Wednesday, August 10, 2011

To outline or not to outline?

So while I was in New York a few weeks ago, my BFF Kita and I spent a day wandering through Central Park. For those of you who haven't been there, Central Park is HUGE. That, coupled with my directionally challenged-ness (yes, I did just invent a word), made for a rather interesting adventure involving a fountain, iced strawberry lemonade, and random dancing roller-skaters.

(A photograph, in which we appear deceptively calm and un-lost)

My inner-control freak started spazzing out when I realized we didn't know how to get where we wanted to go. I'm the kind of person who needs a map. Directions. Something reliable, so I know I won't be stuck wandering around in Manhattan for the next forty years. Kita, on the other hand, seemed content to just start walking. She placated my anxiety-induced freakout (she's used to them by now), and we ended up finding our way back to the hotel without dying/falling in the lake/peeing in the bushes due to lack of proper facilities.

Our brief period of Central Park shenanigans got me thinking about outlines. Kita writes her own stories, and she works entirely by the seat of her pants (pantsers, as they are commonly referred to). I, on the other hand, am an outliner. Unlike Kita, I need to know where I'm going and exactly how to get there. I usually write out a chapter-by-chapter summary of the entire story before I even start the first sentence.

In all honesty I think most writers are outliners. Some of us outline more extensively, while others map out basic plot points/character arcs. Many writers object to the use of outlines because they feel it inhibits their creative abilities. Therefore, I've compiled a few tips for outlining, which have helped me personally when writing books.

~Go chapter-by-chapter. Make sure every chapter and scene has a purpose, whether it's furthering the plot or developing character traits.
~Map out each individual character arc, noting key transformative points.
~Identify your book's beginning, climax, and end, then work from there.
~Try to merge plot with character development....create a plot that provides an organic vehicle for character growth.
~Don't be afraid to make changes! This is why I don't outline too extensively....a paragraph describing each chapter provides the backbone of the story, but gives me leeway to make changes as the story develops. An outline is a guide, not a completed product. Just as a book changes from rough draft to final draft, it will most likely change from outline to manuscript.
~Take a few weeks to let the story stew in your head before writing it all down. This can help you work out plot kinks before you even put pen to (metaphorical, if you're using a computer) paper.
~If you run into problems, brainstorm with trusted writer friends.
~Outlines are great for preventing writer's block. I used to work without them, and my stories meandered in random directions with dropped subplots and characters. I'm not saying you can't write without an outline (I know people who can), but for many writers, outlines provide much-needed support when your muse takes an unexpected vacation.

So what about all of you? Do you outline? Are your summaries extensive, or are they merely brief descriptions of major plot points?

Hope everyone's having a wonderful week!


  1. Yeah I outline and it can get quite harrowing at times.

  2. I'm more of a rambler, I don't outline. I start with a basic idea or scene and my book starts from there. Outlining scares me, quite frankly.

  3. I outline the same way and swear by it. However, I don't outline the whole story. I usually outline the first six chapters, write, then see where the story is going and outline another few chapters, and so on. This allows the story to grow organically, but still have a road map in the end.

  4. I love the way you compared your two styles with how you felt getting lost!

    I am an outliner. They start out more general, and get much more specific as I go.

  5. You know I always say I don't outline, but I do a lot of pre-writing and I do have a lot of the major plot points worked out before I start writing. So guess I'm not a complete pantser.

    Very good post!

  6. I don't understand pantsers either! I think they secretly have a map in their head, they're just being coy about it. :P Haha just kidding. I'm sure everyone has their own writing process that works for them, whether pantsing or outlining. Personally, I feel so much better when I have a general outline mapped out. Right now I have lots of points -- beginning (ish), a couple plot points in the middle, dark moment, climax... but I'm not sure how to connect them. Time to brainstorm some more! Thanks for the tips. :)

  7. I don't outline. It DRIVES ME CRAZY when a teacher insists we outline our essays or stories before we begin working on them. See, I'll come up with an idea, outline the story so that my teacher doesn't kill me, and then...half way through the story come up with a completely different (and much better) story-line. I feel bound to my outline(and I don't have time to erase and re-write all the "leading up" I've been doing), so I feel awkward changing the storyline right then and there. Still, I'll admit I start out with a basic idea of where I'm going with my story. I know my characters and what they want...but how the GET what they want--well, I let the words tell me that. I let a story just take me wherever it wants to go--deciding half-way through that a character will die or their "friend" is an enemy--discovering it at the same time the characters do. It's more fun that way!