Writing Question: Outlining

It isn’t easy holding together a story of 100,000 words, the average length of a novel these days. Many writers find they can’t manage without first creating an extensive outline. Other writers use a handful of three-by-five cards as an outline, while a few very successful authors, such as Stephan King, write with no outline at all. We asked Odyssey graduates:

Do you outline? Why or why not? What method of outlining do you use?

Larry Hodges, Class of 2006

I used to outline in great detail. For short stories, this seemed to work. My outlines were a numbered listing of each scene, with a paragraph or two describing what happens. I’d also have lengthy notes on the side, including character bios, descriptions, and notes on just about everything else. I’d also have pages of dialogue I planned to use – I’m always jotting down interesting snippets of dialogue that pop into my head.

When I did my first novel, I also outlined in great detail. My notes totaled 12,000 words. After writing 23,000 words of the novel, everything came to a crashing halt. The novel just wasn’t working, and I was bored out of my cranium writing it. The problem was I’d painted myself into such a detailed outline and plot that there was nothing really creative to do. I was just connecting dots, and the result showed.

I went back to it a year later, and threw out the detailed outline and most of what I’d written. This time I put together a very loose outline, with a few sentences outlining each chapter instead of the detailed outline of each scene I’d had before. The only detailed thing I worked out was the ending. Excluding research notes I’d already done (much of which I would still use), the outline was about two pages. I also had the many pages of dialogue I’d put together.

Then I began writing the novel, and the creative juices flowed. I’d start each chapter by reading the few sentences that outlined what was supposed to happen, and then make the rest up as I went along. I’d often leave the outline, but that wasn’t a problem–as long as I kept moving in the general direction of the planned ending, I could do whatever I wanted.

The novel still involved a lot of research, but I did most of the research when it was needed, either looking it up on the spot, or making a note of it, researching it later, and then finalizing that segment.

As I wrote, the characters became more developed, and I created character bios as this happened. Later I’d go back and flesh out the characters, especially in the early chapters before they were quite developed or thought out.

I regularly browsed the dialogue pages I’d put together, cannibalizing them whenever pieces fit, and sometimes even writing scenes in such a way that I could use a great piece of dialogue I’d written. This seems to be the one part I like to do a lot of in advance. Not only is it fun–I often act out the dialogue when no one’s around–but I think it’s helped turn dialogue into a strength of my writing. A key thing is to make sure the dialogue fits the scene–if you force it, it’ll seem forced to the reader.

Using this new approach, productivity, creativity, and (hopefully) quality shot up.

I wrote a second novel, and this went much easier as I again used only the loose outline, plus many snippets of dialogue I wrote in advance as I thought about the novel. After several rewrites, both novels are now making the rounds.

For short stories, I also have cut out the detailed outlines in favor of looser ones, along with bits of dialogue written in advance. I still like to work out the ending in advance–a tip I learned from Isaac Asimov–but even that changes if I come up with a better ending. For short stories, I put together at most a half page of bullet points, a few side notes, and start writing.

Lancer Kind, Class of 2006

What Larry described is pretty much my model too. I did this with novels, and then much later, switched to using the method for short stories too, which improved the quality of my short stories a lot in that I needed fewer revisions to figure out what the story was doing since I had a better understanding of what I wanted to write. It took a few years to reach this process because I knew [detailed] outlining would ruin the writing . . . so I feared all planning ahead. But then Jeanne, during a lecture, convinced me that doing a little planning instead of going 100% organic development would get me the story I wanted in fewer revisions. She was right.

More detail of my creativity model:

I think of it as three sides of a triangle: theme, scenes/plotting, characters. They are all necessary. If my outline completely describes everything without actually writing the story, then I feel bored. When I was “100% organic,” maybe I had vague ideas about all three sides, or maybe I developed one side of the triangle and wrote to figure out the other two. I had varying success. The most successful one was a story I threw out after page four and started over. It was just too hard to focus my energy with all three (or two) sides changing at any whim. Now I plan at least one side well (usually plotting/scenes), have a good idea of one of the other sides, and a rough guess at the last. (So two out of three rather than one out of three.) I then write to see what happens with the last.

I make adjustments to any side of the triangle when I feel that it will make a better story.

Paul Schilling, Class of 1999

I outline if the novel is getting complicated in its timing. The best example was a novel in which my heroes had been divided into three groups, and I had to make sure that they reached their goals in a certain order despite being in separate parts of the world. I don’t really like hand waving like that, since I feel the novel should grow in its natural order from decisions the characters should logically make, so I had to struggle to do both.

Otherwise, my outline is never more complicated than I can carry around in my head. However, I do have character lists to help me remember the minor characters, bad guy’s minions, etc. In the above mentioned novel, the list was eighty-eight names long.

Abby Goldsmith, Class of 2004

This topic always seems to be split 50/50 with writers. Stephen King doesn’t outline, John Irving outlines meticulously. I feel a degree of awe for writers who don’t need to outline, because I’m unable to write “blindly,” without knowing where the plot is headed.

I’ve tried to write without a mental outline, but the story always peters out. It sits dead in the water, rudderless.

I’ve found that I need to know the final destination of my story. Its path might take unexpected twists and turns, but it ends up where I intended. I don’t necessarily jot down an entire synopsis or outline, but the major plot points will be in my mind. I’ll know the beginning/middle/end before I write the first word.

Personally, I believe that outlining (at least a lot of time spent planning) is particularly important when writing an epic series. Stephen King didn’t outline The Dark Tower series, and I think the lack of planning becomes apparent by the last book–although it’s still an enjoyable story written by a masterful storyteller. I also wonder if a few current epic series-in-progress were planned meticulously enough. I’m working on my own epic series–and I’ve found that for me, careful planning leads to a tighter plot, higher suspense, and a stronger novel structure. Whenever I’m unsure about a plot point, it ends up weakening the story. Whenever I leave something important in the plot up to a whim, I end up regretting it later.

I want to add that planning a novel can be fun. It’s brainstorming. It’s daydreaming. I don’t write the outline down, unless it’s a huge epic scope with too many details to keep track of easily. These plans, once finalized, are great for setting milestones in each novel. When I wrote the fourth book in my Torth series, I kept in mind that “By the end of Part One, they’ll be HERE. By the end of Part Two, they’ll have accomplished X. By the end of Part Three, this character will have changed like THIS.” Goals like that helped me keep the plot moving, and helped me stay within a reasonable word count. I really wish I’d done that orginally for the first two books in the series.

Scott Andrews, Class of 2005

An interesting hybrid approach [to outlining] that I’ll throw out:  Steven Brust apparently plans ahead to a point about halfway through the book, and writes toward that. Then when he gets there, he has figured out enough
that he knows where the rest of the book will go.

I’ve only read the first of his Vlad Taltos series, but in hindsight I think I could feel the above approach in it. The first half ended with the characters in a rough situation and devising a plan to get out of it; then the second half was undertaking the plan and working around the parts that went wrong.

Mary Rodgers, Class of 2009

I’m almost finished with my first novel, and while I did not outline, I did engage in some serious planning. I knew the beginning and the end (roughly) of the book, and some key scenes, among them the second act nadir.

Before I set pen to paper (I alternate between writing by hand and typing on my netbook), I asked myself a lot of questions about my characters and my themes. Obviously the first goal was to tell an exciting adventure story. But beyond that, there were some things about human nature that I wanted to explore. So I took notes on those things, as they occurred to me.

I also decided what the point of view would be, that I would pursue a traditional three-act structure and that I would model my story arc after Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

Once I had that all decided, I wrote. As I chugged along in the story, new and often better ideas popped up, things that strengthened the plotline immeasureably. I am quite certain that if I had plotted, or tried to plot
everything out beforehand, I would have lost much in the way of originality and energy of the book.

When I got stuck, I’d jump ahead and write the scenes that I had already sketched out in my head. That kept my momentum going, and it often yielded the information that I needed to fill in the blanks elsewhere. I found that as I got to know my story and my characters better, entire scenes would drop into my head, fully fleshed out and ready to go, so clear and vivid that I knew that they would work.

With book two, I plan to pursue the same game plan.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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