Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Busting the Outline Myth

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The word outline in the writing world has come to be synonymous with detailed planning, which is really a disservice to both the outline, and those who might benefit from it. Not every writer uses or wants to use an outline when they write and that's okay. I'm a fan of outlining, but I certainly don't think it's the only way to write a novel. But I think there are some misconceptions about what outlining is, and that might be keeping people from trying something that might work very well for them.

Mainly, that outlines are highly detailed in-depth summaries of every little thing in a novel.

This isn't true.

An outline can be that, but it can also be a five-point list of basic events. Or a summary of events. Or any number of things that can aid a writer in organizing their story.

Let's look at the basic definitions of outline:
1. The line by which a figure or object is defined or bounded; contour.

2. A drawing or sketch restricted to line without shading or modeling of form.

3. A general sketch, account, or report, indicating only the main features, as of a book, subject, or project.

4. Outlines, the essential features or main aspects of something under discussion.
You'll notice that all of these speak of outlining as a general thing, touching on ideas or concepts, boundaries, main features, etc. Not specific details. Not covering the topic in great depth.

Let's break it down:

1. The line by which a figure or object is defined or bounded; contour.

How is your story defined? What are the boundaries of this story? A story about "a pain shifter who's trying to save her sister from a tyrannical duke" fits this definition. Those are the boundaries in which the story will take place. I even like the unintentional play on words with "line" here, as you could say this is a decent definition of what a pitchline is if you swap out "figure or object" and use "book or story."

Could one sentence actually be an outline? It stretches the idea of what outlining is, but why not? From a writing standpoint, outlining is a way to organize your novel. If one sentence is all you need (and many pantsers might need exactly that and no more) then why can't it be the guiding sentence and work as the outline?

Granted, most people won't consider one sentence an outline, but I think the exaggeration here illustrates my point. Changing the idea of what an outline is can help a writer plan or organize their story in a way that works for them. Maybe this is more of an out line (one line) than a traditional outline (many lines).

(Here's more on pitchlines and one-sentence hooks)

2. A drawing or sketch restricted to line without shading or modeling of form.

An outline can easily be the general shape and form a story takes, and the details (the shading and modeling) can come as we write that story. It's the basic idea of the story, the important parts or events, maybe even the concepts behind those events with no details at all.

One common complaint I hear about outlines is that someone might not know the details of something before they write the book, and it's hard to force themselves to figure those out beforehand.

So don't.

A sketch is "big idea" time, focusing on the basic scope of the story and the parameters that story will exist in. Details can come later. It can be enough to know you want a twist after the protagonist's secret is revealed, but not know what that is until you get closer to it. A rough sketch of the novel is a type of outline.

(Here's more on plotting your novel conceptually)

3. A general sketch, account, or report, indicating only the main features, as of a book, subject, or project.

General sketch. Main features. I went to school for graphic design and I've often compared my writing process to drawing, so this one resonates with me. This just screams "novel structure," using the major turning points or events of a novel to define that novel. Maybe you use the Three Act Structure, or the Heroes' Journey, or Save the Cat beats, or something else entirely, but just knowing the major moments of a story is enough to create an outline you can work with.

And it doesn't have to be plot if that doesn't work for you. Maybe you prefer to jot down the major emotional moments in a character's arc, or big thematic turning points, or even scenes that are vivid in your head. The point here is to use whatever stands out in your mind as important to the story and things you want to develop the story around.

(Here's more on various story arcs)

4. Outlines, the essential features or main aspects of something under discussion.

A story you want to tell is like something under discussion. You have a topic, you explore different aspects of that topic until you reach a conclusion, then you wrap up the discussion. That's basically having a character who wants something, exploring different ways to get that something or figuring out how to get it, and finally resolving the issue by either getting it or not.

What are the things about your story you want to "discuss" or explore? What are the essential features? These are things that can make up an outline. You might use summaries, or bullet points, or lists, or even character sketches to do this. It's all just an aid to write the story, however you put it together.

(Here's more on crafting the outline that works for you)

Hardcore outliners are going to stick to outlining. Hardcore pantsers are going to stick to pantsing. But I've met a lot of writers who fall in the middle of those two sides, who enjoy the freedom of pantsing as well as the organization of outlining. There's a lot of middle ground to work with to find just the right balance between freedom and organization.

An outline is a guide, not the book in bullet-point form. It can provide structure and inspiration, and keep a story on track. It might not be for everyone (and that's okay), but if you've ever wished for a little more organization or structure in your writing, but felt outlines were "too much" to handle, try thinking of them in a different light. Outline only what you need to write down to get your story and thoughts in order and see how that works for you.

Would you try outlining if it wasn't the classic "heavy outline" format? Why or why not? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'm a pantser, but I did at one point try outlining. Most of the outlines I tried failed and crashed and burned at Chapter 3. The one pantser-friendly outline course had an outline that was like fingernails on chalkboard. Pretty much, they forced me to make decisions on things that I wasn't ready to decide on, and my creativity had no place to go.

  2. I LOVED this post. You said so many things that I have discovered intuitively--you just named them! I do like outlines, but found that they are just tools that get changed as I work. And just a general guideline/roadmap for me. Helps me to picture where I'm going overall and within each chapter. This post will definitely go on my classroom wikis! Thanks so much.

  3. Thank you for this post. I'm in-between pantser and outliner. My outlines tend to start 1/4 of the way in when I've put a few pieces in place and am in danger of losing sight of them. I favor multiple storylines so it's easy to lose track.

    I've found Scrivener to be a great help because you can use it any way you want.

  4. Great post! I too am a pantser and outlines break me out in hives.

  5. I tend to stick to the main events of each chapter. Largely because of my tendency to underwrite. (Why I recent breaking into flash fiction.)