Monday, 28 November 2011

A Writer's Methods: Using an Outline

Over the next while I will be posting a few observations on methods I’ve chosen to follow as an author. I hope that those of you who are beginning to write your own fiction may be able to find something useful in my approach that you can apply to your own work. I invite you to add your own comments and links!

I thought I’d begin with a step that always draws much debate: to outline or not to outline?

Many writers use an outline to plan their way through a story, but others react rather violently to the entire notion. “I know where I want to start, and I know where I want to end. The journey from Point A to Point B is what makes writing fun!” they insist.

Fair enough. I understand completely the need to feel free and unconstrained. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life, and no two writers approach their craft in exactly the same way, or else we’d be stuck reading computer-generated fiction rather than stories produced by the wonderfully quirky human imagination.

Consider, though, all the elements you have to juggle over the course of writing your manuscript: maintaining a balance between “showing” and “telling”; developing your characters and staying consistent within them; making sure your dialogue is not only realistic but, again, consistent to each character; setting a pace from chapter to chapter and ensuring that the reader is moved constantly forward…. There’s an awful lot to keep track of as you’re writing your story.

I’ve found there’s a certain amount of comfort to be found in working from an outline when I’m writing the actual manuscript. It’s like working with a safety net. Most of the risks have been worked through and planned for. I know not only where I want to start and where I want to end up, but also how I want to get there and what I want to accomplish on the journey.

These last two points are important. If you write an outline of your story first, you’ve made a dry run through your plot and proven to yourself that it works and that it will be something readers will want to read as you’ve designed it. In addition, you’ve blocked out the themes you want to explore and have either embedded them into the storyline or at least spotted places where you’ll be able to bring them out. You’ve also had a chance to watch your main characters move through your plot and perhaps found opportunities to develop them that didn’t occur to you up front when the “great idea” formed itself in your head.

During the outline process you may also have an opportunity to do most of your research and collect the information you’ll want to use during the story-writing process. Because you’re working with the storyline and characters at a somewhat lower level than when you got that “great idea,” you’ll be picking and choosing the subject areas you want to focus on as you write the story, and identifying those which need a bit of research before you’re comfortable writing about them. The outline phase is a great opportunity to dig around. Sometimes, when you run into plotting snags as you’re writing the outline, a bit of research will suggest a solution to the problem you hadn’t considered before. It may even suggest an entirely new direction for your plot or subplot.

You’re working with ideas in the raw, mixing and matching, picking and discarding, tinting and coloring, weaving and unweaving and weaving again until you like the way it will look.

As I say, by writing an outline first you decide how best to move your readers from the beginning to the end of your story. As well, though, you have a chance to bring a very clear focus to what you want to accomplish on the journey from word alpha to word omega, and I want to stress this point a little before I get down off my soapbox for today.

Designing a story involves a lot of problem-solving, as I mentioned. When things aren’t working the way you initially imagined them in a particular scene or with a particular character you need to back up a step and take a second look. Why doesn’t it work? What do I need to do differently here to make it work? 

Most often the solution to these various problems will come more easily if you ask yourself the following: what the hang am I trying to accomplish here? What’s my point? What’s my objective?

When I’m writing my manuscript and working from an outline, I know every morning when I get up and turn on my computer where I am in the story and where I need to go next. I’m following a plan. Most importantly, I know which chapter I’m working on and WHAT I WANT THAT CHAPTER TO ACCOMPLISH. The best stories are well-crafted, and much of the craft involves deliberately leading the reader from point to point to point, hitting each note clearly and in the correct key.

Lest you think this approach to writing lacks creativity, spontaneity and freshness, consider this: I haven’t actually told this part of the story yet, have I?

I’ve imagined it, I’ve planned for it, but I haven’t told it yet.

Now comes the part that’s the most fun for me: actually telling the story. Choosing the words, finding the rhythm, imagining the reader with me now, word for word, as we watch my characters actually perform the dance with all the emotion, pathos, violence, grit and humanity that I’ve been planning for, all this time. How long have I been anticipating this moment of telling? Getting impatient for it? Knowing how good it could be? Now finally, here it is, this scene I’ve been building toward for the last few days, here it is, the payoff!

How delicious to write those passages I knew were coming and worked so hard to set up. These are the times when I look up at the clock, see I’ve been writing for four hours and wow! where did the time go? And there it is. On the page. Done. The dance has been danced.

So. What’s next?

Back to the outline for my next cue.


  1. I find that there are merits to both having a basic outline and just writing by the seat of your pants. Having the outline really does give you a sense of direction and it's a bit of a safety net against writer's block, but I've also found that sometimes, the outline stifles creativity for me. I'm so set on moving the story in the same direction as my proposed outline that it's hard to try and fit in a story arc which just appears while I'm writing. I think I'll try and find a balance one of these days. Great post!

  2. One of the advantages, Lan, of writing a series is that when a sudden appearance of a great new idea strikes while following a current outline, I can always write it down as the basis for another novel in the series!

    Anyway, as they say, vive la difference! m

  3. I try to plan and plot but it just goes out of the window. I confess to being a panster with good intentions! :)