Outlining: The Good, the Bad, and the Helpful

I used to hate brainstorming. Do you remember those days in elementary school when the teacher would set aside time in the day for you to create Venn diagrams and outlines and idea trees? I despised those days. I couldn’t understand why people needed to do that or how it helped them. If the teacher wanted a report about whales, that’s what I would give them. Who needed planning?

This attitude followed me through most of my academic life. I didn’t outline for papers or creative projects, and my planning involved research or locating sources and little else. But then my papers began to become more complex, and I was forced to pull from a wider variety of references. Suddenly, I needed something to keep me focused, to keep my mind off the tangential paths my thought process was prone to—I began to outline.

At first, these outlines were incredibly minimalistic things that simply helped me keep the sources and main points of the paper in some kind of order, but, eventually, they included quotes I wanted to use, example, topic sentences, and, occasionally, entire paragraphs.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s great, but what does all that have to do with fiction?”


How much more complex is a story than a research paper? Stories have characters, plots, sub-plots, histories, scenes, settings…basically, everything and anything you can think of. Keeping everything straight can be a chore, especially if you’re working on more than one story at once. Outlines can help you keep from losing track of both your story and your mind.

Some people believe that outlining takes the spontaneity and creativity out of writing, but that’s not at all the case. How, except with an outline, do people expect writers to keep track of the main plot (or main plots, in some cases) and characters while simultaneously weaving in references to minor characters and subplots? For most people, trying to do this spontaneously results in either a confusing mess or the complete inability to finish the story (or, at least, it does for me. If you’ve found some genius spontaneous method, let me know!)

Bad news first: outlining is hard work and (usually_ only works if you know your characvters really well. Why? Because you have to be able to predict or anticipate what your character’s natural reaction to a situation would be without seeing it in a scene. A lot of time could be wasted if you don’t know or misjudge your characters, especially in crucial scenes. But getting into your character’s head is a whole other entry (coming soon, promise!).

So, assuming you know your characters and you have an idea of where you want the book to end, how do you actually go about outlining? That is, thankfully, up to you. Here are a few possibilities:

Outlining by Chapter

1. The Beginning
    a. Mary-Sue is on her way to work when someone crashes into her.
    b. Joe Schmo, the driver of the other car, apologizes
    c. Mary-Sue cries over her wrecked car
    d. Joe offers her a ride to work—his truck is fine.
2. The Chat
    a. Mary-Sue and Joe talk on the drive
    b. Mary-Sue realizes that Joe is her long-lost brother
    c. Mary-Sue decides not to say anything in case she’s wrong
    d. Joe drops her off at work and gives her his phone number.

Outlining by Event

I. Accident: While on her way to work, Mary-Sue is bumped into the guardrail by a truck. She is okay but her car is totaled.
II. Aftermath: After the cops say they can go and her car is towed, Joe Schmo offers her a ride to work.
III. Coincidence: As they talk, Mary-Sue realizes Joe is her long-lost brother
IV. Goodbye: Joe giver her his number when he drops her off at work.

Outlining by Idea

I. Mary-Sue gets in an accident.
II. The guy who hit her is her long-lost brother.
III. She realizes this, but doesn’t say anything.
IV. Joe Schmo drops her off at work.

These are just three choices, but there are a myriad of other possibilities. Outlines can be detailed or vague. They can be broken by chapter or not. Exactly how you format your outline is up to you (personally, I use the Chapter method).

One last thing that is very important to keep in mind is that, until the book is published, nothing is set in stone. Just because it’s on the outline doesn’t mean it has to happen in that specific spot, or at all. If, while you’re writing, the story veers off in an unexpected direction, go with it! If it doesn’t work out, you always have that old outline to fall back on.

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