To Outline or Not To Outline by Rebecca Talley

Writers are not only passionate about their writing, but many are just as passionate about whether or not to outline.

There are as many reasons to outline as to not outline. And, there are as many outlining techniques as there are writers. You have to ask yourself if you are an outline writer or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. No one can tell you what kind of writer you are, you have to make that decision yourself.

Some writers feel that using an outline curtails their creativity and boxes them into writing the story a certain way. Other writers feel that an outline allows them to be more creative because they’ve already made sure the storyline fits together. Then there are the writers who do a bit of both, they have a general outline but allow themselves freedom to explore other plot lines as they write.

It doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are, only that you use a system that allows you to make the most of your creativity.

Perhaps, the word outline conjures up memories of high school or college classes that required the Roman Numeral way of outlining. While that is certainly one way to outline, it’s definitely not the only way.

One way to outline is to write a narrative synopsis of the story and then write a few sentences for each chapter. You can then see your story as a whole as well as picture what will be included in each chapter.

Another way is to outline each scene within the chapter. You can write down the scene goal, the obstacles faced in the scene, and the ending disaster for that particular scene.

You can use notecards and write a synopsis on each card for each scene. This allows you the ability to move around scenes and chapters.

Some writers use a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft’s Excel and write a sentence for each scene on each row. You can also include what characters are in that particular scene. This method allows you to not only move scenes around, but you can also save your original outline if you need to go back.

Another way to outline is to use a notebook and dedicate each page in the notebook to each chapter. You can write a few sentences to describe what happens in that chapter, which characters are involved, notes about the scenes, questions you need to answer, and specific details you want to include.

Something that’s been useful to me is writing a one-sentence description of my story. I keep that sentence close by to keep me on target as I write. I go back to that sentence over and over again.

The most important aspect is to use what works best for you. You can even combine some of these suggestions to create your own outlining system. Don’t feel like you have to stick with one system throughout your writing. Experiment to find what works best.

Rebecca Talley grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. She now lives in rural CO on a small ranch with a dog, a spoiled horse, too many cats, and a herd of goats. She and her husband, Del, are the proud parents of ten multi-talented and wildly-creative children. Rebecca is the author of a children's picture book "Grasshopper Pie" (WindRiver 2003), three novels, "Heaven Scent" (CFI 2008), "Altared Plans" (CFI 2009), and "The Upside of Down" (CFI 2011), and numerous magazine stories and articles. You can visit her blog at www.rebeccatalleywrites.blogspot.com.


Michael D. Young said...

Great post. I personally am a 'hybrid' outliner where I need to make 'fenceposts' of the big events and then fill the space in between as I go.

Katie Parker said...

I generally try to make an outline, get stumped somewhere in the middle, start writing anyway, and then end up with something different than what I expected.

Great post, Rebecca!

Betsy Love said...

I'm a pantser! I outlined one story and by the beginning of chapter 2 my story took a complete twist and I had to throw the outline out. I don't know if this happens to others, but sometimes my characters rebel, take control and know exactly where the story should go sometimes.

Michelle said...

When I have a great idea for a book, I write as fast and furiously as possible while 'genius burns' I have synergy sessions with my family and turn on my digital recorder and talk about the novel ideas/characters as well. That way, you aren't limited and the energy can flow - and engage the family in what you do. It also helps them with their creative/critical thinking skills. I love being an author!