Before we get too far into the weeds, we need to talk about writers in general and one of the most common ways to categorize them.
Plotters versus Pantsers
I have written about this several times in the past. I don’t want to spend too much time on the subject again, but the plotters are the ones that do prep work in advance, laying out a plan before writing. The pantsers, people writing by the seat of their pants, are truly the first readers of their story as they’re writing it, and don’t want any of it to be spoiled. I prefer the term “discovery writing” these days for writing without an outline.
It’s more of a spectrum than a binary. Neither is wrong or right. They are different approaches with pros and cons associated with each.
Why Should I Outline?
The Repossessed Ghost was a product of discovery writing. Spin City and Synthetic Dreams are both outlined stories. From those experiences, I determined the main benefits I receive from plotting are: productivity, durability, and consistency.
What I mean by productivity is that I write faster when I have an outline. My characters don’t wander around mindlessly during the times I’m trying to figure out where the story is going. With The Repossessed Ghost, my first Nanowrimo victory, I completed the first 50,000 by writing half of it in the last three days of November. It took me another 2 months of floundering to add 11,000 more words, bringing the first draft to a close. I floundered a lot, and I underwrote it.
With Spin City, I needed to outline so that the underlying mysteries would make sense. It was my second Nanowrimo victory, and the first 50,000 words came smoothly and easily. I then wrote another 50,000 words over the next 6 months, very productive considering my busy my schedule during that time. I never felt particularly lost while writing that story.
Synthetic Dreams was my most recent Nanowrimo victory, and I completed the first 50,000 words in 19 days. Then work and other projects got in the way. The story sat untouched for 7 or 8 months. By the time I went back to finish it, I lost the flavor of the story and had work extra hard to recover. Ultimately, my outline saved me, and I’ve been able to work steadily on the story for the last several weeks.
I have three other Nanowrimo attempts on the books, all failures. I didn’t use an outline with any of those attempts. I didn’t have the structure to lean on when the going got tough. I’ve learned the value of outlining through trial and error, and I probably won’t try any more novels without some sort of written out plan.
How to Actually Outline
I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding this part of the essay. No more dallying. Here are the actual nuts and bolts of how I write an outline.
The first thing to keep in mind is that this tool is for you alone, so you should use it in whatever way works best for you. Some people like a strict tree structure, with roman numerals and indents and multiple levels, the kind of outlining we used to do in school. My approach is a bit more relaxed.
My first example is this blog post. Even though I knew it wouldn’t be too terribly long, I wanted structure. My preliminary thoughts: intro, background, detail, conclusion. I opened Notepad and typed the following:
- How to Outline
- Plotters versus Panters
- What Kind of Writer am I?
- How I Outline
That is, I started with the title of the piece. After that I decided on a topic that would be good for background information. Then I chose a topic that would allow me to move deeper into specifics, personalizing this information to myself. Finally, the last section is dedicated to this, the nuts and bolts of writing.
The actual writing of this article is mostly discovery writing. The outline lets me see where I’m going and helps me stay on track. I’ve deviated a little bit, and some sections are longer than I expected, but that’s okay. I’ve stuck with the structure I planned at the beginning. The brief outline allowed me to write this very quickly.
Blog posts are short and easy. Novels, on the other hand, are much more involved. Before starting a post or a short story, I can usually see the whole thing in my head. I don’t have to write an outline for something that small because I already know where I’m going and what I’m going to say. With a novel, I might have an idea where the story will go, but I can’t see all the details. There are pitfalls and traps in the unkind void. To make it to the end of a novel, I need a detailed map to keep me safe and keep me moving in the first direction.
Here is the first part of my actual outline to Synthetic Dreams.
Goal — Establish the world, the characters, set the tone for the story, and start each of the three cases which will act as the backdrop to the real story, which is the relationship between Dee-ehn and Jayvee
Scene — Dee-ehn and Jayvee investigate scene of highly graphic “death”
Scene — Dee-ehn and Jayvee interview victim’s neighbors
— We learn victim kept to themselves
— First view of someone suffering from the virus
— Introduction to another character which may be important later
— We see how interacting with other synths is stressful for Dee-ehn
— We see how interacting with other synths is Jayvee’s strength
Scene — On the way to the bar
— We get our first view of Humanists. Maybe they’re protesting
— We’ll get some explanation of Humanists and Singulars as Dee-ehn and Jayvee argue about the two sects
To start this outline, I decided on a structure from the beginning. This is a three-act structure, similar to what’s common in cinema. The first and third act are about the same length. The second act is about as long as the first and third put together, split in the center at a pivotal midpoint.
I state my goal for each act. For this story, with all of the strangeness and world building that has to take place, my number one goal is to get everything into the reader’s eyeballs in such a way that it isn’t intimidating, and that will get them fully invested in the characters. I even remind myself in the outline that, as interesting as I might think the mystery of the murder cases are, the real story is the relationship between our two viewpoint characters.
It might be difficult to tell in what I pasted, but there are three levels to this outline. The major acts, the scenes, and scene details. My scenes wind up aligning with chapter breaks, so what I pasted represents the first three chapters of this novel.
Some people go much deeper into the details. When I need to work through something technical or difficult, I add more descriptions in the outline. Because I could clearly see what the first chapter would be like, I didn’t add details beyond the scene description. The third scene, on the other hand, had two main purposes. It needed to give us more interaction between Jayvee and Dee-ehn while at the same time unfolding more important world building. To achieve those goals, I put strong ideas into the details of the outline.
Putting something into an outline does not mean it has to go in the novel. We’re writing words, not laying bricks. While I depend on the outline to give support and help show me where I’m going, I listen to the characters when they want to surprise me and take over. Sometimes inspiration takes the wheel, or indigestion saturates my brain with magic writing juice. Whatever the reason, I forego the outline in order to purse what feels best for the story at the time. Sometimes this is awesome! Sometimes it produces hot garbage. Both the story and the outline are malleable, so I make adjustments along the way in accordance with what feels best.
If you haven’t written something using an outline, give it a try. The story doesn’t have to be long, and the outline doesn’t have to be that detailed. As I demonstrated here, you can outline a blog post before writing it.
I especially encourage trying an outline when you’re having difficulty staying productive.
When I write an outline, I send a message to my future self, instructing him on how to get to the end of a story. When I use an outline, my older self sits on my shoulder and rides along, doing his best to act as a navigator. In that way, outlining allows me to be doubly present during the writing process.