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Should I Outline?

One of the questions you may find yourself asking when beginning a story is “should I outline?”

That depends on you.

When I began writing, I didn’t have an outline. My first few books flew by without an outline, until I reached a point where I noticed my stories were getting off track. I had scenes I loved, but they didn’t fit in the story, and then my story wasn’t as streamlined and pretty as it could have been.

It’s up to you whether or not to have an outline. Do you think you need one? Do you think it would help you, or improve the quality of your story?

Is your story a standalone or a novella that is short enough that you can store all the plot points in your head? I think you could probably get away without an outline.

Are you writing a series with tons of characters and subplots? An outline might be the way to go.

Outlines are a great way to keep all of your information in one place. It’s your roadmap to get from point A to point B. It’ll keep you from going on tangents that will pull your plot off the rails.

Your outline can document everything you need to keep track of, like character traits, notes about setting, and basic timelines (if you want to see a boss of a timeline, Google J.K. Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter—dang).

When I’m starting a new outline, I buy a journal. The first page is my list of characters, and a very brief outline—beginning, middle, end. I want to know the meat of each act.

So if I were to do a rough outline of Cinderella, for instance, it would look something like this (sass included):

  • Cinderella can’t get away from her sucky relatives that she’s not even really related to, but she’s too nice to say anything. Introduce the ball, she’s excited, sucky family says she can’t go because they’re terrible.

  • Sad Cinderella begins plotting to go to the ball anyway, because she’s always up for a good party, and with the help of her fairy godmother, she heads to the ball. She dances with a handsome young man who she discovers is a prince, and runs away because her curfew is midnight. She loses her shoe.

  • Cinderella is sad again, but it’s okay because the prince shows up with her shoe. The end.

Generally, there would be more than three bullet points in my general outline, because I’d want to hit all the major plot points. But once I have that, I begin writing and developing my much longer outline at the same time.

What Works For Me

Personally, my outlines are very detailed. I outline every conversation, usually because I can’t help myself. I outline when I don’t have the time to really sit down and write on my computer, so when I’m in the zone, I’m in the zone. I write my scene in my outline, only it’s broken down into bite-sized pieces and done with bullet points, no dialogue tags, and vague instructions of what the internal dialogue should be. That way, when I do have time, I can open up to wherever I need to in the story, and transcribe what I have only with way more detail, and I can tweak whatever I need to.

I like this system because while something may sound good in the moment, outlining ahead of time gives me time to think things through and realize that what I may have written isn’t appropriate for the feeling of the scene, or maybe I reevaluate how my characters should act or what they should say. Outlining has often showed me the weak points in my original plan, and I come up with a much stronger, better idea.

Everyone will outline differently. We all see the world in a way that is unique to us and our understanding, so your outline might take a different form than someone else's. If you've found a good way to outline, share what works for you!

Writer’s Block

Outlines have minimized my writer’s block since I can always see the direction I’m headed in. If you’re particularly prone to writer’s block, or are stuck on a certain plot point, back up a little and try outlining. Sometimes writing in a different format (like bullet points) kickstarts your brain into viewing a problem from a perspective you might not have considered before. It’s like zooming out of a picture to see more of what lies beyond your field of vision. If you've never tried it, you should give it a whirl.

If you guys have any questions about outlines or have anything you’d like me to talk about in a future post, let me know in a comment.

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