I don’t outline my stories. There is a continuum along which writers lie, with some doing more outlining and some doing less outlining. Brandon Sanderson, for instance, has spoken in his customarily prolific fashion about the extensiveness of his outlining process, and lies towards the extreme outlining end of the continuum. Other authors do almost no outlining, instead just sitting down and writing without any sort of a plan in mind or on paper. Most will find themselves somewhere in the middle, doing some amount of outlining in support of their sitting-down-and-writing time.
Considering my general temperament and proclivities in other aspects of my life, you might expect me to be an outliner. In most things I do, I am a compulsive planner, plotting things out in detail years in advance, laying out every intricacy of a trip I’m taking or a project upon which I’m working. I use decision matrices in everyday life, and have been known to scheme up family events using Gantt charts. Knowing me as well as I do, I expect me to be an outliner. Except…I’m not. Not at all.
In concept, I think the idea of outlining makes perfect sense. Laying out a plot, setting up your characters, foreshadowing your twists, identifying structures, building worlds and magic systems: all of these things are enabled by an outline, and can therefore occur before you start writing, so that when you actually sit down to write the story, you have everything you need right in front of you, and you can jump right in without having to think too hard about what to write, or keep a bunch of ideas ordered in your head. It makes so much sense, and it especially makes so much sense for me of all people to be an outliner, that I’ve tried it several times. That’s about the number of stories that I’ve managed to kill by trying to outline them.
Every time that I’ve tried to outline a story in a thorough fashion, it has killed the story. Not that the story in my head became bad in the process of outlining it – rather, the process of outlining made the story in my head boring. It might not be boring to anyone else, but to me, the story became boring, because it was like I’d already written it. Sure, it was written in a staggered, bulleted list, but it was already written, it was out on the page, out of my head. In the process of outlining I am forced to do the parts of the writing that are the most challenging and interesting to me, the parts that prompted me to start writing in the first place, and once that is finished I find I have a very hard time convincing myself to sit down and write that story out long-form.
That might seem like a flimsy excuse for not outlining, that outlining makes me bored with the story, but it’s true. I wrote a few short stories about six years ago called Impressions. They had some really interesting concepts in them, some of the people with whom I circulated them really liked them, and they suggested that I turn them into novel-length works. With that feedback in mind, I sat down and started writing up an outline for the expanded Impressions series. When I finished, and sat down to write the first book (it was going to be a four book series), I couldn’t do it. I got less than a chapter in and put it away, and I haven’t touched it since.
The only outlining that I have found that works for me, pre-writing, is outlining like I did for Blood Magic. As I’ve mentioned on the site before, when I was making the decision to do Blood Magic as a series for IGC Publishing, I knew that I wanted to have ideas for all of the episodes written down ahead of time, so I wrote up little episode summaries, like you see associated with the episodes in a television series. That “outline,” if you can stretch the term to fit, has served me remarkably well for the duration of my work on Blood Magic. It has just enough detail to remind me vaguely what I wanted to write about when I did that brainstorming, while leaving me the flexibility to adapt the writing as needed when I get to a given episode. It even had the effect of making me excited to keep writing the episodes, because I could see that I was getting towards certain episodes whose summaries struck me as being particularly enticing, ideas that I’ve been waiting a long time to write.
That has prompted me to start using that as a new paradigm for planning stories. Rather than trying to hold the whole thing in my head, or attempting to force myself to outline thoroughly, I’ve settled for writing up little summaries for myself that encapsulate the ideas and concepts that I want to explore in a given piece. Where I really find outlining useful, though, is in revision.
I call it reverse outlining, but I can’t take credit for that term, as it’s actually an exercise I got from listening to the “Writing Excuses” podcast. After I’ve written the first draft of a story, I find it very helpful to go back and create an outline based on that draft. That allows me to analyze the components of the story without reading through a hundred thousand words, and I can identify structural elements, character elements, major plot moments, places for foreshadowing…all of the technical things that outlining enables and that strengthen writing from a fluffy “art” into something more rigorous, more professional, and more polished.
This is not a post to tell you how you should be outlining, or that one way of outlining is better than another. It might sort of be a post defending my lack of outlining to myself, but that’s also not the main point that I want readers to take away from this piece. What I’m hoping for is that this will encourage you to experiment with different levels of outlining in your writing so that you can find what works best for you, because it may not be intuitive. As well as I like to think that I know myself, I was convinced that I would be an outliner, and instead I’ve discovered that I’m about as far from it at as it is possible to be. As authors, we all have to work out our own systems, and I’m always looking to improve and refine mine. If you have any outlining experiments or techniques that you’ve found helpful, please share them in the comments below – we might all benefit from new ideas to try.