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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79 comments

  • 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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