O is for Outlines

O is for OutlinesToday the A to Z Challenge continues! I’ll be posting about one letter/word on every weekday in April. Don’t want the barrage of posts? Sign up for my newsletter and I’ll let you know when I start doing new stuff next month!

O is for Outlines.

When people talk about outlines they usually try to separate writers into two categories: plotters and pantsers. Plotters make sure they have every important plot detail written down in their outline and do extensive worldbuilding and research before they start. Pantsers get an idea and start pounding it out right away, diving headlong into the novel and writing at an often breakneck(breakwrist?) pace.

Frankly, I think very few writers actually fall into one of these extremes, and in my experience the outlining process varies greatly from book to book. Sometimes I have books come to me pretty much fully formed and I can outline all the most important points the moment I have the idea. Other times I can only outline the first several chapters of the novel until I’ve actually gotten into the story. I almost always have the end goal in mind when I begin a story, especially a book length project, but everything along the way is subject to change as I dig further into my characters and their stories.

I almost always outline with pen and paper because it gets my creative juices flowing in a different way from the keyboard. Many writers use simple Word documents with bullet points. Others use the outlining function of specialized writing tools like Scrivener. There are even entire programs dedicated to outlining. What you use to outline is important, but I think you should always do at least a basic outline before you start a story, especially a novel. 

The key here is that it only has to be basic. If you want to go all out and create a detailed outline you can(though I guarantee some of those details will change naturally as you write) but I think you only really need to establish a few things: how your story will start, a handful of details about what happens in the middle and what’s going to happen at the end. These notes will at least keep you going in the right direction for the story you want to create.

If you do create a detailed outline, don’t be afraid to veer off course. Characters rebelling, doing unexpected things and telling you details about their world you hadn’t even considered are all signs that you’ve created real people readers will actually be able to connect to. And you might just like the direction they take your story in even more than you liked the original outline.

Do you use outlines? Why/why not? Let me know in the comments section below!

2 thoughts on “O is for Outlines

    • dlgunn

      Do you find this makes for really messy first drafts? I’ve grown rather fond of outlines, even skeletal ones, because I find they make the first drafts much better, but everyone’s process is different.

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