Writing outlines: Do what works for you

I was recently asked a question about outlining a novel:

“I’m now working on an extensive outline in hopes that doing so will better help me see a novel through to the end. It sounds like doing so made all the difference for you. I am wondering if you could respond and further explain your outlining and writing process and maybe even include some images from the Unsub outline. Do you plot down to the chapter and scene level or is it more of the acts of the story and major plot points? Do you sketch these out on a pad or are you strictly working on Word files? I’d love to see what that actually looks like when done by a pro.”

Here’s the gist of how I responded:

When it comes to outlining stories: Do whatever works. Over the years I’ve found it most helpful to write an outline that’s like a story summary—it will include the beginning, major turning points, and ending. That’s what works for me. The more I can come to understand the characters before I dive into a first draft, and ramp up their motivations and conflicts, the better grasp on the story I’ll have—and the more ideas for how to develop the plot to a slam-bang ending.

I don’t format the outline with Roman numerals or anything that stringent—I write it up as if I’m telling the gist of the story to a friend. I’ll include a quick precis of major scenes, and emphasize the twists and turns in the plot, with particular emphasis on the protagonist and antagonist.

That’s just me. Whatever helps pull ideas from the air (or the unconscious)!

Crafting a novel is a discipline that simply takes time and practice. We all careen along the trail, hoping there will be a brass band at the finish line.

__________

I promised the querier that I would expand on these thoughts in a blog post. So: 

Over time, I’ve come to outline my novels in greater detail and at greater length. For example, for The Shadow Tracer, I wrote a two-page outline. Here’s a screen shot.

Shadow Tracer excerptI hadn’t read that outline for several years. When I did, I was struck to see that it’s mostly summary and backstory.

Actually, I was taken aback. I mean, the outline continues: “Sarah has a desperate secret. Zoe was placed in her care by her dying sister, Beth, who sacrificed her own life to protect her. Beth had unwittingly been put in danger by Zoe’s dad. He was a good-hearted young man who’d fled a nightmarish upbringing.” And it goes on like that for several more paragraphs. It’s almost all setup. The outline doesn’t even reveal the ending.

Since then, I’ve come to understand that getting the central conflict on the page, and explaining it in terms of the push-and-pull between the hero and antagonist, are incredibly helpful. What matters is to tell the story in the outline with as much drive and verve as possible. So now when I outline, I write the summary the way I write the book: I dive straight in. The action comes first; any explanation or backstory comes later. What counts is to dig into the heart of the characters’ emotional lives and excavate what’s at stake in the story.

So I’ve moved toward writing what are essentially story treatments for the novel. These are longer documents that include some mini-scenes and bring the story more immediately to life.

Here’s the opening of the UNSUB outline.

UNSUB excerpt

The UNSUB outline runs to almost twenty pages. Writing it took me months. And months, and more months. But when I finished it, I knew who the characters were. I knew what they meant to each other. And what they would do to each other. The UNSUB outline put all the elements of the plot on the page, with every major twist and turn, from beginning to end. And, importantly, it did so while delving into the emotional connections between the characters, and highlighting every major conflict, surprise, and revelation in the story.

Because of that, it took much less time to write the first draft of the book than to write the outline. And that first draft didn’t meander or require extensive cutting. When it came to plot and character development, I’d done the heavy lifting already.

Your mileage may vary. You may decide not to outline a single word of a story or novel. But if you get nothing else from this blog post, take this away: Even after writing thirteen novels, I’m still learning how to do it better.

5 responses to “Writing outlines: Do what works for you

  1. Great post! I’m sure others besides me will find this helpful and interesting. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Awesome post, thanks so much!

  3. Lots of good points to think about here. And now I need to go re-read The Shadow Tracer.

  4. My outline-awakening moment was about 5 years ago. I finally realized that an outline for me is the difference between a finished product and a floundering, unfinished one. I simply can’t go without an outline anymore. The format, itself, that I use has changed a bit. But your article confirms that’s ok. Thanks for sharing your process.

    • You’re welcome! Like you, I discovered that unless I outlined, I flailed and wandered and ended up off track with no way to finish the story. Glad you’ve found a process that works for you.

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