When TO Use an Outline

To use an outline or not to use an outline? Which should it be? All your life you’ve heard both arguments but no real direction, so you can’t decide. Let’s discuss two terms you may hear: plotters and pansters.

Plotters: writers who outline, structure, and plot out their story before writing the actual story.

Pansters: writers who have an overarching idea for the story, a general idea where it’s going and how to get there, but they don’t outline it.

Is one way right and the other way wrong? No. Truth be told, a lot of writers switch between the two. For instance, normally I consider myself a ‘plotter’, but with the book I am currently writing, I’m a panster, but before we discuss being a panster and not outlining, let’s explore reasons why outlines are valuable to a writer.

Outlines are like the roadmap to your stories. If you are serious about publishing work, and you don’t want to get Writer’s Block, consider using an outline. Here are some uses it achieves:

1) You get familiar with the story and characters before writing the actual story.

2) It shows you what your story has the potential to look like.

3) It helps you establish goals.

4) It’s a guideline when you don’t feel motivated to write but know you have to.

5) It also helps so you don’t forget the story if you can’t write it right away.

When you write an outline before writing the story, you get familiar with the characters. They get into your head and start conversing with you. The more familiar you are with the characters, the easier you can determine whether or not you want to spend the next several months and years breathing life into them and then chasing them all over the globe. You might have a cool idea for a character, but no story to attach to them. Using an outline helps you explore possibilities for that character and see if the story develops on its own. If it doesn’t, then you’ve saved yourself some time because where the outline ends is where you would have hit Writer’s Block.

An outline draws you a picture of what your story may look like. I say ‘may’ because sometimes the characters become so real they don’t stick to the outline. This is all right because the outline is a guide to help you until the characters take over. It’s like looking at a picture or watching a video of someone you’ve never met. You get an idea of what they look like and how they act, but it isn’t until you actually meet them that you can determine if your assessment of them was accurate or not.

Points 3 (it helps you establish goals) and 4 (it’s a guideline when you don’t feel motivated to write but know you have to) work together. You establish goals such as writing one scene a day or getting to a certain point in your story by the end of the week. Some days you won’t want to write—might have a fever or simply no will to write—and having an outline keeps you on track. It shows you, “If you just write this scene right now, you’ll be able to finish on time. If you wait until later, the scene will still be there. It won’t write itself, but you would have lost that time.” So you plow through it, and while you’re pushing through Writer’s Block, you overcome it and rediscover something enjoyable about your writing.

Outlines are useful if you have an overly active imagination and hundreds of characters just clambering for attention, but you can only write one (or two or three if you’re very dedicated) story at a time. However, you know from much personal experience the dreaded human habit we all have of forgetting. If you’re in the middle of a huge writing project and suddenly you get a fantastic idea for another story, if you don’t write it down, you will forget it. It’s better to pause the project, outline the other story, and then return to the original project. This accomplishes two things. First, it helps you remember the details of the story, and secondly, it gives the story time to develop and for you to decide whether or not you really want to invest time and energy to write it. Sometimes you may never write the story you outlined, but it’s reassuring to know if you ever find yourself without anything to write, all you need to do is look back in the file of Outlines and pull out something you haven’t written yet.

Outlines are also very important when co-writing because otherwise, you may never finish the story. Not only that, but if you hit a snag in the story or find you really hate one character, you can backtrack and then change a response and resume writing. This happened to me once when I was co-writing with a friend. We had the entire story outlined. I had a character who was disturbed, complicated, compulsive, and simply annoying. I didn’t like my own character, and finally my friend texted me asking if we could kill the character. We were at 60,000 words (that’s over a hundred pages) in the story. However, this character was very important, so a death wasn’t that simple. We decided to find the one point in the story that turned her character into who she became—it was a simple author fault because we forced her to act out of character, so she was pitching a fit the rest of the way. Finding that turning point, we went from 60,000 words back to 27,000 words and rewrote the entire story—but we stayed on the outline and completed the story. As an ironic note on that story, by the time we reached the same scene where we stopped in order to backtrack, we were already back at 60,000 words. In other words, out backtrack experience may have cost us some time, but it did not cost us words.

Word of Caution: There is a danger of outlining TOO much. You may be the kind of person who must know every little detail of every character, every scene, and everything, and that’s okay. However, stories are organic. This means they grow and morph as they will—whether or not you want it to. You may try to put them in a box and force them to stay there, but the story may fight you—often manifesting as Writer’s Block. Previously, I discussed Static Authors and Interactive Authors, and if you insist on sticking to an outline regardless of the will of the story, you may find yourself veering more toward being a Static Author. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if you find yourself always struggling to write and tired when it comes to putting words on paper, you might want to consider the fact you need to step off your outline and trust the story. You might be surprised. The story could very well lead you right back to the outline and end up exactly where you had planned for it to go—just not how you had planned it. Or it could end up in an entirely different than what you plotted out, but to be honest, when that happens, it’s usually better than anything you could have ever planned.

Is an outlined a fixed object?” No. Consider it more like the skeletal structure newborn. The bones of a baby are not solid like an adult, but as the child grows, the bones strengthen and calcify. The entire skeleton is there. If you look at an x-ray of a baby, you’ll see the skeleton of a human being. It’s different because it’s immature, but it is still human, and the baby will develop her unique features and personality given time. Outlines are similar in the fact that they are the immature skeleton of the untested story. As you, the author, gets more familiar with the characters, settings, and conflicts, the story’s personality begins to take shape.

I will go into more detail of stepping off the outline, but next week we will first discuss reasons not to use an outline. For some people, outlining just doesn’t work for them, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

See you then!

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One comment on “When TO Use an Outline

  1. […] 27: When TO Use an Outline – Outlining isn’t for every writer, so there is a time to outline and a time not to use an […]

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