People have all sorts of opinions and even emotional baggage when it comes to making outlines for a writing project.
Some people love outlines, most people hate them. One of the biggest misconceptions about outlining is that they are somehow separate from the creative process, that whereas writing is creative, outlining is something done only by anal retentives.
The best kind of outline is flexible and supportive and it makes it easier to get things done.
Describing it that way makes an outline sound like some kind of activewear… The qualities that make for a good outline are the same qualities you'd find in a really good pair of sweat pants. Click To Tweet
I’m happy with that analogy.
Myths about outlining
Outlines are a block to creativity
Not true. An outline can be a seamless part of the creative flow. You can include it with different freewriting strategies.
There is a right way to outline
The way I see it, the purpose of an outline is to make it easier for you to write. However you make your outline, it’s the right way to do it as long as it makes it easier for you to write.
When I outline for shorter pieces, I think of it as a sketch. It consistes of a few lines of descriptive phrases that help to sum things up.
And even if I am making an outline for a book or a series or a whole course, I still just think of my outline as a working outline. I don’t give a hoot about what makes an outline seem official. Official things only matter when you’re working to a standard or sending your work to a bunch of new collaborators or an agency or something.
So let’s drop the whole thing about an outline needing to look a certain way. An outline can be judged by its ability to make the writing process easier for you. A good outline is any sort of organizational aid that gives you more of a sense of perspective and creative control.
What makes a good outline?
Well, first of all, a good outline just needs to serve a purpose. For you, the writer.
Nobody needs to see your outline. It definitely doesn’t need to be polished or even written in a way that would be coherent for anyone else. Writing a good fast outline is all about what works best for you.
Everybody thinks differently and handles the composition process in a unique way. And each writing project calls for its own unique approach.
One example outline from my own experience shows just how weird you can get with this. I have found it really fun to organize books based on textures or prominant images.
For example, I decided that in one chapter I would have the images of moonlight, copper, and a bathtub. That was my outline for that chapter.
When I made that outline, I didn’t want to decide in advance what would be happening in that scene. The flow of actions I had complete freedom with. With the image based outline, I gave myself pieces of a puzzle that I would put together when it came time to write each chapter. It was fun. It worked. I would recommend giving that a try. It was an unusual way of outlining, but it worked well for me.
An outline does not need to be based only on the data, as if a really good story boils down to its plot points.
Story analysis is great and everything but it can only happen after the fact. After the story is written and we decide it is good, then we can break it down and learn from it.
We’re learning new ways of understanding story fundamentals all the time.
There is no right way and no best approach besides the one that fuels you and makes sense to you.
Be challenged, be engaged, and use story analysis to make things more workable. Not more correct.
Maybe you want to be a rebel. Maybe you work differently than other people.
The single most powerful way to keep your writing on topic and productive, eliminating too much blank-stare time, is to do a sketch beforehand.
If you don’t know enough about your story to do a sketch beforehand, then freewrite to get a few key elements that you can build a sketch from.
But isn’t a sketch an extra step? Why not just dive in and freewrite the scene?
Freewriting is more efficient when you are more intentional about it. When you focus your freewrite with the express purpose of generating sketch material, you are taking a higher elevation view, and you that stuff is way more manageable.
Things flow best when you focus on a single thing at a time. When you sketch, you’re not down in the mire of the story trying to both write it and figure things out.
It’s easier to figure things out when you fly up 50,000 feet and look down at the whole world. You can swoop down and sit beside your main character in the tavern where he sits mulling over his recent adventure if you want. Then you can swoop somewhere else entirely.
At the end of your sketch freewriting session, you only have to read back through and comb for those nugget moments that can become elements within a scene.
When you read back through, you take those elements out and plug them in someplace else. As you sketch, feel free to also collect any useful details, textures, lines of dialogue, and such.
Pro tip: Keep multiple files where you can stick this stuff and stay organized.
If you use Scrivener, you can use notecards and character detail sheets. Otherwise a simple file in a main folder will work fine.
Some examples for a good organizational scheme:
A cuts file where I stick material that I don’t want in my main document but might want to dig through at some point.
A file for each character. With images and descriptions, timeline info, biographical information and cool stuff I want to have them do at some point.
A file about the dynamics between characters. How do each one of your characters feel about the other? This is surprisingly fun and fruitful to figure out. Freewrite to develop sketches for your characters and their relationships with others and their biographical details.
This stuff that won’t get seen by anyone else anyway — why not do it as quickly as possible and without needing to worry about how it is formatted and so forth?
A file for different settings, scene descriptions, stuff that you want to happen there. Secrets. Historical information.
A general story synopsis file. The overall time frame. Book cover blurb. A very brief overview. A more in-depth overview.
It can be really interesting to work your story at these varying levels of resolution. Sometimes it’s only when you zoom way out or in that you notice something significant about stakes or pacing, for example.
Bits and pieces are all you need. Any writing you do behind the scenes only exists to help you.
A totally workable chapter sketch might look like this:
- Herman and Cynthia head to the cafeteria
- She sees Todd but doesn’t give any sign
- Outside the window they see asteroid M29-x
- Their vacation plans change for the worse
- Phil is recording their augmented reality transmissions
It may not make any sense to anyone but the author, and it may not even give the most important elements of that chapter. Depending on the way you like to write, you can make your outline based on the significant beats or reversals or raised stakes. Or, you can make your outline elements based on pretty much anything else, and use the drafting process as an opportunity to make all the pieces fit together.
Have you tried sketching like this? Do you have an unconventional way of outlining that works for you?