25 Things You Should Know About Outlining

1. Pantser Versus Plotter: The Cage Match

The story goes that most writers are either pantsers (which regrettably has nothing to do with writing sans pants) or plotters (which has nothing to do with plotting the fictional in-narrative demises of those who have offended you). We either jump into the story by the so-called seat of our pants, or we rigorously plot and scheme every detail of the story before we ever pen the first sentence. It’s a bit of a false dichotomy, as many writers fall somewhere in the middle. Even a “pantser” can make use of an outline without still feeling pantsless and fancy-free.

2. No One Outline Style Exists

Remember that classic outline you did in junior high? Roman numerals? Lowercase alphabet? Lists of raw, unrefined tedium? Scrap that shit, robot. Nobody’s telling you to do that outline—unless that outline is what you do. For every writer, an outline style exists. It’s up to you to find which method suits you. (And if you’re looking for options, you can find a host of them right here in 25 Ways To Plot, Plan And Prep Your Story.)

3. Preparation H

Writing a novel, a script, a comic series, a TV show, a video game, a magnum transmedia pornographic opus told over Instagram — well, it’s all rather difficult. Writing a story can feel like a box of overturned ferrets running this way and that, and there you are, trying to wrangle them up while also simultaneously juggling bitey piranha. It’s easy to find the writing of a story quite simply overwhelming. An outline is meant to help you prepare against that inevitability by having the story broken out into its constituent pieces before you begin. It’s no different than, before cooking, laying out all your tools and ingredients (called the mise en place, or simply, “the meez”). Think of an outline as your “meez.”

4. The Confidence Game

Sometimes what kills us is a lack of confidence in our storytelling. We get hip-deep and everything seems to unravel like a ruptured testicle (yes, testicles really do unravel, you’re totally welcome). You suddenly feel like you don’t know where this is going. Plot doesn’t make sense. Characters are running around like sticky-fingered toddlers. The whole narrative is like a 10-car-pileup on the highway. Your story hasn’t proven itself, but an outline serves as the proving grounds. You take the story and break it apart before you even begin — so, by the time you do put the first sentence down, you have confidence in the tale you’re about to tell. Confidence is the writer’s keystone; an outline can lend you that confidence.

5. Stop Building The Parachute On The Way Down

A lack of an outline means you’re burdening yourself with more work than is perhaps necessary. You’re jumping out of the plane and trying to stitch the parachute in mid-air, working furiously so you don’t explode like a blood sausage when you smack into the hard and unforgiving earth. Further, what happens is, you finish the first draft (tens of thousands of words) and what you suddenly find is that this is basically one big outline anyway, because you’re going to have to edit and rewrite the damn thing. An outline tends to save you from the head-exploding bowel-evacuating frustration of having to do that because you’ve already gone through the effort to arrange the story. A little work up front may save you a metric fuckity-ton later on.

6. The Tired (But True!) Map Metaphor

Let’s say you’re taking a trip. You’re driving cross-country to a specific location—a relative’s house, a famous restaurant, Big Dan Don’s Baboon Bondage Barn, whatever. You don’t just wake up, jump in the car, and go. You pack your bags. You get your shit together: food, first-aid, road flares, baboon mask. Then you plan the trip. You get a map. Or you plug the address into the GPS. Finally, you take the trip. Writing a story is like taking a trip. Why not prepare for it?

7. Sometimes, Your GPS Will Steer You Into A Bridge Abutment

Okay, to be fair, sometimes a GPS will have you turn sharply left and crash into an orphanage. The lesson here is that your GPS is not sacred. And neither, as it turns out, is your outline.

8. The Outline Can Be A Pair Of Handcuffs

So, you’re taking this trip. You’re driving across the country. You know you’re supposed to stay on the highway, but holy fuck, the highway is boring. Endless macadam. Hypnotizing guardrails. Blah. Bleagh. Snooze. So, you see an exit ahead for a back road that takes you to Brother Esau’s Amish Muskrat Circus. Ah, but that’s not on your map. Do you drive on past? Stick to the plan? No! You stop! Because Motherfucking Muskrat Circus! Your outline is the same way. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and while you’re writing you’re going to see new things and have new ideas and make crazy connections that are simply not in the outline. Make them. Take the exit! Try new things! Don’t let the outline be a pair of shackles. Unless you’re into that. You’re the one going to the Bondage Barn, not me. Nice baboon mask, by the way.

9. A Good Outline Demands Flexibility

It’s okay to leave room in your outline for things to change. It’s even okay to leave sections of your outline with big blinky question marks and hastily scrawled notes like NO I DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS HERE BUT IT INVOLVES VAMPIRE SEX AND KARATE. An outline must bend with the winds of change, but it must not break.

10. Awooga Awooga Alert Alert

Plot is a twisty motherfucker. It loops around on itself and before you know it, the thing’s crass contortions have left you with plot holes so big you could lose a horse in one. An outline is an excellent tool for hunting down those pesky voids and vacancies early so you can cinch the plot tighter in order for those holes to close up — or, at least, can remain hidden from view. An outline fixes your plot problems before you have 80,000 words of them staring you down.

11. An Architect Should Know How To Swing A Fucking Hammer

Having some understanding of how a story fits together can be helpful when outlining your story. It’s not critical, but grokking the way a story rises and falls and reaches its apex can give you beats and goals to aim toward when outlining. Might I recommend “25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure?” No? TOO BAD DOING IT ANYWAY HA HA HA JERKWEED.

12. Macro To Micro

You can go as big and broad or as tiny and micromanagey as you want when it comes to outlining. Some folks outline just the tentpoles of their fiction—“These five things need to happen for the story to make sense” Others detail every beat of the story—“And then Martha makes a broccoli frittata, summoning the Doom Angels.” Do as you and the story demands.

13. Consider At Least Marking The Major Acts

In film, a story is said to have three acts (though some folks wisely break that second act up into two “sub-acts” bisected by the midpoint of the tale). Generally, most stories conform in some fashion to the three-act-structure, even if only in the loosest way — as such, it’s worth looking at the major acts of your story and giving them each a paragraph just so you have some sense where the larger narrative is going. You’d be amazed at what clarity you bring to a story when you write it out in three paragraphs (Beginning, Middle, and End).

14. Outline As You Go

Not comfortable with doing one big hunka-hunka-burning-outline right at the outset? Ta-da, outline as you go. Boom! Solved it. YOU OWE ME MONEY NOW. Ahem. What I’m trying to say is, every week, outline for the week ahead but no further. This keeps you flexible and still makes it feel that you’ve still got some mystery and majesty ahead of you around the corner of every cliff’s edge. Hell, you could even outline only the next day — stop writing today, outline tomorrow’s writing before you begin. Just to get a base.

15. Sometimes You’re An Outliner And You Don’t Know It

I tried writing one novel, Blackbirds, over the course of several years. And the story just kept wandering around like an old person lost at K-Mart. It felt aimless, formless, like I couldn’t quite get it to make sense, couldn’t get the damn thing to add up and become a proper story. Eventually, while in a mentorship with a screenwriter, he told me to outline it. I said, “HA HA SILLY MAN I AM A NOVELIST WE DO NOT OUTLINE FOR IT WILL THIEVE THE BREATH FROM GOD AND OTHER SUCH POMPOSITIES.” And he said, “No, really, outline.” And I groused and grumbled and kicked the can and punched my locker and finally I sat down and took my medicine. I finished the novel a few short months later and that novel later became my first original novel debut. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity.

16. The Power Of The Re-Outline (And The Re-Re-Outline)

I outline before I write. Then, when it comes time to edit, I re-outline before committing any major rewrites. I do this because things have changed — both in terms of what I wrote and what I’m going to write. I outline the novel I just wrote (the re-outline), then I outline the planned changes (the re-re-outline). It sounds like a lot of work. It takes me less than a day to do it. And it feels like hell to do, but I’m always happy for having done it.

17. See Also: The Retroactive Outline

Some folks never do an outline up front — they let their first draft (or the “zero draft,” as it is sometimes known) be the pukey, sloppy technicolor supergeyser of nonsense and then they take that giant pile of quantum hullaballoo and from it pull a proper outline before attempting to rewrite. This may take you a bit longer but if the result is a story you’re happy with, then holy shit, go forth and do it. Every process you choose should be in service to getting the best story in the way that feels most… well, I was going to say comfortable, but really, comfort is fucking forgettable in the face of great fiction, so let’s go with effective, instead.

18. Most Programs Have Some Kind Of Outline Function

Most writing programs come built with some manner of outlining function — Word’s is pretty barebones but a program like Scrivener has a very robust outline engine built into it, allowing the outline to eventually become the table of contents. You can also look for programs (OmniOutliner, for instance) that handle outlining as its sole (often robust) function. Consider me a big fan of outlining on my iPad with the Index Card app — an app that also syncs up nicely with Scrivener, if that interests you.

19. Some Outlines Are More Expressly Visual

Hey, nobody said an outline had to be all text-on-screen. Maybe you draw mind-maps on a whiteboard. Maybe you string together photos you found on Flickr. Maybe you mark your up-beats and down-beats in the narrative with little smiley faces or frowny faces, respectively. Get crazy. Break out the fingerpaints. The sidewalk chalk. OUTLINE YOUR NOVEL IN THE SCAREDY URINE OF YOUR FOES. Whoa. I mean. What? I didn’t say anything.

20. Help You Unstick A Stuck Story

You’re toodling along on your pantsed story, and everything going fine until one day it isn’t. You’re stuck. Boots in the narrative pigshit. You have some choices. One choice is to sit there in the poopy mire, crying into the fetid muck. The other choice is to backtrack and outline the story you’ve written so far and the story ahead. The value of this approach is that you don’t need to outline at the fore of the draft and maybe you never need to outline — ah, but if you get stuck, the outline makes a mighty tidy lever to get you free.

21. No, Outlining Does Not Steal Your Magic

Writers are beholden to many fancy myths. “The Muse! My characters talk to me! I’d just die if I couldn’t write!” The myth of how an outline robs you of your creative juju is one of them. I don’t want to defeat your magic. I don’t want to suggest that writing and storytelling isn’t magic — because hot damn, it really is, sometimes. The myth isn’t about the magic; the myth is that the magic is so fickle that something so instrumental as an outline will somehow diminish it. If after outlining a story you think the thunder has been stolen and you don’t want to write it anymore, that’s a problem with you or your story, not with the loss of its presumed magic. An outline can never detail everything. It’ll never excise the magic of all the things that go into the actual day-to-day writing. If that magic is gone, either your story didn’t have it in the first place, or you’re looking for excuses not to write the fucking thing.

22. Calm Down, Nobody’s Got A Gun To Your Head

Nobody’s making you outline. Relax.

23. Oops, Except Maybe This Gun Right Here, Click, Boom

Okay, somebody might actually make you outline. I had one publisher who demanded a chapter-by-chapter outline before committing to the project. I’ve also had to hand in outlines for various film or transmedia projects. Someone might actually ask you to outline at some point, and when they do, you probably shouldn’t freak out as if someone just set your cat on fire.

24. It’s One More Tool For The Toolbox

Look at it this way: even if you don’t like outlining and don’t really plan on using it, it’s a skill that’s useful to learn just the same. Not every tool in the toolbox will see constant or even regular use, but it’s still nice to have in store for when the shit hits the fan and you need to ratchetblast the rimjob or maladjust the whangdoodle.

25. Everybody Has A Process, So Find Yours

No one process for planning your story is going to work. What works for me won’t work for you. Hell, what works for one of your stories may not even work for the next. Try things. Explore. Experiment. This isn’t math. It isn’t beholden to an easy equation with a guaranteed output. Find the outline style that suits you. Look at it this way: it’s like eating your vegetables. You might try kale and think it tastes like ursine toilet paper. Or you might try it and think it’s the best thing since bacon underwear. Try the outline. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t.

It only works if you try.


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74 comments

  • One of my favorite ways of outlining/brainstorming is what I call “Q&A” and it’s exactly what it sounds like.

    Pull out a sheet of paper/notebook/stone tablet and a pencil/pen/chisel (brainstorming always works better for me on paper than on screen) and write down a question. It can be any question, as broad or as detailed as you want. For example:

    Q: Why is Jan running?

    Then simply answer that question:

    A: Jan is running because a rabid elephant the size of a T-Rex is chasing her.

    This should cause another question to pop up:

    Q: Where the hell did the rabid elephant the size of a T-Rex come from?
    A: From the Rabid T-Rex Sized Elephant Lab in Oakland.
    Q: Why does this lab even exist?
    A: Because Oakland.

    And so on and so forth. I find I get on a crazy roll with this method and eventually I’m bombarding myself with questions. I find its a good way to get a really rough story structure and a way to avoid major plot holes. It’s almost like you’re playing the part of a really annoying reader who won’t stop asking all the questions you don’t want them to ask. It’s a great time.

    Thanks for the post! I’m in the middle plotting/planning/writing my next big novel idea (let’s see if this one actually pans out…) so this was perfectly timed post for me!

    • That is indeed a nifty idea! I’ll have to give it a try the next time I need to do a bit of outlining. I, too, love brainstorming on paper… or I did before the political-correctness brigade got their hands on it and decided the word “brainstorming” is too controversial. Now I have to “mind-map” or “thought-shower” which just sounds 1) boring, and 2) like cerebral pornography.

      • Please do give it a try and let me know how it goes! It can lead to some hilarious answers. I sometimes start to get really snarky with myself.

        I will never stop using the term brainstorming.

        BRAINSTORMING!
        BRAINSTORMING!

        BRAAAAAAAINNSTORMING!

        (Fuck da police.)

    • Love this – as one prone to wild goose chases, so important to ask why for me.
      Myself, I have done the 3 acts, 3 paragraphs outline, then I do notes on a scene, then I write it.
      It works because it allows me to skip scenes I don’t have a good handle on, write the later one then go back in fill in the piece like a puzzle.

      • That right there is brilliant. I’m stuck in a scene at the end of Part 2. But wow – I could go write later scenes and come back to it. Who knew?

    • Great idea indeed CJ! Must use this for my current project. I also use a blank, white wipe board and create a mind map of plot, characters, and timeline for each of my novels. I find it helps me keep the story on track. And brilliant post as usual Mr Wendig! ;)

      • Oooh, I love white boards. They’re one of the most brilliant inventions in the world. I also like mind maps! It’s such a great way to visualize your whole story. I had an entire wall of my bedroom covered with a giant timeline once! It was epic.

        I hope the Q&A method will help you out a bit! Happy writings!

    • As a brief tangent, “Because Oakland” was an actual valid cause for events in one of my stories, so your example especially speaks to me.

      Also, I’m still trying to learn which bits work better on paper and which on screen, and I think the unstructured explodey bits of writing tend to work better on paper for me as well.

  • thanks for the advice. but as for the pay per view offerings, why marry the cow when you can get the milk for free? (or something like that…)

  • Interesting article! I’ve often been a semi-planner, writing out some rough outlines and letting my characters fill in the gaps themselves. Sort of like having a standard pancake recipe and then gleefully throwing in a bunch of random stuff—Pecan pancakes? Sure! Pecan and chocolate chip maple syrup pancakes flambé? Why not?

    Recently I’ve taken to Scrivener, and I find the visual layout of the corkboard very effective. Dragging stuff around makes me giggle like a toddler on e-numbers fruit-juice. I think now that I’ve found a planning system that suits me I’ll probably plan a little bit more… but I’ll still throw loads of crazy ingredients in there just to see what it tastes like.

    (Pecan and chocolate chip maple syrup pancakes flambé is ™ and © Mr Urban Spaceman, 2013)

  • My cage fight was definitive.The plotter (and her stiff stories) ended up flat on her face…after having her face imprinted with a grill pattern from said cage. I wish I could outline, but for me, even thinking I know what might happen gets me in trouble. The plotter/panster battled through my first four books. I outlined and plotted. I’d wing it here and there. I’d regiment myself to cranking out the outlined story. The result was armored ferrets with magic wands running amok.

    It took me years to realize, but I write best 100% blind. They tell me their names and what they look like once I start. There have been a few occasions where unknown character’s having conversations have erupted into my brain (when my brain has been otherwise occupied – which is always disconcerting). When that happens I get a glimpse of what the story is about and who these characters are, but I still only learn what happens as the story unfolds page by page. For me, the first stage of writing is being in the zone and taking down the story as I see/feel it happen (like watching a movie in 4-D).

    Occasionally Grill-face creeps up off the floor and tries to snatch the wheel, but the story always screeches to a halt and I end up banging my head on my desk until I give in and delete the plotters work.

    This of course means I could never go to a publisher with a proposal. I could only offer a finished story. I can live with that.

    • I’ve tried outlining and its not for me. I write the story, edit, revise, edit rinse and repeat. I do like the idea of asking questions though. I write down my main character’s goal and have that in front of me as I write.

    • I know what you mean. In a way, I write to find out what happens to my characters and my worlds. It’s a journey of discovery as much as it is a method of story-telling. Most of the time I’m not writing to pass along some deep philosophical message which negates a requirement that something absolutely MUST happen to convey said message and make the story relevant. But if I know too far in advance what’s happening, it’s like someone’s spoiled the whole story for me.

      • I totally agree…knowing something must happen is like having a giant squid wrapped around one’s sea diving helmet! Not fun! I know some writers can get away with delivering a decided message (Orwell’s 1984), but I think most of the times an intended message just gets in the way of the story. Ayn Rand’s obsession with her Objectivism is a good example (I love her writing style, but I always skip the clumsy brain washing sections). I think that if the story wants to have a message, it will provide one. I write historical romances so I don’t expect to rival Tolstoy or Sartre (and I don’t) but for some reason my stories turn out to have something to say. My last story has a simple message in the background that goes something like…how small (or big) we feel about ourselves affects everything about our lives; even our ability to see our options. You can’t consider an option you don’t see! I’m happy to leave any message to the story. If I tried to write a book with a message it would end up pretentious cr*p. It’s just as well I’m a pantser!!!

  • My weakness is planning the beginning quite well (usually a one sentence summary for each chapter) and then kind of trailing off. This leads to odd broken middles and loose end of ideas I’ve forgotten about waggling suggestively in the latter half of the story.

    A note on word, for those using it, but unsure of it’s awesome power: In the newer versions of Word the “document map” or “navigation” as it’s called does quite a good job of ordering your stuff (you can drag and drop snippets about, as long as you title them). If you use the heading tools you can nest things into acts easily.

    I do admit the cork board for scrivener is better for planning at long range however.

  • I think I’m number 17 — my first draft is a one huge great outline. This is my brain works as such that I can’t work it all out without *writing* it all out. I can’t figure out the characters until they are actually in that scene, doing their shit. So I work it out during that first draft. For *me* this actually saves time. Because no matter how much I try to outline first, when I come to write the story *that’s* when all the ideas come and I’m 10k into the story and it looks nothing like the outline. It looks better, and all that time I spent outlining? Wasted. So I suppose I outline, it’s just I call it my first draft and I start that with an idea of teh basic sort of characters (Highwaymen, who fight crime!) and idea of the tone I want (fun! Buckling swashes!) and the ending (Explosions!) and go for it. I write my actual outline afterwards, to help me see the structure etc.

    But there, what works for me won’t work for someone else. And it does make things tricky when someone asks me to knock out a proposal of what I’m going to write next…but I can do that too, if I keep it quite broad and know that it will change.

    • Ha, same here! I had to write a synopsis for my third novel whilst I was still working on Book 2, which was a bit tricky, to say the least. Thankfully they accepted a fairly short one (only 500-600 words), most of which was setup and climax – the middle was basically “shit happens here” :)

      I definitely go with the “tentpoles” plus planning ahead in small chunks – not because I’m afraid an outline will kill the story, but as you say, my Muse simply has no truck with a left-brained exercise like outlining. She sulks like a six-year-old unless you give her narrative to play with. Hence my first drafts are very short (maybe half the length of the finished book or so), touching on all the cool ideas that take her fancy without worrying about craft. Then my conscious mind gets to sort out the mess…

      I think it was James Michener that said: “I’m not a good writer, but I’m a very good rewriter”.

  • May 14, 2013 at 8:00 AM // Reply

    Damn you, Wendig. Damn you for making a cohesive argument for outlining.

    I’m a pantser, always have been. Mainly because my outlining skills were lost about five minutes after the test on them back in ’92.

    My editor has begged me to outline. I’ve always told her that I hate outlining because I do, and that outlines don’t work for me. They’ve always felt too restrictive. But something that still gives me the freedom to go to the Amish Muskrat Circus, I could get behind.

    So now I have no excuse not to. And maybe, just goddam maybe, I can get this bloody first draft DONE.

  • I write huge outlines. The one for the current WIP is just under twenty thousand words. It’s essentially a blow-by-blow, scene-by-scene treatment. Kind of like writing a first draft to figure out where the real story is, but about eighty thousand words shorter.

    • How does that work, exactly?

      I wrote about 5-10 page outline, in which I listed what needs to happen, scene by scene – and/or what information needs to be revealed where. I included a few sentences about what different characters would be doing. Not much, if anything, about how they would do it, or the way the action would unfold. Hence, I find myself looking at the outline and realizing that the way I imagined it is NOT how it’s going to work – that the outline as it stands is too vague, not really adequate to answer the questions that need to be answered as I write. I don’t want to have to figure it out as I go along – I want to know.

      When you do an outline or treatment of that length, is it your intention to just continue to build from inside the outline until it turns into a book?

  • I’m a weird combination. I outline, sort of, in that I plan out the bare-bones detail of the plot first. (Mary discovers that there are sentient platypi in the chalk tunnels under her city! And Oh No! They are planning to take over the world! So Mary, her girlfriend and some of their friends go in to stop them. They murder lots of Platypi and at the end have a major balls-out brawl with the head platypi) but the first draft itself is often the true outline.

    My current WIP had an outline and veered sharply left somewhere around 12k. The rewrite (I just finished the first draft) is going to have to make that first 12k agree with the rest of the story, add connective details and coherency.

    But you’re right, Chuck, everyone has their own process and you have to find out what it is. You can’t find that out till you try things out. I tried writing an outlined story, and found that my brain doesn’t work that way, but also my brain gets stuck with just pure pantsing.

  • I’ve always considered myself a pantser, but I think in reality I’m an outliner who just tries to keep everything in my head. I suppose I fear having to make the choice when it’s about to go off the rails of abandoning the work I put into the outline, or ignoring a possibly awesome development.

    The novel I’m currently kicking around in my head may need an outline, because it’s not really as clear-cut as a lot of the other stuff I write. Rather than going for a whole outline, I think I’m going to go through each of the characters and make note of their ultimate goal, their allies, their enemies, their influence, etc. Then when I turn them loose to bounce off each other and meddle and manipulate events, it should hopefully be a little easier to navigate without having to plan each backstab in advance.

  • I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity.

    AMEN, PREACH IT BROTHER!

    My process involves charging into mire until the gloopiness means I can go no further. Then I pull everything apart, figure out a (rough) plan and start over. Kinda like emptying your knicker drawer out before organising it.

  • I taped together like six sheets of paper and made an outline on it for my current WIP. The story kept surprising me (and making itself better!) as I wrote it, so I’d go back and change the outline. Right now it’s an unholy mess but I plan better by hand – I use Scrivener to write, but I can’t seem to get into step with the corkboard feature.

    I check the outline occasionally, but I knew the chunks of “these things need to happen” when I started, and I do the next day’s “this is what happens, don’t forget” when I finish the current day’s writing. So I’m kind of…a hodgepodge of many of these points?

    I’ve never finished a novel length draft before but I have the creeping feeling that the draft will be a lump of steaming what the fuck that I’ll then wrangle into proper novel-shape. Sounds like fun ;)

  • I find the classic outline form to be stifling but Chuck’s previous post on outlining introduced me to the concept of bubble mapping (I forgot the official name, Chuck) where you draw circles for your important events/characters and connect them to critical events/actors/actions. Really, really helped me find holes and weaknesses in my story. If you’re a die-hard pantser, this method may help you, too. Chuck, I am now taken with the thought of naming a band either Muskrat Circus or the Maladjusted Whangdoodles.

  • May 14, 2013 at 12:18 PM // Reply

    I usually have a rough outline rattling around in shit laden shredded news paper that is my working mind. From there I write my story and at around 40 or 50 thousand words I do a mid story outline to make sure my story is going the way I want it to. I also do it to make myself come up with questions and more ideas to add to the story or fill in any plot holes. This makes me feel confident that my mind isn’t laden with shit, but rather a nice polished supercomputer with a red eye to see the world through.

  • Over 5-7 years, working just periodically, I wrote about 80K words of meandering yet intriguing crap. It took me that long to figure out what I was writing about.

    Then I learned how to outline. Took me 12 hours to complete an outline. Now I don’t have to worry about where the story is going. I have a scene-by-scene plan using a 4 part structure. That is liberating.

    But I still get hung up when I get in there and I realize that my “plan” doesn’t address logistical problems that need to be solved before I can write the scene. Obstacles are easy to imagine. Solutions…not so much.

    In conclusion….this shit is difficult. Kudos to anyone who finishes writing a novel, even if it never gets published. To just do it is a major fucking accomplishment.

  • Still very much learning this myself, currently in second draft of first novel. But I have already learned the importance, for me, of outlining. I did a simple outline before I started – one para per scene – and it mostly looked ok. But there was an important looking section (in the general vicinity of the climax) where my outline basically said “at this point something interesting happens.” I couldn’t fill this in, but rather than hang around I decided to start writing anyway, in the hope that a pantser-based miracle would occur when I got to the relevant place.

    It didn’t.

    I wrote some real rubbish for that section, and although it got me to the satisfying milestone of a complete first draft, it’s taken me months to rework around this problem that I should have solved properly in the first place. Even now the jury is still out as to whether my latest attempt at fixing the outline will be successful.

    The moral, for me at least, is that there are some elements of the outline that I really must, must, not set off without.

  • May 14, 2013 at 4:22 PM // Reply

    26 – Outlining Will Help You Weed Out Bad Ideas – Before you make a major time commitment to a project, might I add? It’s what ultimately got me to embrace the idea of doing something ahead of the rough draft rather than chasing my tail for weeks/months through a first (or second) draft to end up frustrated when the original idea just wasn’t big enough to fit a novel in the first place.

    Plus, you know, you don’t have to marry one outline style. Tent pole will work for one book. Then maybe the next one needs a mind map. And yet still another will call for a notebook of coded notes accompanied by doodles of erotic elf art only you can decipher the meaning of. So even a method that might not work the first time won’t automatically never work by default. It’s why the tool box analogy is so apt. You wouldn’t use a hammer to fix your toilet (well, maybe …) but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one handy for when you need to patch the deck.

    Or something. Man, I feel a real need to buy a tool belt now.

  • I’m a hybrid pantser. Stories drop into my head lock, stock, and barrel. To keep things straight I put some stuff on 3X5 cards: a bit of dialog, a scene, character descript, first line, middle scene, end line; then I run with it. Right now I’m trying to catch up after having been out of any creative writing for a while and in the studying-catching up got wind of outlining. I started fooling with it and so far have only managed to completely screw up a WIP which might end up RIP and now my Muse is on strike. I’m in it for the long haul though so I put the novel aside and am reading Story Engineering and blogs of people I respect (if i can figure out where their first post is, ahem, chuck, help on that, please?) and trying to figure out what comes next in this bright new world. Love the idea of the Q&A, that can shake some serious shit loose.

    PS Didn’t Captain and Tennille have a song about Muskrat Circuses?

  • My finished one wandered about at like a drunkard on the last night of Oktoberfest but after an embarrassing amount of editing it ended up turning out all right. The one I’m on now involves a character from the first one and an entirely different set of research topics, but because it’s a prequel I know what he has to do to get *there* from *here*. I tried Scrivener but found it too distracting; Word and Excel (for outlining) work much better for me. Both of these stories use parallel plot arcs (’cause why do anything easy?) so I’m not sure how much good a traditional outline would be anyway.

  • Love this. What’s also fun is to ask your characters and just let them tell you. Only downside of that is sometimes they can lie or be mistaken based on their own limited knowledge. Still cool though.

  • I am at #20, however, #14 is what I’ve had to resort to. And I plan to apply CJ’s advice when I get off work in the morning (graveyard shift with donuts) I’ve read plenty of sites that have questionnaires and such that they say you “should” ask but I always end up not being able to answer about 3/4th of them because they don’t pertain to MY story. Thanks to you both!

  • I tried outlining once and it drove me to distraction. And then I attended a workshop on how to go to an outline and stick with it… and that drove me nuts even worse. So, I’d go in with a rough idea of what I wanted the story to do, plopped down my characters and then, watched them and said, “Well, show me how you’re gonna get from here to there.” They’d look back at me as though I was insane, but went about the task and took me on the big roller coaster ride called my books. :D

  • I’m typically a pantster, but I’ve gotten stuck on my current project. I’ve spent a lot of time building up three protagonists over the course of 95,000 words, but their individual stories have all gotten tied up in knots. So my plan is to go back and outline individual arcs for each of them separately, even though their stories intersect. I feel like I spent a lot of time making all their stories fit together and ended up neglecting their individual arcs.

  • I finally got to a point where I had to make friends with the outline or just give up the idea of ever finishing any of my projects. When I was 11 I had my first gran mal seizure and was forced to accept the idea that I’d developed a case of epilepsy that could only be barely treated, but never cured. After the beating my brain has taken from more than two decades of gran mal seizures since then, I’ve developed some minor but unusual and frustrating handicaps in the areas of memory and focus.

    So now I outline the shit out of everything; the whole, the pieces, the pieces of pieces. I have fridge magnets I assign to the pieces to help me experiment with their placement and pace. By the time I finish with all the outlining, my project is little more than a coloring book and I just start picking out my crayons. I know how it sounds, but it’s still plenty flexible. It also helps me a lot if I write my outlines as if I’m having a beer with my brother and I’m telling him about “this great idea I have for a book.” It makes them more casual and friendly and I never feel like my outline is shaking a finger at me and telling me I’m gonna get a whippin’ if I kill off a character a little earlier than I’d planned.

    I really liked item 19. Visual cues are very important. I have a set of fridge magnets that I assign to the story’s milestones and some of the yardlines between them. This gives me a much wider angle and clearer image when experimenting with the placement of all those bits.

    At first the outline felt a lot like an obnoxious know-it-all that wouldn’t stop yapping at me from the back seat when I was trying to drive. Now we’re the best of friends. Maybe even lovers?

  • Holy shit, did I mention my fridge magnets twice? You see? That’s what I was talking about. Handicaps in the areas of memory and focus. I knew I should’ve outlined that blog comment before writing it.

  • I am of the school of #4–confidence game. My current book is a mystery, so yeah, the mystery structure is linear, but I feel I can write scenes in like “out-of-control mine cart” and move that if I need to. And I can sit down and enjoy my daily planned bursts of writing without going “Hmm, this is fun, but where is it all going?” the terror of which killed several works of mine before I finished them. I think of subplot scenes as “index cards” that can be repurposed or moved if needed. Even some plot points can be scooched slightly from chapter to chapter. Perhaps some fact about what the evidence reveals changes, but the scene still happens at the pickle factory, and an outline helps me keep track of that.

    I am probably 75% outline and the rest pants. Yes, they go to the moon, thank you outline, but the drafting part is where I make it exciting based on how much sleep I’ve gotten/booze units consumed. “They go to the moon inside a SPACE WHALE while in danger of mutating into end tables!!”

    I think the most important thing for me, especially as I am nearing the end of my first draft, is that If something is nagging at me in the story structure and doesn’t add up, it’s hard for me to do my a.m. daily word blah without fixing it. But outlining can be a procrastination tool on its own, so I have to make sure I give set time to both. Morning is creative word blah time, zzzz afternoons stuck in boring meetings is spank the outline til it makes sense again time. Apparently it accesses different parts of my brain to word dump ideas vs. creating prose.

  • I usually start with the opening line and a vague idea of what the story is, then I outline in detail the first scene or two, and outline in a general way what happens after that, using this little three-act/writer’s journey structure thing I put together for Freemind. Then I outline as I go. And I ain’t paying you anything for the idea. I must say, though, that your writing, at least so far as this blog is concerned, is one of the least boring series of words I have ever read. I even subscribed, and I don’t fucking subscribe to jack, except once I subscribed to Esquire magazine because it looked cool, and was. But now I live in Italy and don’t really want no more magazines piling up.

  • I used to pants for years, before eventually concluding it just wasn’t getting my WIP finished (or really improving it) but just mucking it about like a warhorse fetlock-deep in gore, to rip off Shakespeare. Learning about plot structure and the outlining the novel before starting another rewrite was the way to go to get the draft into the right shape and the right length.
    The metaphor of pantsing a novel as stitching your parachute on the way down is dead-on.
    I suppose one day I will have internalized everything about writing a novel that I won’t have to outline — but I doubt it. I do it now even for short stories, and man, not only does it expose the plot holes (and my own personal plot clichés!) before I even write a first draft, but I also get the stories into submittable shape much, much faster.
    I don’t think outlining limits your choices as a writer so much as it helps you see which of your options is the best one for your story — with better options (ruling out the crap tangents), you can make stronger choices and write a better story.

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