Outlining is a matter of debate among authors — both aspiring and professional. Some say it kills the creative experience and process of writing the story from start to finish, some say it’s a lifesaver. If you are new to writing and/or the concept of outlining, you might want to know what an outline is, why you should outline your story, and how?
What is an outline?
An outline is basically the process of setting out the main events of your story and jotting down the plot from beginning to end. Some ways of outlining are quite complex while others are quick and simple. Some outlines can take forever to write, some only a couple of hours. It all depends on what you want and need. However, please have in mind that your outline is for your eyes only. Therefore, it doesn’t have to be a work of art in itself. If your dream is to write a story, don’t waste your time getting your outline perfect. Especially not if it keeps you from writing your actual story.
The quick and easy outline can be a rough list of scenes with a short description of what happens in those scenes. You might also have a comment about the tone of the scenes or which characters that appear in them. Another quick and easy way to outline can be to have post-it notes for each scene placed in the order in which they will appear in the book.
A more complex outline can be a comprehensive document — or notebook, depending on how you prefer to write — that doesn’t just hold the list of scenes, but also character descriptions, scene descriptions, backstory, and a more extensive and detailed scene-list with motivation-reaction units and beginning, conflict and disaster, etc.
No matter if you wish to do a quick or an extensive outline, the basics of an outline is to plan your novel before you write it. You might ask, ”why bother?” Well, take a look at the listed reasons below.
Why should you outline?
The point of outlining your story is to help with the actual writing later on in the process of creating your story. Making the outline first will help you keep your head in ”writing mode” when you eventually begin writing your story. When you’ve already thought through your story’s plot, characters, settings, etc., it’ll make the writing of the actual story easier. Outlining your story beforehand also provides you with less room for failure.
An outline isn’t just about planning and structure, though. It’s also about finding inspiration, seeing multiple roads your story can take, and also to see which road will offer your story the most action, conflict, or emotional connection (basically whatever you want with your story).
Some more reasons to outline:
- You will get your words down on paper (physical or virtual) faster if you know what to write next. You don’t have to stare at a blank page, wondering what to write, and waste precious time. Outlining is an especially great tool for those who only have a limited time to write each day.
- If you outline you can see what works and what doesn’t work in your story when it comes to plot. This way you’ll save yourself the time and frustration of writing yourself into a corner or along a path that leads nowhere.
- An outline also gives you the opportunity to see where your plot needs to be strengthened, what you need to research, where you need to speed up the pace or slow things down, and find opportunities to foreshadow in an organic way without making it feel forced (you can’t really foreshadow coming events if you don’t know what those events are, therefore, making an outline, no matter how small or extensive, will help you with this).
- It’s easier to see the story structure with an outline, and you’re more likely to get the structure right the first time. And also, if you like to play around with story structure and try something new, and outline is a great way to experiment your ideas before you spend several hours writing a story you later realize is too crazy for even you to understand.
- An outline helps you to get to know your characters. This is especially helpful if you struggle to name your characters. If you have some sense of who they are, what kind of background and personality they have, their desires and goals, where they are going and what’s going to happen to them, it’ll be easier to come up with a name that suits your characters.
- And, at last, my favorite one of the benefits: there will be less chance of writer’s block. An outline ensures that you know where you’re going with your story, so the odds of having a writer’s block meltdown so bad you spend days without writing are slim. All you have to do is take a moment to go over your outline and then return to writing.
This isn’t an exhaustive list — there are a lot more ways an outline can be beneficial — but these are some of the major benefits I have found when outlining my own stories. However, no matter what kind of outline you want to create, there is an important thing you have to know about outlining:
Nothing is written in stone. Just because you’ve made an outline doesn’t mean you have to follow it 100% from beginning to end. You may get 50, 100, or 150 pages into your manuscript and decide you want your plot to take another course, that you want to add a character, or perhaps even change the setting and time. Write what your heart desires. You can always change the outline after your new directions.
An outline isn’t supposed to put a leash on your creativity and ideas, it’s supposed to be a flexible guide that helps you to solve whatever problems you might have when you’re writing your story.