The Outline: Friend or Prohibitive Foe?

Let’s talk about outlines for a moment. I used to be outline phobic. I had the misconception that outlines locked me into plans I couldn’t necessarily follow through on. Now, I use outlines in a whole ‘nother way.

Whatever a writer uses to get them through the story is a useful writing technique. Notice how I’m talking about ending the story. Most stories start promising, hit some mud in the middle, and die an ignoble death in the tar pits of fiction. (Some resurface as fossils. Others become word petroleum. Yes, it is true.) We have to persevere and wade through the swampy middle to get to the end. Remember, revision is our friend. We can clean and sharpen.

So (rolls up sleeves) the writer has a first draft. The writer has asked questions, received feedback, and now it’s time to revise.

These days, the first thing I’m likely to do is OUTLINE my story. I go through it, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, and look at the action. There are many ways to do this, some low, some high tech.

1. Recipe cards. After you’ve written the main actions on the card, you can divide them up, shuffle them around, and throw some cards away. You can even notice gaps where you need connections.

2. The spreadsheet. Some people like scenes all in one document.

3. Scrivener (not a paid endorsement). Scrivener is for Macs (similar software is out there for pc). With Scrivener, you can shuffle hi-tech postcards, or you can do what I do, which is pop whole scenes in and out of chapters. I also keep a file for scenes I trim, just in case I decide to throw them back into the story, or reference them later.

I use the outline mainly for plotting. My stories center on character and action. Sometimes I’ll do an outline for a character story arc and write that straight through. If I do several of these, I have a master story outline of several character story arcs. I do have to build interactions among these, and you guessed it, I figure out the best places to do that among the outline.

I am, in the case of the first draft, what they call in the trade, a pantser. As I revise, I am definitely more of a planner, and all the way through, I am intuitive about what feels and sounds right for my characters.

Should we talk about how to get to know your characters? Probably. That’s another topic.

I’d also love to hear how you organize your plot and novel structure as you revise.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

3 thoughts on “The Outline: Friend or Prohibitive Foe?”

  1. I used to feel the way Shannon did about it, but after spending six or seven years on the current novel I’m realizing that since I spend the vast majority of the time re-writing, focusing on the ephemeral one-time only pleasures of the first draft doesn’t make sense for me.

    I was just taught to plot using the file card technique for plot-blocking, and I’m starting to suspect that I’m going to be starting my stories on file cards for at least the foreseeable future…

    The question here is one of depth vs. drive — when you free-write you get depth, when you pre-plot you get drive. The trick is figuring out a mixed approach that will give you the best of both.

  2. Shannon, I don’t know how a story ends, although often I wish I did. I think I could write faster if I were the kind of author who had clearer vision along these lines. This is why I’m a zero drafter, and I revisit plots.

    I do think Sean is right, that a good way to start is to block things out. I know that there are some writers who can do that to good effect and know their story from word go. I doubt I’ll ever be that writer.

    However, the kind of writer I am needs to really see what I have in the rough draft, and the outline does seem to help me get rid of the excess.

    Sean, I too am seeking balance, like a frustrated zen priest who can’t abuse themselves enough.


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