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.