This 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
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.