Why I Outline Last

paper-34910_640Every writer builds the foundation for their novel differently, and most of us do it a little differently every time we attempt to write a novel.

Some writers start with an almost fully formed plot and write their outline while still trying to figure out the characters’ histories and the setting’s climate. Others start with characters who won’t leave them alone. A select few start with an interesting world.

Every one of my novels starts differently, but I almost always outline last. Some years I’ve barely outlined at all before Nanowrimo got started.

Why do I outline last?

The first reason is because I consider outlines to be loose guides rather than something I’m going to follow to the letter. I expect my novels to grow and change as I write them, as I get to know my characters and my world better.

But the real reason I usually outline last is because strong characters and a well developed setting influence plot. 

In order to really know what your plot will look like, you have to understand your characters. You have to know how they respond to different situations, who and what they care about, what they’re willing to do to achieve their goals. You should know their weaknesses and their strengths, the memories that haunt them and their childhood dreams.

Your characters are shaped, at least partially, by their setting. They will have internalized many of the predominant beliefs in your culture. If they’re part of an oppressed group, it will influence how they act, especially when around members of the oppressive group. It will also influence how characters from the oppressive group act towards your characters.

That’s not even mentioning that well educated characters from a world where the vast majority of people can’t read–or can’t read well–have to get that way somehow. If your character comes from a poor background in a medieval type fantasy world but can fight with several different weapons and read well, there has to be a logical explanation. Exploring oppression in fantasy is interesting and often fun, but you have to do it right. If your characters are oppressed, make sure they act like people who are oppressed. 

The setting can also have a direct influence on the plot. Your characters might have to tangle with volcanoes, tropical storms, mountains, all kinds of fun things created by their setting. Even a simple thunder storm that makes it impossible to find usable firewood near the road can have an impact on your story.

You’re much more likely to stick with your outline if it’s based on the reality of your world and your characters. After all, if you don’t know your characters very well, you won’t know how they’ll really react when the story gets started.

Do you outline first or last? Or do you develop your outline while working on other aspects of your novel?

Let me know in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Why I Outline Last

  • Very well said, and I agree with you completely. I always put the outline near the end, though I do take notes throughout the planning process, because often when I’m creating characters or settings, plot ideas will emerge.

    I also liked the part about illiteracy, as that’s a subject I had to tackle in my own story. I spent a lot of time thinking about how she would learn the skills she has, which in turn influenced ideas for plot.

    Once again, thanks for the great article!

    • dlgunn

      Glad to know I’m not the only one saving the outline for the end. I do always have an idea how character/setting development will impact the story as I go, which I usually take notes on. Sometimes I’m neglectful and spend a fair bit of time backtracking through character notes to find pieces I need for the plot.

      This year I’ve really left outlining to the last minute. I reached a point where I was satisfied with character and story development two days ago, and tomorrow is marked as my outlining day.

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