(Just for the record, I used an outline to write this blog about outlines. So there’s that.)
We live in such overwhelmingly controversial times but somehow whether or not authors should use outlines manages to remain a widely disputed topic. There are plenty of published novelists who discourage using them and claim that they ruin the creative process.
For example, Stephen King is known for saying that real writers don’t use outlines. His son, who writes under the pseudonym Joe Hill, published a novel in 2016 entitled The Fireman in which a main character says (I’m paraphrasing here) that he hopes all writers who use outlines are burned on a pyre of them.
While I’m a fan of Stephen King and an even bigger fan of his son, I have to respectfully disagree with the blanket statement to never use these tools.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a danger to outlining a novel. Authors (including myself) often waste too much time writing outlines and sometimes rely on them as a crutch.
While mapping out one’s story can be incredibly helpful, the key is to spend minimal time doing it. However, it can be essential to creating a clear and concise story that maximizes your creativity.
Below are four types of novel outlines, when to use them, their benefits and (of course) their drawbacks.
1) PRE-FIRST DRAFT OUTLINE.
This is the one you want to spend the least amount of time on because it’s easy to become addicted (yes addicted) to outlining your story to the point that you’re bored with it before you get around to writing the first sentence. That being said, it can be essential.
I don’t know how the rest of you get your ideas, but when they strike me they come so fast that if I don’t jot them down on a sheet of paper I will lose them. (For some reason recording them on a laptop or phone never feels right.)
The key here is that once you have jotted down all of the ideas that naturally arise and you have an idea of where the story starts (of course this might change later on), it’s vital to stop outlining. The purpose of pre-first draft outlines is to record ideas your brain is throwing at you, not to force yourself to churn out a full story.
I know that we all want the entire story to spring out fully formed like Athena, but when you start your manuscript you don’t need to know every single detail (or even many of the details). You just need to catch all of your initial ideas before you forget them. If you force the ideas, they’ll feel forced. You’ll have plenty of time to connect all of the story lines, characters and twists in the many drafts to follow.
INTERLUDE: A MAJOR PIECE OF ADVICE
Never, under any circumstance, feel like you need to follow your outlines to the letter. They’re just tools. Just because you write something down doesn’t make it cannon. I know that this might seem obvious, but once you have something about your characters/world on paper it can be tempting to stick with it come hell or high water.
Personally, I very seldom look at my pre-first draft outline while I’m actually writing my first draft. Just jotting down notes brings the story lines and characters to the front of my brain so I can tell the story that needs to be told.
2) FIRST DRAFT OUTLINES.
While I am writing my first draft I very often keep notes or a rough outline of what I imagine will happen in the foreseeable chapters. This helps because:
1) I don’t want to forget them.
2) It’s a guide/reminder of where I want the story to go.
When I write a chapter or a short story for the very first time I often start out writing it by hand in outline form. However, as I delve deeper into the scene, I add more dialogue and description until I end up writing the chapter/story in paragraphs. Therefore, I go from writing an outline to the story itself. Later, when I type up the chapter/story, I go back and flesh out the beginning of the scene.
The goal is to have ideas flow easily through you so they come organically and you still have the ability to surprise yourself (and therefore the reader). The outline allows you to organize your thoughts and the story. However, if you adhere too close to an outline created before you even wrote the first sentence, the story will feel stale.
3) LIST OUTLINES
So suppose you’re writing the scene where your heroes escape from the villain. For the sake of an example let’s say they have become trapped in a warlock’s accounting firm. If the means of their escape comes to you naturally as you are writing, excellent! Keep up the good work! Here’s a cookie!
However, very often solutions like this won’t come right away or what you write is trite and relies too much on coincidence. This is the kind of situation where a List Outline might come in handy. (By the way I never actually thought of outlines by these names until I wrote this blog.)
A List Outline is pretty much like it sounds. You jot down all of the different ways your heroes can escape, even possibilities you would never, ever use. This gets the creative blood flowing.
Your list might look something like this:
1. Stacy’s roommate Ryan breaks into the warlock’s accounting firm and saves them at the last moment.
2. They manage to break a window and climb down on a ladder made of paper clips.
3. They get to a window and start screaming until the little old lady next door turns up her hearing aid and calls the police.
4. Earlier in the story Stacy finds an amulet that helps her bash through walls.
5. They type a formula into the warlock’s calculator, which summons a Fraction Demon. The demon tears the building apart so they can escape.
You get the idea.
The reason for this list is that initial ideas in your story (like how characters escape, how couples meet or how heroes get their super powers) tend to be based on ideas we have run into from other stories. The first ideas that pop into our head are very often cliché and overused, but the more we dig the sooner we will find escape plans, meet cutes and origin stories that are original and fit with the nature of our world.
4) POST-FIRST DRAFT OUTLINE
Here is the one I use the most.
Congratulations! You have written the first draft of your novel! And this is where you realize that it’s a piece of
But that’s okay, because everyone’s first draft is a piece of
Basically what you do here is make an outline of the story you wrote in order to map out your manuscript as a whole. When you are done with this outline (or even while you are completing it) you can look it over and figure out the story you want to tell. You look for unnecessary characters and chapters that need to be cut, holes where your plot becomes flimsy and you rearrange scenes so that your story has a distinct beginning, middle and end.
Stories, especially novels, have so many moving parts that it’s often impossible to picture them as a whole. You sometimes need to actually have a guide that shows you the various steps your characters take in order to remove sections that are extraneous and to develop themes that come about. This is especially true for plots that are naturally complex or are told in a non-linear fashion.
I think most writers will agree that rising authors need to do what’s right for them. Obviously, what I have presented here are examples that I have found helpful. If you never use outlines and you’re on your third novel that’s fantastic, our brains just work differently. However if you’re having trouble reworking your first draft or even getting past your first page, don’t let the “real writers don’t use outlines” myth discourage you from implementing these helpful (if sometimes overused) tools.