Today, I’m happy to have my friend Hope on the blog, talking about outlining. Is it something you like, or you hate? I only recently became a lover of outlining myself, and I loved reading Hope’s thoughts on the subject.
Outline gets a bad rap sometimes. There are writers who just want to write and feel the story flow out. They don’t want to take the time to outline a story before getting to work. Now, to be fair, there are a few authors I’ve heard of who will sit down and write whole trilogies without knowing the end. But normally, I am an advocate of outlining.
For starters, outlining means less going back and rewriting later on when something changes halfway through your story. Secondly, how are you to get to the end if you don’t know where you are going? Outlining doesn’t mean you have every single detail figured out. It does mean you know the end of your arcs and where your character is trying to go and if he gets there. Having an outline doesn’t give you the excuse of abandoning project after project halfway through because you don’t know where they are going. Once you know, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get there.
On to outlining. There are two things to realize from the beginning.
Firstly, like writing, outlining can be done many ways. While I can show you how I outline, that doesn’t mean you need you need to do it the exact way I do it. Secondly, an outline is a guideline. No matter how detailed you get while outlining your book, it’s likely things will change as you write. New characters appear, a scene flows better from a different pov, a character decides he wants to fight instead of simply dying. That’s fine. Go with it. An outline can change. It’s a map to help you get to the end, but the path (or even the destination) might change depending on what you discover along the way.
So how does one outline? For me, it came naturally. I just always have outlined. I like lists and having everything planned out. But there is a basic structure I follow.
Figure out the main points of your plot first. What is your characteristic scene and inciting incident? What are your first, second, and third plot points and where does everyone end up? Match these with your character and theme arcs. This, for me, will be very rough and sometimes only a paragraph or two. Something along the lines of: X wants to start war; kills Y; makes it seem like Z is responsible. Z has to work with enemy to figure out truth; ends up giving life to save enemy. That’s a very basic, rough outline—one someone not writing the story would have a hard time following. I don’t worry about grammar; I don’t even worry about names sometimes, so long as I know the main characters, the plot points, and the end.
Then I go more in depth. Who are these characters? Why does X want to start the war? How does Z work with the enemy? Some of this is backstory, which I like to know so I know where everyone is coming from, even if what happened 10 years ago doesn’t appear in the story. Other parts fill out sections of the beginning and middle.
Once you figure out where everyone is coming from, you can better figure out how to make them go where you want. What sort of things can they do and will they do? This is where you figure out the main details. How does X kill Y? How does this start a chain reaction? What happens next? Depending on the length of the work, I’ll do this in one or two or sometimes even three stages, each one getting more detailed than the last.
Eventually I’ll split my story into chapters, even if I don’t always stick with the chapter organization later on. By the time I have a chapter outlined, it will look something like this: X poisons apple and slips it into Z’s basket. Z out in market. Gives apple to Y as gift. Conversation that builds in backstory. Z leaves and is almost gone when he hears uproar and turns back to find Y dead and a bite out of apple. I still figure out conversation and such as I write, but I have the basics in place.
The most important thing to remember is that outlines will change as you write them and that it’s fine for them to change. But once you have an outline, you know where you are going and you’re able to point the whole story toward a single goal. This means less revising and frustration later and will be a prompt to keep you moving because you can see how you are approaching the end instead of drowning in a muddled mess you can’t make sense of. Do the hard part of planning before you start writing. You’ll be grateful for it later on.
Thanks for stopping by, Hope!
Hope Ann is a Christian wordsmith, avid reader, and dedicated author. Her time is taken up with writing, reading, playing with inspirational photos, blogging, helping care for the house and eight younger siblings, and generally enjoying the adventures of life on a small farm at the crossroads of America. She is the author of Legends of Light is currently working on several projects including a fantasy novel and futuristic trilogy. You can find out more about her at https://authorhopeann.com/