,