Every writer creates their own type of outline. Or, sometimes they don’t.
“I feel that any story you can plot beforehand isn’t going to be that original. For me, the best ideas come while I’m writing, by going slowly and taking small steps.” ― Louis Sachar
The writing and editing process is always in flux, especially when it comes to the overall outline and direction of the story. But the freeing (and annoying) part of creating a narrative is that the way you plan it is up to you.
I’ve met all kinds of writers, and I’ve tried all kinds of outlining methods, or lack thereof. Personally, I prefer to let my thoughts go until I hit a wall. When inspiration strikes, I grab a pen and paper or my laptop and just let the words flow until I run out of them and need to stop, to take stock and think about where I’m headed. Not every writer works that way. Sometimes, it helps to sketch everything out ahead of time, or to at least hit the highlights so you can use them as milestones while you pen the first, second, third, etc. draft.
And there’s nothing confining you to one strategy for the rest of your writing career. Sometimes playing the field and flirting with the unfamiliar can even help boost your writing skills. So for those of you who prefer to forge ahead with a detailed road map clutched in your nervous, sweaty fist, or if you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser considering changing your ways, here are a few tried and true methods for outlining your story that you might consider giving a trial run.
Soup to nuts
Some writers find it helpful to outline the entire plot before they even start the first draft. Whether you belong in this camp or not, you can’t deny that there are some pretty significant benefits to having a game plan on hand. After all, writer’s block plagues us all at one point or another, and knowing where you need to eventually end up can help you bridge the gaps in between plot points. If you’ve put in the work and really developed your characters, created your own virtual friends and family, it can just be a matter of using their backstories to inform their future actions according to your plan.
But there’s a downside to knowing it all before you work in the sensory details, the world-building, and the dialogue. Writers have this tendency to get burned out on their projects, and that’s ok, especially if you’re working on a longer manuscript. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint to the finish. So if you’ve outlined everything from soup to nuts, it can be tempting to, by the last third of the manuscript or so, get the bare minimum down on paper and call it quits. This results in a lackluster story that reads more like a grocery list than a happily ever after (or otherwise). The key to successfully employing this strategy is to stay motivated, and find ways to remind yourself not to skimp on the details even when you start to feel exasperated with your work.
Maybe you don’t need to plan every subplot, every secondary character’s internal debate, every heartfelt conversation that occurs outside the main storyline. Milestones or goals you have for your story don’t have to relate to word or page count alone. Some outlines serve more as a checklist of sorts, and if you’re anything like me, crossing items off a list is its own special kind of high. When you’re doing that because you’re making progress on your very own work of art, it’s all the more satisfying.
This method works really well for the in-betweeners like me, the ones who don’t quite fall into one category or another of outlining extremists. You don’t need a fully illustrated road map or a detailed diagram: just some general directions with a few landmarks to guide you along the way. Should you choose to give this approach a go, keep in mind that the key is to think in terms of the bigger picture. You’re not going for a complete summary, including that will-they-won’t-they subplot involving two minor, albeit very present, characters. You need to be able to focus on the major plot points and be okay with letting the other things fall into place as they come to you. And remember: there is no such thing as a final draft until you say so. Self-editing is every writer’s friend, but for the casual outliner? It’s how we double-check the rich detail and make sure it works as well on paper as it did in our heads. This also gives you the freedom to change subplots without disrupting the overall narrative flow―this, for most artists, is the ultimate deal-breaker.
Create a visual
An outline doesn’t have to be written on a sheet of paper or even typed up and saved somewhere on your computer. Any kind of visual will do as long as it’s accessible and makes enough sense for you to follow even during, and after, a writing frenzy. Use a dry erase board, a chalkboard, sticky notes on a wall, or go big and pin a huge piece of paper to the wall (it’s practical and it feeds into that sadistic childhood fantasy we’ve all had of demolishing perfectly decent walls with our crayons).
Your outline doesn’t even have to resemble a list. If you’re more of a visual or artistic person, then diagrams like flow charts or storyboards can help keep you organized and focused…without boring you to tears in the process. Just remember to use shorthand or abbreviations that will make sense once the creative haze clears and you actually have to do something with your doodles and scribbles. Otherwise, you might pass as a convincing serial killer with a convoluted plan of attack, but nobody will give a damn about your story because you won’t be able to make heads or tails of it.
Make a list
In the name of simplicity, grocery lists are never overrated. And whether you’re planning the menu of your next dinner party or hashing out the order of events in your narrative, you can’t deny they get the job done. So if that’s what works for you? Grab a pen and paper, open up a blank document in Word, hell, find the nearest crayon or Sharpie and a flat surface. Whatever floats your writer’s fever dream boat.
The same sort of rules apply when it comes to making sense of your thoughts through this method versus a more elaborate visual aid. The bottom line is not to overcomplicate things. Use terms and phrases that will make sense, no matter how much time passes before you’re ready to translate them into something more fun to read. Unlike an artistic representation, a simple list of facts and details is a lot easier to misplace. If you go with a hard copy, don’t leave it just anywhere. Ever heard the whole “the dog ate my homework” excuse? Yeah, it’s a lot worse when the dog, the kid, the domestic partner, the fickle forces of fate, etc., devour what might have turned into a best seller.
Ready for an adventure? There’s something to be said for disregarding the map and driving off into the sunset. If outlining hasn’t done you any favors in the past, then maybe it’s time for a little spontaneity. Rather than try and steer the story, find a quiet corner and let the words take you where they will.
When plans fail (and we all know that they so often do), it pays to carve out a little time to hash things out on the fly. The same goes for writing. Wherever you’re most comfortable, and using whatever medium you prefer, take your characters on an adventure and see where it leads you. And if this is your first time letting loose, it doesn’t hurt to keep this experiment separate from your other projects. That might mean saving the document in a different folder on your computer, or using a special notebook for just such an occasion. Whatever you do, keep your stuff organized and edited, at least for clarity’s sake. No one actually enjoys reading a jumbled “what had happened was” type of story, even if it’s one they wrote.
However you approach the writing process, the main thing is to make it work for you. That way, when it comes time to self-edit, and then hand your baby over to a third party editor, you’ll feel confident in your manuscript and will know it front, back, forward, backward―the better to defend it when it comes time to kill a darling or two.