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To outline or not to outline?


I know that the answer to this question of course is to outline. But this is perhaps the weakest area of my writing period.

I also know the way to become stronger at anything is to practice. With that said I still hate to outline. Indeed whenever I start to outline it seems that the muse turns her back on me...:eek: Still I know that I need to practice this part of writing.

The question I have for my fellow authors is this: Do you also have some portion of your writing that seems to be the absolute pits?
In high school, we had to outline...it was boring, pointless, and more work than we could see had any value.

Writing needs structure. Don't call it an outline, call it a list of scenes (I do), and create each scene and determine what it is for and what it adds to the story. It isn't really an outline, but a flow of a story and the direction it needs to go to go from beginning, to middle, and finally the end.

You hate to outline, then don't, but don't let your story suffer by lacking a direction and purpose. It's nice to just write without having a clear direction, but sadly, most of the time I do that it's pure crap. Get some note cards ( or a nice program that will do something similar) and just put down the first scene. The add some details about where the scene will go, and/or what it will do. Formal bs is not needed, just a desire to create a structure you can use to work to build your actual story. By using notecards, or software, you can move things around, remove them, add new...and you have a chance to play with the structure without worring about numbering and whether or not you need a new sub list...do you have enough items for it...who cares. Planning your story is good. It doesn't have to be an outline.


Whether you outline or not, you're going to have to write several drafts. The way I see it, draft one is the outline for draft two, and so on. If you don't find outlines to be the easiest thing, just write. It may lack direction, but really, it doesn't matter. The plot, the characters, the world - they'll all come through in that first draft, even if haphazardly, and that is enough of an outline for many people. You might just need six drafts instead of five...


When you say you hate to outline, what exactly do you mean by "outline"? Do you mean using roman numerals, upper and lower case letters, and numbers? Because I'd never be able to outline either if I used that method.

If you just start writing, how do you know where the story is going? What's going to happen? What does the end look like?

What I do is just start with an idea. It might be a general idea of what I want the story to accomplish, a goal I want the characters to achieve, an event I want them to live through, or even just one scene I want to include. Then I build on that idea by figuring out how they're going to accomplish their goal. They have to do this, then they have to do that, and somewhere in there they have to figure out this, or give up on that. As LD said, start with a list of scenes.

Now, when I say "list of scenes," I don't necessarily mean just "(Character A) does (whatever)." I have full paragraphs of description and notes telling me what needs to happen before and/or after to make it make sense. I don't always write the scenes in order. Sometimes, the scene comes out with just "this is a fight scene" or "need something for (Character b) to do here." It's just a bunch of notes on what I want to plot to do.


Usually when I write it is something that has been 'bothering me' that is a piece of a story that has hung around as a partial scene in my mind.

By outline yes, I really thought the only way to do it was with roman numbers (or arabic ones) and letters for sub ideas.

I like the advice of sketching the scenes though most of the time when I'm writing (once I get started) the muse is so urgent that it is quite like taking dictation from the various characters...

Still that means that I can work myself into logic traps and the like that preplanning (which any sort of outline is) would at least help eliminate.

So taking a WIP I could say: Opening Scene Introduction of MC and then give her name... Then next would be Introduction of the dilemma, which includes an introduction of the Antagonist and some of her henchmen...


I don't start with an outline. I start with fleshing out my characters and try to focus on between 3 and 6 characters. Then I sort of go backwards and write a 1 paragraph summary of my book and it is almost what would appear on the back cover. Then I take that and expand it to about a 2 page synopsis which most publishers would want to see. It can actually be rather boring compared to a outline, scene list, or rough draft.

After that I break the synopsis down into a scene list which is basically my outline. I don't roman numeral it or that kind of stuff. That then grows as I flesh out some details about each scene. If I've written a scene down I insert it into the outline/scene list and continue evolving it from there. Once I get to a point where I'm rather satisfied with it I start writing from that.

Many think that you must say to your outline. This is totally false. Your outline is a guide to how you think your characters and their motivations will play out over the course of the story. Sometimes it doesn't quite happen that way and sometimes other things may happen to change your outline. It simply is a rough guide, nothing more and nothing less. If you are like me and flesh out your characters and know what they would do in many situations then your outline or scene list should be reliable, IMHO.

All writers are different but I've read many places from authors that they do some form of outlining. From my limited experience it does cut down on first draft time and saves you time later on edits so I can see how many would use it.
The part of writing that gets to me sometimes is starting. I did really well for a while, wrote a few hundred to a few thousand words a day. This past week though, I can't seem to make myself open a word document. Instead, I mess around on the forums until I look at the clock and go, "oops, too late to start now!"

The dumb thing is, I know that once I start, I love it! But actually opening that document... ugh. Probably why I've been spending a bunch of time posting and critting other people's stuff. Tweaking someone else's work is so much easier than coming up with something original.

Maybe I should go back to school and become an editor...

I do know of at least one fairly popular author, Gail Carson Levine (Ella Enchanted, Fairest, Two Princesses of Bamarre) who says on her blog that she never, ever outlines. Sometimes it leads to her trashing hundreds of pages, but she makes it work.

I need outlines. Yeah, I deviate from them once I start writing, but then I change the outline to match what I've come up with. However, even with a decent outline, my WiP has become (I feel) an utterly tangled mess. I mean, it makes sense when you read it, I think, but it's just... not. Not what I want it to be.
I think we all go through various stages while learning. First is the biggest...learning to string words together while wading through a mass of concepts and phrases like "show don't tell", and not having a clue what it means. And as we go we get comfortable with writing those words and start to expand to telling stories. Many times taking a character and seeing where they go, or finding a new idea and exploring it through words.

Eventually though, we reach the point where the words are easy to put together, and they sound good, read well, and are generally liked. Still the stories are a bit flat sometimes, and there isn't as much consistency with the story telling as we would like. At that point we have to learn to plan them, and do so without making them flat and sounding like a cheap C movie script. This is where things like outlines, scene layout, overall plot structure is needed. it is what makes the thing needed in the last third of the story make sense because you went back and added the needed foreshadowing or setup pieces needed to back it up when you get there. You didn't know about it in scene three, but it's such a pain to go back and rewrite scene three to include those bits, since when they are added the stick out most of the time. But when you plan it, and find out you need those things and scene three is the place to put them, you can add them to the notes for that scene and then when you write it, you know what you need to have and it will flow into the story like it belongs there. This is where I am, and what I'm trying to learn well enough to gain a solid consistency with my stories.


I know that the answer to this question of course is to outline.

Well, I teach college-level writing--so the answer, "of course," is... no.

That's right: don't outline. Not if it isn't doing you any good.

It is a good thing to learn how to do, and practice at, because for most people, it does help--eventually. But it's completely pointless, not to mention frustrating, if you are doing it wrong. Which is how most people have been taught. They've been told they have to outline, by teachers who are robotically following a series of essay-writing steps that, in all likelihood, they don't understand the reasons for themselves. Students are told they have to submit outlines for approval... and too often the implication is that once an outline has been approved, the essay must follow it.

Which is crap, even for essay writing, doubly so for creative writing.

Here's when you should outline:
(1) When you don't know where you're taking something (usually an assignment) in the first place.
(2) When you've taken something as far as you can at the moment, and want to give some structure to what you expect will come next.
(3) When you have a bunch of little (or big) pieces of something, and need to figure out how to put them all together.
(4) When you're done.

You'll note that only (1) involves a step prior to actually beginning to write. If you already have something to write, get it down--first, always; outlining can come later, after you're done getting down whatever you already have in your head. That's (2) and (3); (2) is essentially brainstorming about what else you need, (3) should be pretty self-explanatory. Then there's (4)--which I'll bet surprised a lot of people reading this. I'm completely serious: there's nothing better at showing you what it is you actually wrote, and how (and if!) it all fits together, than going back over your writing, paragraph by paragraph, and seeing what it looks like when it's put together in outline form. You may find any number of points where things don't flow correctly, or are out of place... especially in the modern era where you can cut and paste paragraphs without literally taking scissors and glue to your manuscript, which we used to have to do back in the old days of typewriters. (Along with walking two miles in the snow to get to school--and yes, I did do that. I'm not going to tell you it was "uphill both ways," though. :p ) Doing a final outline will force you to pay attention to what you've done, and you'll spot those strays and orphans.

And, never, ever feel bound by an outline. Not even in an essay-writing class. If your teacher says anything about it at all--which they probably won't--just say you realized as you were writing that things needed a different order, or that you had something to add that wasn't in the original outline, etc. The point of requiring an outline for approval is mainly to make sure the student has at least given some passing thought to the assignment, and hasn't set it completely aside until the day before it's due. It's not supposed to be something set in stone. If your teacher wants an outline with the final product, fine: do one then, at the end. Upper-level work, in some disciplines, and thesis-level work in any discipline, may require outlines... but we have a special term for these: it's called a "table of contents." Which is an outline, nothing more--and which you can't do until you're already done with everything else.

For some people, outlining is very useful... but I generally find that what these people are actually doing is similar to a combination of (1) and (2) above: a form of organizational brainstorming. Which is good. But when I'm teaching students prewriting exercises, that's how I tell them to go about it--in two steps: first, brainstorm; second, take the product of your brainstorming, select what's useful out of what you've come up with (and if you're brainstorming correctly, you should have far more than actually fits into what you end up writing, at least where essays are concerned), and organize that... that's where the outline comes from.

If outlining isn't useful for you--don't do it. Certainly not as a starting point, at any rate.

The flip side, which you may have gathered by implication from the above, is that "prewriting" exercises are every bit as valuable after you've begun writing as before you begin, quite likely more so: whenever you hit a stopping point, go ahead and brainstorm for five minutes. Or free write, make notes, or whatever works best for you. In larger works, outline repeatedly, so you can check on what you've already done and find places that require expansion or relocation... or deletion. And so on. I once conducted a class where we wrote an entire essay, on the chalkboard (yes, it was a chalkboard, not a whiteboard...), in an hour, doing nothing but prewriting exercises: I had them brainstorm on a topic, then select some major section headings from that, add supporting points from the rest, put numbers next to them, then "freewriting" (in this case, calling out) sentences for each point. (I don't think I've ever seen as many notes taken as rapidly as I did then.) We got done with that; I said "Slap a conclusion and an introduction on it: there's your essay." Yes, it was an introductory essay-writing class... but sometimes, it really is that simple.

(And, yes, I did put conclusion and introduction in that order. Unless you're doing it in class, under timed conditions, always do the introduction last. Can't tell you how many people get hung up worrying about how the intro should go... it's just like the contents: how are you supposed to introduce something correctly if you don't know what you're going to say yet? Whereas if you already know what you've said, the intro should be pretty much automatic. Just write the body--that's the part that counts, anyway--and do the beginning and the end after it's done.)
I liked what Ravana said.

Outlines always seem so necessary to me--I'd come up with a complete list of scenes before ever writing the first line, if I could. The trouble is, I can't. Imagination doesn't start to flow until I'm actually writing. Most of the time, I can't even really come up with much of an outline.

What does seem to work for me is what I did in my first NaNoWriMo: make a list of basic things I wanted to have happen in the story. They were excessively simplistic:

Find [character]
Meet hero
Escape from villains
Romance buildup
Introduce [character]
[First goal]

I got about thirty of them together (arbitrary number based on the number of days in NaNoWriMo). And then I proceeded to follow them only when it suited my fancy.

As for logic problems: unless they were actual story-breakers, I worried about them in revisions. :)

Outline or no, best of luck to you as you write!


I've found a different method here on Dan Well's blog... I recommend watching the video and grabbing the PowerPoint. This might help many who struggle with outlining or starting their stories.
I usually just write down little plot points that I know I want to happen along the way then I build little sub plots as I write. In fact when doing this I came up with the idea to have a storm occur near an invading navy and they land on a completely different continent (they crossed the equator at the same time) so they could not find their way home navigating by the stars like they usually do (plus the biggest boat they have is a trireme). so yeah winging it on the sub plots can net you a new story sometimes.
I have to say I would be noplace with my book(s) with out my outlines...
Now that does not mean I stick to them 100% but I make them long ones with half a million plot points, etc...
Sometimes I find I have to change things up, when I do; I correct the outline to follow along.

Why do I do this?
Well first off I need to stay organized. with a cast of hundreds, and more than 4 plot lines the outline has been a life saver.
Secondly, I use the outline as a place to work out issues, if I have character A do X,Y and Z what does that do to everyone else?
I find that outlines help with pace as well, but that is just me. I tend to write like I talk a million miles a min. with out stopping to breath. :p

I have done a few short stories with out the outline, but I find that with out that direction, goal I struggle with the plot and flow... again just me.

Over all everyone should know how to make a good outline, how to adapt them to fit the changing needs of your work, and how to work off script.

I have also recently found that by using the outline writting the synop/ blurb was much easier :) hard to miss key points if they are staring you in the face with nice little bullet points in 14 point font. ;)
I think it's okay to outline, but it's best not to feel like you have to stick to the outline. If you know exactly where your novel or story is going as you write it, then it starts to feel robotic. You can't surprise yourself and that means you may not be surprising your readers.

If you get stuck on a plot point near the middle, it can be good to try to outline to the end to get yourself going and moving again. But think of it like brainstorming. It can happen like the outline says, or it can do nothing that the outline says.
Second everything already said. Another way to think of an outline, if you're the visual type, is as a storyboard. Draw sketches of the pivotal scenes and put them in order.


My outline is usually just free writing about each thing I want to happen in my novel. I start by daydreaming. This way I get a basic idea of one big thing I want to happen whether that be beginning, middle, or end...doesn't matter. Then I decide where I may want my story to begin and write a paragraph about it. That usually will give me an idea of where to head next. Each event or idea will get one paragraph only and almost always spring new ideas into my head. Sometimes I get stuck for where to go next. When I hit that point I start writing. I will work out my story for a few days and then re read through my paragraphs. By that time I always have tweaks, or new things to add. And so it goes until I get a big grasp on what I want to happen. It is and isn't an outline and it works amazingly for me because the roman numeral outlines quite frankly scare the crap out of me. If that was required...as it was in highschool... then I would most likely give up my dream of writing.

One big reason for this is because I may forget it if I dont write it down. I find possible twists, turns, new characters, and all kinds of new ideas this way. If I dont write it down, then I may forget it by the time I get to write it out.


I completely agree with Ravana: outlining is not for everybody.

I am using it now because I'm wanting to try a different approach to drafting my work; not just writing myself into a corner then either throwing it away or starting over until I throw that away too. I see outlining as a way to organize my thoughts and any free writing notes on the story into a somewhat comprehensible chronological order. Sometimes I scribble on random pieces of paper during work hours because I don't want to lose the idea that's popped into my head. I get one thread started and it all flows. I think the outline is a good way to get an idea of what you want. It will change between now and final draft. You will not follow the original outline. The original outline may change and be revised as you go.

I've found outlines useful in nonfiction. It gave me a path to start drafting by, even though I may take a completely different direction by the end of the final draft of the essay or article.

By the way, Ravana, your mention of chalk boards makes me miss them :eek:


Maybe not outline the WHOLE story at once, but section by section (or chapter by chapter however you prefer). Outline the next section you are going to write so you have an idea of where it's going and you won't get stuck. Which has happened to me more than once. :D


I have started stories without knowing exactly where to go for the first few scenes, but once those scenes were written, the rest of the story unfolded itself in my head---a mental outline, if you will. That said, while I need an idea of where to go in order to finish a story, I've begun to find the outline idea constraining, especially since I want to explore more of my worlds than my outlines permit.


Sometimes I use a outline but mostly I don't. I just know what will generally happen in each chapter. I use placeholder chapter names like "Martin gets attacked by elfs and manages to use his magic sword to wound their leader".