How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Outline

Didn’t you know? A bad outline is the death of a good story.

How can you be creative when everything is already planned out for you?

No emotion in the writer, no emotion in the reader.

How can you follow this rule when you already know everything that’s going to happen?

Like an overbearing parent, a detailed outline can suck all the danger and excitement out of your next story. Here’s a post from NY Book Editors that explains all the problems writers, especially newer writers, cause for themselves whenever they outline their work.

So that’s it? All this talk about how dangerous outlines are, let’s just forget about them?

Please. If not for your sake, think of your readers. You gotta outline.

WHY? You’re a creative person, and you’ve got a million ideas, and whenever you sit down to write, you always seem to come up with more. What do YOU need an outline for?

  • You’re going to forget things. Sometimes your best ideas will come to you well before you’re ready to write them out. What do you do? Shove it in an outline.
  • You need to see things from above. You know generally what your story is about, but there’s something about putting it all on paper that’s going to make it come together – and it’ll help you see where it’s falling apart. On top of this, it’s much easier to see the theme of your story once you’ve got a general plot (hopefully character driven) in a concise, quickly readable format.
  • You’re going to forget things. What was I saying? Oh, yeah, that’s where I wanted to send the story next. Outlines help keep you on track, so you can drive toward that final climax, or hammer out that important turning point.
  • Will your voice and the point of view work with this story? Have you ever written a few pages using third person, only to realize that your story is begging for a first person perspective? Have you ever started a great story idea, only to realize that the tone just isn’t going to match your style? What can you d- OUTLINE.

How do you outline? First, you need to figure out what kind of outliner you are. There are two houses, the gardeners, and the architects* (you can always be something in between).

Gardeners like to start planting (writing) the second they know how much room they have, or once they have a rough idea of where the story will go, or what kind of story it will be.

If you consider yourself a gardener, you’ve got the easiest job of outlining. All you really need is a page or two with your major turning points (3 acts? 4 quarters? It’s up to you, but you need to set a good pace for your pinches and squeezes, or peaks and valleys). Focus on your characters and your themes.

Don’t forget to write down important events or characteristics you create for your characters as you go.

Architects plan out every last detail. They’ve got a hefty blueprint, spanning many pages, explaining details such as settings, character traits, histories, cultures and cultural traditions, speech patterns, etc.

If you consider yourself a gardener, you’ve got your work set out for you (but chances are, it’s the kind of work you’ll love).

Want to know where to start? Try the snowflake method or check out this list for other ideas.

Remember, the more you write, and the more you outline, the more you will understand exactly what YOU need from an outline.

Wait! Don’t go yet! I want to know about you – how do you outline? Are you an in-betweener, like me? Are you a planning fanatic? How did you find out which kind of outline worked for you?

Tell us everything in the comments below, and don’t forget to leave a like and follow this blog. Thanks for reading!

Check out my latest Short Story, The Outward Path, which you can read online here, or download the free ebook from Smashwords here.

*This Architects vs. Gardeners analogy shamelessly stolen from an interview with George R. R. Martin, which you can read in full here.

Image courtesy of Dashitnow via Flickr Creative Commons.

22 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Outline

  1. Spot-on advice. Even if you’re working on a flash piece, you need an outline. It doesn’t even have to be written – but for the whole thing to work as a unit, you need some basic planning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny you say “even if you’re working on a flash piece” because that’s exactly where I use outlines the most. I write flash fiction pretty frequently, and I can NOT start without an outline, or else it’ll become way too long, or I’ll spend too much time on it. Oh, and thanks for the comment M.C.!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually, you have a lot more leeway with longer pieces. Novels can ramble, but flash has a discipline not unlike the best poetry. In many ways, it’s more difficult to do well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess I’m a gardener, in writing style as well as real life. My version of outlining consists of writing out estimated chapter titles, and what’s probably going to happen in them. Sometimes these expand and I get more chapters than I thought I would, sometimes their names change. Then, I have a page/pages called ‘loose threads’, in which I put juicy bits that aren’t going to happen yet but I don’t wanna forget. For second draft, I have a file of notes about things that need expansion and generally a list of characters with a few key traits. The stories I’ve been writing already occurred years ago in my head/inner world, so I know the general direction they’re headed, however basically all or most of the characters and their development is new and happens when I put them on paper.


  3. My biggest writing projects tend to be the weekly major humor piece (about 700-900 words, posted just past midnight Fridays GMT). Those do get outlines, but they’re very sparse ones. For example last week’s amounted to this:

    – asked to move stuff. change in relationship. internet friends, can’th elp you move, break up with after violent argument about who likes My Little Pony more. creeping boxes emerging from shadows

    And yet somehow without that much note the longer pieces end up weirdly shapeless. I never did find a use for that last half-sentence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you just did….

      It made me laugh, that’s useful, right?

      I think for me, if I’m writing a piece that’s going to be less than a thousand words, I try to just wing it – at first. Throw stuff on the page. And then, after I’ve done that, I’ll step away, and kind of use what I wrote (messily) as my skeleton for the do-over.

      Hey, thanks for commenting Joseph. I know I haven’t been around in a while, some big life changes happened recently. I have built a new schedule though – so prepare for more of my useless comments!


  4. An outline is a huge help, especially on those days when I need a push to get started. Outlines basically give me the framework – a sentence or two of what the chapter/scene should be about. At the start of each writing day, I can simply look at the notes for the chapter I need to tackle and, with that basic idea in my noggin’, I fill it in with details, setting and dialogue. So, not quite a gardener, but definitely not an architect – I need structure but I also need room for flexibility.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How do you usually start your outlines? Is there a specific inspiration (Ooh, I’m going to work on this really cool setting I had in mind!) or do you start with the mentality that you’ve got to get to writing, and the easiest part is brainstorming the outline?


      1. The outline is really just a list of chores for the book by chapter. X needs to happen in chapter 1, Y in chapter 2, etc. then, when I go to write, I know what needs to happen, I just need to figure out how to make that happen. Since my worst writing habit is getting started, the outline works as sort of a writing romps for the day.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m mostly a gardener, but I return to the original bullet-point outline and expand and re-arrange it as the story progresses. I make character outlines about a third of the way through as I get to know them. About two-thirds of the way through I will create an Excel timeline sheet, so as to sort out any plot anomalies (pregnancies lasting 18 months, smartphone use in the 1990s etc).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m actually approaching that first third area in my novel, and the more I think about my characters, the more I want to spend time with them.

      Character outlines seem like a good start, but I feel like I want more from them, like a short story focusing on something in their history. Have you ever experimented with this?


    1. I caved and bought Scrivener a few months ago for a short story I was working on.

      I’m not sold that it can do things any other word processor couldn’t, but it’s just so easy to manage all of my bits and pieces, and tabbing back and forth from one character to the story to a setting description helps with my workflow.

      Scrivener is great. Please pay me to say that, oh Scrivener Marketing Team.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am quite new to planned writing and almost always never outline. But since I started to write stories for my first book, I have so many ideas that sometimes I jot down the important points that I am going to include: it might be bits of the plot, or physical features of the characters or maybe even an ending line! But I am feeling an increasing need these days to outline.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What’s the worst that can happen? You try to outline something, and you find out you hate overly-detailed outlines. So what? Try a less detailed one.

      I used to do huge, complex outlines, and that always ended in loss of interest, or uninspired writing, or worse, exposition dumps.

      Here’s some outlines from a few writers you might’ve heard of:

      It doesn’t need to take an entire day to plan out your next story!


  7. I outline, if for no other reason than to not forget! Nothing frustrates me more than to know I had a great idea in the car or shower only to completely forget it later when I want to incorporate it into my story. I have learned to keep a working document that starts out as an outline and later turns into a choppy stream of consciousness in the form of bullet point thoughts, ideas, plot changes, etc. When I write, I almost never stick to the outline. But at least it is there if I need it when I want to recall ideas that I had days, weeks or months earlier. There is always some element to shooting from the hip when writing, but an outline keeps the writer from getting lost, roaming too far off the story and contradicting parts of the plot. I definitely believe an outline helps!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You and I, Erin, you and I. That’s almost exactly how I’ve been doing it for this book I’m working on right now – one big document that started off as a small, single page outline, and now includes all of these appendages (appendices?).

      Although, right now I’m reorganizing it all into separate files – one for each character and setting, so I can keep a running list of all the important things about each person or place that I’ve added/want to add.

      “Shooting from the hip,” I LOVE this. This is a perfect way to explain how I fill in the blanks (when I know where it needs to go, but I don’t know how to get it there). I might end up using this analogy for another week . . .

      Liked by 1 person

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