The Benefits of Outlining: A Layered Approach

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wizard writingThis article is by Steven M. Long.

Everybody outlines. The second a writer imagines one scene following another, that writer is creating an outline, even if the outline is incomplete and only in their head.

Referring to a novel writer as an “outliner” usually indicates someone who feels more comfortable with and sees the benefits of knowing – sometimes in great detail – where their novel is headed.

As you can probably guess, I outline, and over the time I’ve been writing novels (I’ve written four, two of them pretty good) I’ve been told repeatedly that I should just “let it go” and that I’m “ruining my creative process.” As often as not, these comments come from people who’ve never finished a novel.

As a process-driven guy who’s been creating outlines since he first put pen to paper, I’d like to walk through a few of the benefits, and then lay out a high-level, step-by-step example of what a granular, outlining process might look like, with a special focus on what I call “layering,” which refers to the idea of breaking coherent elements out of your novel, looking at them, and then carefully working them back in.

Four Benefits of Creating an Outline

  1. Finishing: Writing a novel can be an intimidating task, one that a lot of people balk at, especially those who struggle with organization and focus. Creating an outline allows you to have a clear path forward on days when you don’t feel inspired, and by showing you – in clear, written form – the end, it makes it seem attainable. You don’t need an outline to finish a novel, but it helps.
  2. It Saves Time: Creating an extensive outline of your novel before you write it does more than just give you a path forward. Writing from an outline means that the draft you ultimately produce will be closer to the final version than one that comes straight from your head or from an ad hoc outline, created as you go. It takes a lot less time to plan than to rewrite.
  3. It Frees up Creativity: One of the biggest misconceptions about creating a detailed outline is that it staunches in-the-moment creativity, but nothing is further from the truth. Nobody can concentrate on everything – character, plot, theme, sentence structure, dialogue – at the same time. By working from an outline, more of your brain can be focused not just on the nuts and bolts of the writing, but on the characters and plot. Your outline may shift as you go, and when that happens you’re getting the benefit of a second wave of applied creativity (the first came during the outline’s creation), rather than going with the first thing that comes to you, which is what you get when you fly blind.
  4. Better Understanding of What You’re Writing, and Why: When you outline, more of the analysis is pushed to the front. You have the luxury of parsing out and looking at your characters, themes, and plotlines before you put pen to paper. That understanding allows you to refine what you’re doing, before you start the draft. When you do begin writing, you’ll have a deeper awareness of what’s going on in each scene that results in sharper, more intentional prose.

My Outlining Process: the “Layered” Outline

Okay, you’ve read about some of the benefits, now it’s time to talk about how you might achieve them. I’ve never met anyone who outlines as thoroughly as I do, though I’m sure they’re out there. It takes a good amount of upfront time (and that is a risk), but the payoff is control, complexity, and time saved down the road. What I’ve laid out below is a thumbnail sketch of how an initial idea can be shaped into a full, complex outline.

1. Document the Idea.

Every novel starts with an idea. Maybe it’s something from your life, or an image, or a core element from a narrative (a book, television show, movie, whatever) that moved you and made you think yeah – I can do something with that. I think most writers write those ideas down, but good outliners treat them like snowballs that roll downhill over time, collecting bits and pieces as they go. Start a document, and write down the initial idea and whatever else occurs to you (a plotline, a character, a scene). Let it percolate in your head, and keep adding to it. Some of your ideas will conflict: you’ll write “she’s got two children” and then a month later add “she lives alone” because that’s your thought, that day. This process is about letting the idea grow and gestate, and making sure that when it comes time to start building your outline, you’ve got as much information as possible. I have at least a dozen novel ideas in process at any given time, and ten times that many set aside in folders, ready to be activated (or pillaged, or combined) at my leisure.

2. Break Out the Elements.

When it’s time to turn an idea into a novel, read what you’ve got, and start breaking it into pieces (documents) that describe different aspects of the novel-to-be. Leave the contradictions in, for now. Possible documents include:

  • Rough Outline
  • Characters/Character Arcs
  • Plot Arcs
  • Theme Arcs (you might want to make one document for plot/theme arcs)
  • World-Building (if applicable)

3. Build the Arcs.

In parallel, flesh out the documents under #2, above. There will be overlap between them (they’ll share some of the same information, or even slightly contradictory versions of it), but that’s okay – a lot of the creative process that for non-outliners happens when they sit down at the computer happens for the outliner right here: the ultimate goal isn’t complete, disparate documents. Below are examples of the form this fleshing out might take.

  • Rough Outline: Write out the story as you imagine it, broken into unnumbered chapters, with bullets for scenes, moments, or things that you imagine happening, chronologically. You have it in your head – just get it down, glossing over the gaps and making it up as you go along. The goal here isn’t to create a finished outline, but instead to get a shape of the story on paper and in your mind, to help guide the other documents as you go – it will evolve and change until you’ve got a summary that’s a mix of detailed and missing scenes.
  • Character/Character Arcs: Detail the journeys the characters go through, as if they were small, independent stories, i.e. “Ajax realizes over the course of the novel that Elery was never his enemy, and in the end, he stops trying to collect the bounty,” or “Ajax realizes that he never really got over the death of his brother, and why.” Bullet out the scenes/steps you imagine being needed to get from the beginning to the end, including as much of the rising and falling action and critical scenes as you can. You’ll have the urge to slide these into your rough outline, but you should resist making major changes.
  • Plot Arcs: List separately the different threads that are going on, that are less about character and more about action, for example “Ajax solves the mystery of who killed his brother and hunts down the wizard,” or “Ajax gathers an army by going from city to city and appealing to each king.” Put in as many details as you can, step by step, about the story. How many plot threads do you have? Do they all have rising and falling action? How are they shaped? Which are the major ones, which are the minor? Again, allow yourself to adjust the outline slightly, but don’t go into too much detail – the idea is to keep the parts of your novel separate, for now.
  • Theme Arcs: This is the subtext, i.e. “people reaching out to each other, and realizing how closely their lives are intertwined,” or “the power that time has over us, how it passes without our awareness.” Double back and look at your plot and character threads – do they reflect the themes? How could they, in multiple ways? Is it your themes that need to adjust to the characters and story you’ve imagined? Themes run parallel to plot and character arcs, i.e. “as Ajax pursues the wizard, the reader sees how time is passing, and how much Ajax is losing” or “the wizard, too, is getting older, and slowly failing.” These themes, ultimately, will be very personal: they’re the conversation that you’re having with the reader, under the surface. Don’t force it – let them come from plot and character – let them surprise you.
  • World Building: As you go, develop the world, in parallel with the characters, themes, and plot. There’s a tendency to build the world almost separately, but it should be built as much as possible in service to story and character. How can the details of the world complement the story? Speak to the themes?

4. Analysis.

What I call workshopping. Take some time to look thoughtfully at what you’ve created. I have a list of questions I ask myself for each arc that includes things like “is the hero heroic? How?” or “how could the action at each decision point be sharpened?” Start thinking now about your own strengths and weaknesses, what people have told you you do well (and don’t) and what you could ask yourself about each arc. Look at how the arcs interrelate. If one of the themes is the passage of time, how could the story of Ajax moving from kingdom to kingdom show that more sharply? The idea here is twofold: to take full advantage of the novel while it’s still in pieces by thinking about each arc, both singly and in relation to the arcs running parallel to it, and using a list of questions to help you get out of your own headspace.

5. Layering.

Here’s where things get really, really interesting. You already have an outline that has a lot of the story, right? Now it’s time to take those character, plot, and theme arcs and shuffle them into the outline like playing cards. You can use this time to strategically design your novel: do you want plotlines to all converge at the same time, or do you want to keep the tension up by having them end one after the other throughout the last third, like a thriller? Do you want some stories to resolve at the halfway point just when others are building up, or do you want to create a slow burn that ends with a bang?

What you’re physically doing, here, is taking each of the arcs you’ve created, breaking them apart, and seeding them into the already existing outline. You can also use this time to punch up chapters that seem flat, by making sure that there’s rising action of some kind – even subtly – in each scene (unless you want it to be flat). You can also use this time to seed character traits, to create vivid characters: does your protagonist have a tendency to double back and doubt her decisions? Give her three times in the novel to do this. Do you want a character to be cruel? Make sure there are 6 examples.

You’ll end up with chapters that serve multiple purposes: each one might advance several, overlapping arcs, show character traits, convey necessary information about the world, and so forth, fine-tuned to the complexion you want each chapter to have. When this step is done the arc documents can be set aside; your bulleted summary has blossomed into a complex, multi-layered outline that in my experience is somewhere between 20-35 single-spaced pages.

6. Analysis, Part 2.

You’ve got your novel in front of you, at 1/6th size, in detail, for you to look at, analyze, and tinker with before you spend 100+ hours writing it. Take advantage. Read it like a book, and workshop it again. Where could it be tighter? How is it different than what you expected? What can you see that isn’t working? Here’s where you really save yourself some time.

7. Write the Draft.

This is the point where non-outliners say that you’ve robbed the process of its artistry, but if you’ve gotten this far, you must have realized that artistry has been in every decision you’ve made up to this point. As you write the draft, be open to things changing: the brain power you’ve freed up will allow you to focus on the writing, but also give you the freedom to wander off the road a little, because you’ve got something solid to come back to.

So there it is – a window into the mind of a serious outliner. When you’re done with the draft, of course, you get to forget all that’s come before, and the task becomes less about controlling what you’re going to do, and more about understanding what you’ve done, and how to make it better.

For you personally, does outlining help or hinder creativity?

What parts of the above process might help you address some of the issues you’ve had in your own writing? Are there parts that might be useful, but it’s hard for you to imagine yourself implementing?

About the Author:

Steven M. Long is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works just outside of Chicago, Illinois. He blogs about fantasy and science fiction at Foesofreality.com, and about writing and editing at Stevenmlong.com.

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34 comments
charitypaschall
charitypaschall

Personally, I find it impossible to outline in the beginning, because I have no idea where my story is going. (I am a new writer though). I started my novel with three characters, and one really good (I think) plot arc--but I didn't even know yet how the conflict would come to resolution,


It took a few days of writing for me to learn that. Now I believe I am at a point where an outline will be helpful, so this article has good timing for me. 


Thank you for outlining the process so simply. This will help a great deal with my outline.

LynneEden
LynneEden

One more thing is that for people writing their first book series (like me) and who are grammatically challenged (me), when the books are done, they can focus more on the grammar editing, instead of story reorganization, ect.

LynneEden
LynneEden

This is a great article. I am a planner. What I love is you listed the things that I am doing already, but you added some things I hadn't thought of, so that will help me a lot. Plus I am reassured that this method will help me have and easier writing process. 

I believe that by having a good outline, you have a chance to make a higher quality story. You can make sure your characters have rich personalities,that your world is beautiful, and your plots exciting. This is because you pay more attention to the details before you write. But if you write as you go, there are so many things to think about at once, that I think it takes away from the creativity. Outlining gives you the means to focus on refining the details of your story more efficiently. You break up a huge and complex task into little steps. 


Last thing is that when you go to write your novel, it's more fun. Because instead of being stressed out by making up the story as you go along, and having to think about how you are tying everything together on the spot, you know what's going to happen. So you get to focus on emmersing yourself in whatever you are writing at that moment. And you don't have to worry about writer's block, as you said! :) 

Once again, good article, and thank you.

Carol Nicolas
Carol Nicolas

Steven, 

Thanks for the great article.  I'm definitely going to use this in my writing.

-- Carol


Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

Hi Steven

Excellent post, thanks

I'm a pantser most of the time, and am generally happy working that way. Having said that, the couple of times I've outlined, the writing itself has been smooth and flowing, and thoroughly enjoyable, so I'm up for either way really. 

My outlines tend to be nearer a couple of pages, laying out key story points, and character arcs, and I must confess, your process is a little too involved for me, although I can definitely see the value in it. 

I'm learning to love editing, which is a must based on the way I write, but I do love the fact that we can follow such different paths to the same outcome!

thanks again

Mike

Jae5
Jae5

Fantastic! Thanks for giving me words of defense, so to speak, for the pansters out there who can't understand why I must outline. And why outlines aren't actually restrictive. Great post!

StevenMLong
StevenMLong

@danielwhyteiv Daniel, thanks so much, I'm glad you enjoyed it! It was fun (if a little unnerving) to write!

Madwriter1970
Madwriter1970

This may seem obvious to some, but there's a bad misconception that when you outline you need to start at Point A on the outline and go to Point B. I think if you have a slavish chain to chronology at that early pre-writing point, then an outline will indeed stifle creativity. But for me I write a list I could title "Here's what I want to happen", and then Part 2 is working it all into outline form. 

Catherine E McLean
Catherine E McLean

I think I did two novels by the seat of my pants and hated the constant rewriting to fix things, change things, revise ad infinitum. I told myself there had to be a better way, and so I came up with my "project bible,"  which is plotting the various aspect and which includes everything you talked about in this post.  Since using my project bible, I've never failed to finish a novel, one a thousand times richer in all respects then when writing by the seat of my pants.  Kudos to you for this blog entry. It's so refreshing to hear a plotter-outliner describe the benefits of "structured creativity." 

Abigail Owen
Abigail Owen

Great post on outlining! I already do my own version of outlining, but this gives me some additional approaches to add and play with. Out of curiosity, what software(s) do you use to help you with this? I personally use a combination of OneNote and Scrivener, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

gaelynnwoods
gaelynnwoods

Thanks for this post, Steven. I'm not a natural outliner, but I like the process you describe.

ShawnEnge
ShawnEnge

I find the outline helps me focus. I generally start off with writing down any idea that might come up in the story, then filter it down.  The nice thing about using a word processor is that I can move things around more easily as well.  The thing to remember is that the outline is not you carving the idea in stone. I have modified many an outline when I'm driving home and had a great idea to fill a hole or expand an idea.

Nils Ödlund
Nils Ödlund

This was a really encouraging read. It's similar to how I've done the outline for my current (and first) novel, but it also suggest a bunch of things that could be done to improve both the outline and the story itself.

Philip Overby
Philip Overby

I always work better with an outline. I have five failed novels that show me why pantsing doesn't work for me. I've finally got a novel that I think is on its way to being pretty great if I stay the course. And it's all because I fought against my naturally chaotic nature and attempted something different.

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani

Outlining frees me to be more creative in later stages. If I work out the mechanics of the story first, my mind is freed to explore new possibilities when fleshing out each scene.

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

@charitypaschall  I'm glad it was helpful! Everyone has to feel their way to the best method, for them. I've managed to produce 4 novels, so I know this works... for me. The most important thing is the work getting done. 

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

Thanks, Lynne, I'm glad you liked it! It can definitely make it easier, as well as give you a sense of control over it and up the quality/complexity. I'm very much with you on the power of not trying to think of everything at the same time!

That's a good point about being more fun, too. When I write from an outline I get to just write, and if there's a moment where I'm not sure what happens, the next steps are right there for me. Writing is complex enough as it is - anything that makes it simpler, helps!

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

Thanks, Mike. I think a lot of it is personality driven. Restructuring drives me a little crazy - outlining is one way I avoid (or minimize) it. Overall, I think the trick is to make sure that the method you use is working, and that cuts both ways: if outlining does nothing but bog you down and you're not producing, maybe you should pants, but if you're a pantser who never finishes, you might try outlining. 

I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it! We outliners need to stick together!

danielwhyteiv
danielwhyteiv

@StevenMLong I was especially glad to see someone deal with character arcs, plot arcs, and theme arcs in outlining.

ShawnEnge
ShawnEnge

@Madwriter1970 I agree. For me I have the start of the journey and how I want to end the journey. The Outline helps me figure out what happens in between point A and Point B. Besides, it's the journey itself - not just the destination!

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

Thanks Catherine! I hate the doubling back, as well. It seems so... amorphous, doesn't it - the idea of 100K words of pants-written manuscript? Writing by outline brings a certain level of clarity that I'm crazy about. I sometimes put together a "bible," as well (and even call it that) that usually has the outline in it, character sketches, and sometimes a "style sheet" that has things for me to keep in mind as I write.

I recognize that different people write (successfully) differently, but as someone who totally gets the idea of "structured creativity," whenever I hear someone struggling because they don't know what comes next, I always want to gently urge them to create an outline - I want to somehow convey the way a good outline is freeing, not limiting, and how it takes the pressure off. 

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

Thanks! I think outlining is something everyone develops their own process for, fitted to the level that's right for them. I don't use any software - I tried Scrivener, but ultimately didn't feel it was flexible enough for me. 

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

I think that a lot of people don't realize how much a story can shift around an outline. Yes, it's less likely to, but sometimes the creative energy you free up with the outline leads you in a new direction.

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

The big piece I only touched on was the workshopping part, i.e. a list of aspects that you use to challenge different threads within the story. There's nothing like looking at a plot thread, and forcing yourself to ask where you can tighten it, whether there are any moments where characters reflect, whether there are moments where characters disagree, and so forth.

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

It's great that you feel that you're on the right path! So why did the five previous not work out? Did you finish them, or did you finish, but were unhappy with the result? The first novel I finished I had to totally toss (1995!). I had an outline, but the problem was I was so eager to finish, that I didn't take my time and write in enough detail - the result was essentially a 200 page summary. Bleah. Well, a big part of writing is being able to say "well, that 200 hours of writing was nice, but I'm going to have to start again."

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

Tony, this is exactly how I feel about it - people who say it takes away the creativity, don't get how much more creative I am while I write because the basics and details (at least a solid pass at them) are already down.

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

Part of the benefit of creating an outline is that it gives you the ability to design and analyze story elements that run in parallel with the general narrative, which paves the way for subtlety and complexity when they're layered back in.

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

I do this, too. What I called "Document the Idea," above, results in a jumble of ideas and plot points that cover the entire arc of the work (and a lot more) but lack connecting scenes. Only when I create a rough outline do those ideas get organized chronologically, if at a fairly high level and still subject to change.

Catherine E McLean
Catherine E McLean

@smlongwrites I concur.  I did a workshop this past Saturday on "Chaos or Creativity--what kind of writer are you" at a one-day writer's mini-conference in Erie, PA.  Pantsers seem to embrace chaos, but not me. I and my muse love the freedom from the angst of writer's block (never had it), the exhilarating surge of creativity to solve plot problems, and the satisfaction of completing 100,000 word novels. Like you, nothing is written in stone or in such detail that it turns me off from actually writing the entire manuscript.

I've also learned over the years that producing writers have some kind of system that works for them--each invidualized, of course, after all, we don't all think alike nor create our stories the same way.

I am so happy to find a fellow outliner who understands structured creativity. I'm so glad I decided to check out your post today. :)


Philip_Overby
Philip_Overby

@stevenmlong I didn't finish the first four since I wasn't ready to tackle longer novels with multiple POVs.  The fifth one I finished the first draft, but I've let it sit for a long time without editing. So I'm afraid to go back to it now. I know I'm going to eventually, but it's going to be difficult to slough through, I already know. I find the Snowflake Method is very helpful for me. I hope it's going to be my preferred method from here on out. Thanks for the great article!

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

I've never had writer's block, either, and attribute a lot of that to how I approach the process. You raise a very important distinction when you say "producing writers" - sometimes I cheer up writer friends who've finished novels (even ones they later toss) by reminding them that a lot of writers never get to that point. Once you finish a novel, it also help demonstrate to yourself that you CAN finish a novel, which of course helps with the next one!

Thanks again for your comments - I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

stevenmlong
stevenmlong

There's a big difference between short and long work, that's for sure. With self-publishing the way it is, I'm on more of a write/try to sell/self-publish track with my novel writing these days. A quick cycle is better because if you keep at it, you grow as a writer, and that novel you wrote 3 years ago may no longer reflect you as well as you'd like, when you look back.

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