Outlining

I’ve been talking about outlining with respect to A Turquoise Song, and I will undoubtedly mention it again relating to other work. But what is an outline, how do you get one, and what is it for?

First of all, I have not historically been much of an outliner – I’ve always dived into a story with not much more than a few chapter summaries and a couple of character sketches. This means that my process has been a kind of guided discovery writing, with plot details and twists occurring on the spur of the moment or developing during the draft.

The problem with this process is that it is monstrously inefficient: consider Bluehammer, the NaNovel I have just started reading the manuscript of – I am fairly sure I have the narrative arcs set in this latest version but I’ve been working on this story for seven years, on and off. If I ever want to make some kind of meaningful career out of being a novellist, I have to be more efficient in producing finished novels, and outlining in some more thorough form is going to be a part of that. My suspicion is that if I had outlined the Kissiltur story from the outset, I might have had a completed book years ago.

Anyway, more of what I have learned later.

What is an outline?

An outline is a summary of a story, as it is going to be told. It can be more or less detailed – the chapter summaries I mentioned above are a form of outline, albeit a high level one. Some people outline down to the scene level, some even to the paragraph (Mary Robinette Kowal has discussed her exceptionally detailed outlining approach).

Another outlining process which can be driven to arbitrary levels of detail is the snowflake method may be for you.

How do you get an outline?

The snowflake method is based on a pretty common problem-solving strategy of divide and conquer: have a start point and and end point, and break down the journey from one to the other into smaller and smaller pieces until you can see how each step can be made. If you’re outlining up front, then this is a reasonable way to determine the details of the story: define the starting and ending conditions for each block of narrative, and then break that box down into smaller boxes which link together to form the story.

This has been part of what I have been doing with Song, but a larger part has been about capturing the story as it is already written. My process has been using Scrivener, and the steps I follow are:

  1. make a folder for each chapter as written
  2. add files to each folder to capture the scenes within each chapter

For Song, I have been trying to take the first half of the original manuscript and turn it into a complete story. I mentioned what I have been doing with index cards to figure out the plot elements. So, I have additional steps:

  1. make plot point files for each of the plot cards
  2. push those plot point files into the chapter folder where that plot point should be revealed to the reader
  3. add scene files to explicate the plot

I used a similar process for laying out the new plot for Bluehammer before November.

What is an outline for?

An outline is useful in both writing your book and selling it once it’s done.

If you have an outline, you can debug the story before you write yourself into a corner.

Now, stories do change in the telling – it may well be that the outline you wrote will not survive contact with the characters and the plot twists and turns like a carbon snake emerging from an acid-oxidised beaker of sugar*, but the outline still gives you a map and at least you can take comfort from the fact that the story makes sense before you start.

When it comes to selling your book, I understand that it is quite common for agents and editors to ask for an outline to see if the story is interesting. It will also likely help in distilling the story down to synopsis and pitch length – these are not steps I have yet taken, so this is based on the many writers I have read who have made this observation.

Do you need an outline?

Yes.

The fear is that by outlining the story, you will kill the creative impulse – that if you are writing to an outline, the writing itself will be no fun. That has not been my experience.

On the contrary, I find the writing is more fun, because I am not afraid of writing myself into a corner or of running out of plot. The very worst experiences I have had in writing have been when I have not known what to write because I didn’t put enough thought into the plot before I started.

And I would venture the writing an outline before you write the story is a more pleasant experience. I’ve been inserting plot into old stories for most of the last six months – I’d much rather be writing new story in an outline than trying to mesh new plot into existing (non-)structure. I am not the only person to have made this journey (especially see thing #8).

Tools

  1. most word processors have some kind of outlining mode
  2. mind mapping is another good way to capture an outline
  3. use the index cards to break down chapters into scenes and then play with them on a large surface

But outlining helps me more than it gets in the way, and is helping me make the best of my writing time. Maybe it will help you too.

[*] this was always one of my favourite demonstrations in A-level chemistry: sugar + concentrated sulphuric acid = six foot long carbon foam snake. That and thermite, of course.

6 Replies to “Outlining”

  1. Very interesting. I just popped in from Laura Stanfill’s blog, and I always enjoy reading about other people’s processes.

    I do question one thing, though: “Do you need an outline? Yes.”

    I’m always dubious about trying to apply any rule or method to every writer. But, as I’ve been thinking about this, I think I approach this differently. I don’t really think of it in terms of what I need. To me, the question is more what the story needs.

    For example, everything I’ve written over the last 20+ years has been published serially, as I was writing it. No outline and often not much of a plan. Which worked quite well for those projects.

    The idea I’m working on now is a bit different, at least as far as I can tell so far. For one thing, I’m writing a lot of the ending first (which is not usual for me). Maybe I won’t publish it serially, or in a different rhythm. Maybe I’ll even do an outline. I doubt it, but I’ll certainly do it if the story needs it.

    1. Dunx says:

      You’re quite right on that point of whether an outline is needed – I was being too prescriptive. I should perhaps have qualified it by saying that I was talking about novel-length work. I’ve found that I end up making an outline for the kind of stories I write regardless of where I start, so my conclusion is that I might be better off just making an outline in the first place.

      I’m impressed that you’ve been writing serial fiction without a plan, though. You must know your characters and setting very well, observing their goings on rather than bending their actions to the needs of the plot.

      1. Good point. Yes, I know my characters and setting really well, since they’re always the same. It’s a bit like a long-running TV show — an ever-expanding cast of characters in a fairly-stable setting.

        Also, in terms of “bending their actions to the needs of the plot,” it probably helps that I work in a few genre (mysteries) where a lot of the structure comes built in. I wrote about that on my blog a while back:
        http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2054

        1. Dunx says:

          Science fiction covers such a wide spectrum of work that I feel a bit like Townshend’s person told to make music. I’m also not that knowledgeable about story structure, so part of my reason for outlining is to simply discover what I have.

          Thanks for explaining that, though. I understand your points a lot better now.

        1. Dunx says:

          That made me laugh with his opening about killing creativity with outlines. There’s an analogue in software*, where you over-design a system – drilling down and down into finer and finer details of the requirements and potential implementation rather than just getting on and writing the code.

          Analysis paralysis like this in part inspired a whole class of new development methodologies – the agile development approach.

          So, anyway – I was being too absolute in my statement about needing an outline. I need something, but not a sentence by sentence breakdown. That would suck the joy from the endeavour quite effectively.

          [*] it should probably be a digital.

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