writing advice: working with outlines

Every Friday, I answer a reader’s question about writing, editing, or the writing process. I’m happy to take submissions via comments or email. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, send it in!

This week, a question on utilizing outlines:

Do you have any tips for working with outlines? I think my writing could benefit from a more structured approach, but I am not sure how to begin.

-Bethany

The first thing I would like to point out is that an outline is not the only way to approach a story in a structured way. There’s a lot of writing advice out there that insists all writers should use an outline, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. There are many ways to organize a story. If outlining doesn’t work for you, don’t give yourself a hard time about it. Try something else.

The most fundamentally useful thing you can do to improve your writing process is to figure out what works for YOU as a writer. Ask yourself: what have I been struggling with while I’ve been writing, and how can the outline help solve my problem? Your outline is going to look different depending on what you want it to do, which is why it’s crucial to reflect about your writing process and approach. If you’re a writer who likes to spend a lot of time imagining things in your head, the outline might be best used to keep your story focused on the conflict. If you have a story that has 50 characters and spans ten years and two continents, then outlining all of the details can help you keep everything straight.

If you’re looking to keep all the details in order, create a thorough outline that lays out every event and character action that occurs from the beginning to the end of the book in chronological order. This will allow you to run down your outline and make sure there’s no strange plot gaps or instances where a character is in Boston and then ends up in Liverpool with no explanation. If this is the outlining approach you take, you might even want to make suboutlines for each character detailing their movements and developments. This approach is especially useful if you find that you get halfway in and can’t remember if your main character has brown or blonde hair or which one of your evil henchmen is missing the third finger on their left hand.

If you feel like your writing suffers from a lack of tension or direction, it might be more useful to create a brief outline of your main conflict, like this nine sentence model that conveys the main trajectory of the plot. This can give you a lot of freedom later while making sure that you don’t end up 100 pages into the story and realize that there’s no conflict and nothing’s actually happened. To outline conflict, start with the main character’s biggest problem and work backwards and forwards from there. There needs to be an active force working against your main character that wants the exact opposite of what the main character wants–otherwise it’s not actually conflict. You can’t have a story based on a scenario where the hero and the villain both go home happy.

If you find that you get halfway into your book and forget something that you wanted to write in two chapters back, a simple chapter outline could help you out. This is a particularly useful approach for nonfiction. You might not detail the plot or the character choices, but you could make a chart and throw in events and plot points you want to make sure you include. Outlining this way is more like creating a list of things you want to make sure you don’t forget–it can be sketchy and paraphrased and will probably make sense to only you. You can also use this approach while you’re writing. If you haven’t really created a firm outline before you start, you can fill in the important details as you go and then apply the outline to the finished product to make sure you’ve incorporated all the plot changes and character adjustments you’ve made along the way.

If you find yourself struggling from writer’s block, create a plot outline of all of the events and release yourself from the chronological progression of the story. Outlining the plot gives you multiple points of entry into your work. Since you already know what’s going to happen, you can flesh out the middle of the story first, or you could write the end and work backwards–you’re no longer tied to whatever scene happens to come next. If you find that you’re one of those writers who stalls out a lot, try jumping around in the plot and writing what you feel inspired to write that day. Sometimes, skipping ahead or going back using your outline can lend clarity to the parts you’re stuck on. Taking a non-chronological approach may mean there’s more revision down the road, but there’s something to be said for accomplishing your daily word count, too.

A few other general considerations when creating from and working with an outline:

Before starting your outline, think about whether you focus on character-driven stories or plot-driven stories. When you daydream about your book in your head, do you focus on the cool things that happen or do you think about the fascinating characters that you’ve invented? If you think about the plot points more, a character development outline is probably going to be useless to you. If you currently construct your stories by focusing on character decisions, having detailed outlines of everything that happens to the exclusion of character development may engender more frustration than anything else.

Writing doesn’t always progress directly from outline to finished product. You may have a great outline and a well-developed conflict and start writing only to find out that the story you really wanted to write isn’t matched by the outline. You may discover that a character isn’t who you thought he was or see a deeper interpretation of the plot events that you want to call attention to. Don’t be afraid to go back and re-outline your story or adjust your focus accordingly. You’ve already taken on an obscene amount of work. Might as well go the extra mile to make sure you’re writing the book you want to write.

Give yourself permission to deviate from your outline. I would be shocked to find an author whose finished book was an exact match for their initial outline. A well-worked outline isn’t going to support your story if you stray from it at every turn, but if you have a good reason to change something, you should change it. This doesn’t mean you have to go back and rewrite everything you’ve done up to that point, either. Just make a note of the things you have to change earlier in the story in your outline and make the revisions during the editing process.

And, finally, remember that the outline is a tool, no more and no less. If the outline stops being useful for you at any point during the writing process, don’t be afraid to ditch it or rewrite it. Outlines are only useful when they’re helping you write. If you feel a lot of pressure to perform after writing an outline or feel creatively trapped by the plot you’ve laid out, burn the thing. Fundamentally, it’s about finding a way to write that works for you.

Plus, if you get really stuck, you can always send me an email. :) That’s what I’m here for.

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