The debate goes on: to outline or not to outline.
Like many things in life, I take the third option when faced with two. Being a realist, I don’t think in terms of a glass half full or half empty—I’m waiting for the water to arrive before I make a decision.
I am a “sorta” outliner. Before beginning a story or novel, I may list a few high points, a number of plot directions I want the story to take, sometimes (but not always) the climax and end, along with basic character sketches for my main players.
If I outline at all—many times I write without any plan whatsoever—it’s bare-bones because I enjoy the journey, surprise, and mystery of where the story travels. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and that is as true with the art of writing.
Outliners say I’m not in their camp, and non-outliners say I am. So be it.
I always, without exception, outline as I go. What, you ask, does that mean? Well, it’s the third option when faced with two.
Regardless what preliminary planning I’ve done (or maybe nothing), I list the scene actions, plot switches, and viewpoints after I have written the section. There is a critical reason I do this: to ease the pain of editing.
Writing a succinct description of a just written scene helps crystallize the story and its progression. There are even times when the short explanation gives me an idea about a future story event, in which case I make a note at the bottom of the developing outline.
When I’m finished with the story or novel, I have a listing of the story’s progression, the parts each character plays during different scenes—all the daring do’s and dangerous don’ts the characters live through within the telling of the story.
This after-creation outline is a road map where my characters have gone and when they went there, what caused their decision to follow that path, the conflicts beset them, and the outcome.
After writing a scene or chapter, I begin my outline:
Scene 1 (or Chapter 1 if a planned novel)
I. Sam enters his apartment to find his roommate drooped over the couch, dead. (pg. 1)
A. Shot in back, cell phone clenched in hand.
B. Room is thrashed; whoever killed the roommate was looking for something.
II. Sirens getting closer, then footsteps on the stairway. (pg. 3)
A. Sam climbs out the fire escape.
1. As an ex-felon with violent history, figures he’ll be accused and arrested.
2. Realizes whoever killed roommate and thrashed apartment may come back.
III. Sam goes to his friend (Alex) to see if there’s any “word on the street” why his roommate—a known grifter—might have been targeted. (pgs. 4-5).
A. Alex is fidgety.
B. Sam hears rustling in back room, leaves quickly.
Whether you initially outline or not, form an outline (separate from any you made prior, to compare once finished) while writing the story. This after-the-fact outline will clarify where and how the story goes, and will make the all-important editing process exceedingly easier—a glance at the story and character progression will reveal missing pieces, inconsistencies, and will illuminate the flaws you didn’t realize during the actual writing.
Editing is hard, mainly because when faced with pages and pages of text, the pure volume can be overwhelming and tend to blur when re-reading to fix errors. Having an outline based on what you wrote gives you a smaller working canvas—breaking a large project into smaller pieces allows the freedom to take specific problems one at a time.
It does not matter if you outline before writing or not, but outlining during the writing process is essential—unless you enjoy difficult editing sessions.
See you on the next page,
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