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So today’s post has a bit of a slightly embarrassing story behind it. I hang out in a few writing spheres online, sometimes lurking, sometimes posting, and the other day a discussion got started about how to outline. Now, usually when a post like this starts and someone is digging for some detailed info I’ll mosey on over to the search bar here on the sight, type in the subject, and drop anywhere from one to three posts on the subject. Want detail? Here you go!
Except when I did that for outlines … I came back empty.
Yeah. There are posts discussing outlines here on the site, but they’re always an angle, like “don’t get bogged down doing outlines” or “Outline or pantsing?”
Nothing. At all. On just a basic outline.
Sands and storms, talk about an oversight. Because almost every writer uses an outline at some point. Hence the question that led to the discover in the first place. So today we’re going to talk about one of the most basic concepts of writing a story of any kind. We’re going to discuss the humble outline. And guess what?
It’s easier than you think.
All right, now I already know what sort of questions are running through the mind of many young writers out there, because I’ve heard them asked at panels and classes on writing. Many wonder what “format” is appropriate for an outline. What sort of bulleting they should follow when making it.
Ignore all that. If you’ve got one of those questions in your mind, shove it out now. I know that to some of you that may seem like a horrifying move, but trust me. Take all that and just shove it to one side. This isn’t a high-school English class where your outline must follow the latest faux-APA format your English teacher invented. This is the real world. That thing America’s education system doesn’t resemble.
Instead, I want you to think of a map. That’s right, a map. It can be any map, but preferably of a place you’d like to visit. It can be Route 66. Disney World. Legoland. Cambodia. London. The Galapogos. Whatever. But a place that you’d like to go visit. Sands, if it really helps, pull up a map of the same.
Got it? Okay. Now, imagine you have one week to spend exploring this location. Country, city, doesn’t matter. Initial travel to and from outside of this equation doesn’t include the seven days and isn’t your problem (you’ve been handed round-trip tickets).
So, how would you go about exploring this place you want to see with the seven days available to you? Where would you go on day one? Day two? Day three? Where would you stay? What kind of activities would you want to do?
Got all that figured out, even in your head? Congratulations! You’ve just created an outline!
See, all an outline is for a story is a roadmap of where you plan to go over the course of the adventure. It’s not the adventure, just a general set of guideposts of where you want to go, what you want to see, activities to do, etc.
And that’s it. That’s a fully functional outline! The only difference between the map of where you’d want to vacation and your story is that the activities and “destinations” might be a bit different, perhaps even metaphysical places.
For example, if you were writing a romance, the “destinations” along the journey may be things like “X meets Y at party,” “X and Y share a heartfelt moment,” “X and Y kiss for the first time,” etc etc.
Or if you were writing a buddy-comedy travelogue, it might be more like “X and Y meet at the bus stop in Cincinnati,” “X and Y share an Uber that turns out to not be an Uber.” “X and Y are now in possession of state secrets,” etc.
Again, this is all an outline needs to be: Signposts. Guideposts. In a previous BaBW post on doing too much outlining, I spoke about how a good outline was more akin to a guide than a moment-by-moment or minute-by-minute detailing of the journey down to the last detail. For example, your travel plans might include a warning like “watch for traffic between these two sightseeing locations” as a general guide, but they aren’t going to say “Travel between these two museums should be exactly eight-point-nine-two minutes.”
I’ve spent a whole post on that sort of overly-done outline, so I won’t here. Just saying “guideposts. not minutiae,” should be enough.
Now, while this is a good start to answering most of the questions young writers often have about outlines, it doesn’t answer everything. A series of guideposts is a good start, but what about more detailed questions? How does one write out an outline? How do they divide it up?
The answer there is “Whatever way feels right.” There’s no write or wrong answer save again something so detailed that you’re wasting time on something that can’t account for the flexibility characters bring.
For example, when I wrote Beyond the Borderlands my outline was chapter by chapter. It wasn’t much, just one to three bullet points per chapter giving a direction as to what would occure.
But that’s not always my outline of choice. Starforge is just three pages of bullets, divided into the three primary arcs of the book. Shadow of an Empire was even less than that. IIRC, it was a single sheet of note paper on my desk that outline the mystery and the clues. Occasionally I’d pause and make an outline for a single chapter just to make sure I’d worked through it properly, but that was a rarity.
All of these stories had different “levels” of detail to their outline, but none of them was wrong. Each functioned perfectly well (or in Starforge‘s case, is coming along fine), moving along the journey smoothly.
In other words, while there’s a bit of a ways to go wrong about making an outline (again, going WAY too into depth) there is no right way outside of “this provides a guide.” Whatever system of bullets, chapter by chapter breakdowns, or even just a simplified description of the story that helps give you direction for your next sentence, paragraph, chapter, etc, is right. Go ahead an use it!
Now, what sort of stuff should you outline? Well, that’s down to your story, but remember above what I said about not getting bogged down in useless details? Again here we come back to the map. If you were making a week-long journey sightseeing across London, you’d have specific locations plotted out, but would you be planning each occurrence at those locations?
Not on the plan. You might be thinking “I’ll do _____ here” and “I’ll try ______ here” but you likely wouldn’t need to put all of that on the guide. You’d know what to do when you got there. So it is with outlines. Distill it to the beats you want to hit. What happens here? What happens there? Is there a key moment for the protagonist? Note it!
Now, I do want to discuss two things that I see happen a lot with young writers. What to do when the characters don’t go with the outline, and what to do when the outline warps a little.
Sometimes you write along, you get to a chapter, and things are going great … until suddenly a character makes a decision that sort of … derails your outline a little? What now?
Well, a lot of young writers will attempt to immediately railroad things back on course. Sometimes they’ll erase what they’ve written, jump back, and try to make their characters go another route.
Don’t immediately do this. Think about vacations and travel. Sometimes you follow the plan. But sometimes you’re at a cool sightseeing point and someone says ‘Hey, there’s this other really cool shot right over there …” and you deviate just a little bit because hey, new info!
You don’t always do this (after all, there’s the journey to get back to) but sometimes these deviations from the plan are worth it. So it is with our outlines: We should be flexible when the characters suggest a different route. Sometimes it means adding something to the tapestry we already had in mind.
Sometimes our characters will take us in unexpected directions. It doesn’t mean that the outline is lost. It just means it might take a detour. It might flex or warp a little, but it doesn’t have to break it.
And we should seriously consider letting them. You won’t always—more than once I’ve backed up and changed some things to keep a story on the outline path because it was a better fit than the direction things were going (an action that sometimes involves going quite a ways back for the character actions to hold true). But sometimes it’ll be worth it to let the characters have the control they’d have in reality.
Sometimes outlines flex. Sometimes they shift. Sometimes you get near the middle and realize that the characters want to go left instead of right … but with a few shifts that’ll make the ending that much better.
Don’t be afraid to modify the outline when necessary, in other words. It’s not set in stone. It’s words on a page. You can change them when you need to.
And sometimes? Like the discovery of a “hole in the wall” place that’s far more than it appears, deviating from the prescribed path a little can produce some of the best memories.
So that’s it! As I said, there really isn’t much complicated to it. Outlines are just a series of guideposts. They can be as vague as ‘characters go here because ____” or as specific as “In this chapter, ____ explains to _____ why X happened.”
You’d have the blanks filled in, of course. Most of the time.
But that’s all there really is to it! Outlines are just lines on a map, directions from point to point in the story. You can organize them any way you want, from distinct lists with divisions and tabs, to chapters, to just lines on a piece of paper giving you reminders of your goal and destination.
And if it does that job, that’s all it needs to do. It’s an outline, not the story.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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