To Outline or Not to Outline…

This is one of those questions that gets asked a lot. I have friends who swear by their outlines and I have friends who despise them with a burning passion.

Personally, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with outlines. I like the thought of them and I have tried using them. Oddly, I only really like trying to use them when I first get an idea for a story such as “I wonder what would happen if…

…a meteor hit the earth

…it was suddenly announced to the world that magic was real

…if the zombie apocalypse started

Generally an outline won’t occur to me if a sentence jumps into my head and sounds so delectable I have to figure out the story that goes with it. That is just sort of its own thing (I can deal with that in a later post if you are interested). If a character pops into my head I generally brainstorm situations I could put the newly formed character through until one seems right and then see where that takes me (which I’ll circle back to in a moment or two.)

But when outlines seem like a good idea to be, it is typically because I have an idea and not a sentence or a character to go with it. So I’ll take my idea and I will start to work out an outline. Because I write a lot of fantasy and it is familiar to me, I often use a formula for my outlines that resembles The Hero’s Journey as set up by Joseph Campbell. It has 12 steps:

  • The ordinary world
  • The call of adventure
  • Refusal of the call
  • Meeting the mentor
  • Crossing the first threshold
  • Tests, allies, enemies
  • Approach the innermost cave
  • The ordeal
  • Reward
  • The road back
  • Resurrection
  • Return with the elixir

I won’t go into detail as there are many places that go into it in more depth. If reading I would suggest something like the ReedsyBlog or if you want a more visual version Netflix has something called Myths & Monsters that does an excellent job of breaking it down. even if you don’t use the story break down a run through can spark some ideas of things to add in places. In my case when I look over it, I generally think ‘My character has had it too easy, what nastiness can I throw their way.’ But then that is me.

I have used this format (and others) to craft some very beautiful outlines. Seriously, they were absolutely lovely things, crafted with care and such attention to detail that they gimmered in certain lights. They were things of beauty.

And then I started actually writing.

By the time I reached the bottom of the first page, the outline will have been pushed aside. The story might have changed tracks as I realized I forgot a detail that ‘changed things’ in my story world. I might have been hit with an idea I didn’t think of until i started writing. My character could have changed names, gender, occupation or just thought going into the abandoned warehouse (or doctor’s office, or restaurant…) was a stupid idea and he/she just wasn’t going to do it because today was the perfect day for a picnic which changed EVERYTHING.

At some point, I’ll stop writing for the day and the shimmering, glimmering beauty of my otline will call to me. Generally I will have printed it out so I can easily consult it as I write. I never do, but hope springs eternal. I’ll think, ‘I could still use some of this. And so out comes the pen. Items are circled, crossed out, margins acquire notes and names are added to the back. The outline is still beautiful, but it is a beauty that spent a little too much time in the war zone. As I continue writing, it will acquire more and more notes, and by the end of the manuscript, it will be turned over completely and I will be working from the notes on the back side of the printed page.

And the final story will bear only a passing resemblance to the story I outlined so beautifully in the beginning. I generally type up my outlines and save them even though I work from a printed copy. I have in the past come across older outlines and thought, ‘that’s a good story I wonder why I never bothered to pull out that outline.’ Only to realize that I did and the story just came out differently. I’ve even tried printing the outline out a second time and changing the names. I came up with a different story but it still didn’t match the outline.

Because that is just not the way I write.

Does this mean outlines are bad or a waste of time?

No. In their own way they are a tool that is useful for helping me to write the story that I want to write. Outlines, for me tend to be the story I think I should write. It is the initial thoughts that swim on the surface of the idea that comes out in the outline writing. Like those bugs you see skating on top of a lake in the summertime. The actual story swims in the depths below, and often rises to the surface to eat the bugs skating across the surface of the pond. In a sense the outline lures the actual story up from the depths of my mental lake.

So while there is a great debate about outlining that rages, often in the same writer, my take is that they can be useful, just don’t be bound to the, Give your brain the space to find the real story. If it is the one you outlined in the beginning, great. If it isn’t then that’s fine too. No one is grading you on your outlines and your ability to stick with them. Use them as you will.

Now I did say I would circle back to the sorts of ‘outlines’ I do when I have a character in my head. To be fair, the term outline is being generous. There are no tabs with indented roman numerals. In fact I rarely even type these up. With these I take a sheet of paper. And then I make a list of what I am might want to do to this poor character who had the misfortune to be born into my brain. Each bit gets one line of the page.

  • Bob goes to work
  • Bob is called into his boss’s office.
  • Bob gets laid off because the company isn’t making enough money.
  • Bob points out the big bonus the CEO took a few months prior after claiming a ‘good quarter.
  • Bob is escorted back to his desk, packs and is escorted to the door.
  • Bob confesses his love for the receptionist on the way out.
  • Bob arrives home at an unexpected hour to find his neighbor’s house being burgled.

You get the gist. The bullet points will be based on the actual character of course and may end up with Bob becoming a cape and spandex wearing superhero. Or starting his own business, or going on a bender and getting caught up in on-line gambling. Whatever thoughts I had for poor Bob, I would list out. many of them would be conflicting or ones I ditch as I write. When he leaves the building he might decide that instead of confessing love for the sour faced receptionist he declares her to be a corporate stooge and confesses to stealing her pens every night he had to work late and of loosening the screws in her desk chair.

While this outline isn’t as pretty as the well crafted ones I get from the idea outline, it too will end up with notes and arrows on the page. Arrows especially as I shuffle around the bullet points. Bob may be stunned by his firing when I write it out but later, when he has to return to the office for some reason, then he might confront his former boss about the multi-million dollar bonus the CEO took, or fly into a rage about corporate injustice or unrequited love. So those bullet points will drop lower and new ones explaining why he is returning will be added.

For those of you who feel that once an outline has been created it must be adhered to, this more casual outline format may help you. just remember not to number those points so they are easier to shuffle. And if you want to keep them neat, go ahead and type them up and as you work shuffle them around on the computer and do a strike through when you’ve covered them.

Sometimes not having an outline can tangle you up because you aren’t sure what comes next and need to work out your plan (this is really helpful with murder mysteries). Sometimes having a plan can tangle you up. Sometimes having a plan that you can ignore or change at weill is the best option. Every writer has their own opinions about outlines and how to use or not to use them. I had to play around a lot to figure out what worked for me and to be honest, it shifts around a bit depending on the story I am writing. But this is generally how I start to write a story. Or at least a general overview. As always if there is something you’d like to see in more depth, let me know. I hope this helps as you start to write whatever story you choose.

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