October 9, 2014

Maze Puzzle, by FutUndBeidl (CC)
Outlining methods

I’ve written about outlining before, but I’ve left out how I do my outlining. While the basic premises are the same no matter what, and the whole there are no rules thing still stands, I do have some thoughts to share on the matter.

For me, outlining is help along the way, something that keeps me focused on the task at hand. It’s the guiding light that makes sure I don’t delve into some dark cave where brain fungus live, forcing me to tell you about the time I found an enchanted ring of cheese, which of course was a metaphor for the Moon High And Bright, and… Yeah. Outlining’s a good idea no matter how you do it.

Some outlines’ll contain everything that is the story and almost be books on their own, just lacking the flair. Others’ll be little more than bullet points indented in various levels to help the writer find her way through the story. Mine are more the latter, I like to be surprised by the story and where it takes me. This, by the way, is something a lot of novice writers’ll tell you, that the story takes them places they wouldn’t find if they they’d written an in-depth outline, or an outline at all. If that’s your writing style, and you’re actually churning out books without outlines, then kudos to you – I salute you, and this piece is definitely not written for you. But that writer’s an anomaly. She’s something else, which doesn’t mean she’s better at telling stories, or even at her craft, but just something else.

Maze Puzzle, by FutUndBeidl (CC)
Maze Puzzle, by FutUndBeidl (CC)

Most writers benefit from an outline, but how in-depth it is depends on style, and possibly situation. Personally, I always start out with a simple outline, never too much detail in it, definitely devoid of color. I’ll have a clear picture of the characters and where I want to take them, but the road ahead is hard to see, except the big roadsigns that take the story in various directions. I like to keep it that way because it gives me leeway to explore the story, which is a good thing when the writerly juices are flowing (yes, they’re mostly whisky), but not particularly helpful when there’s a word-detox. That’s why the level of detail in my outline changes over time.

Whenever I feel my enthusiasm for the writing ebbing, I’ll spend some time with the outline. This reaffirms my goals, which’ll make me more determined to reach them, but it’s also an opportunity to flesh out the outline, thus nailing more of the story. That in turn makes it easier for me to manage the rougher parts of my writing process, when the words aren’t flowing as easily as I’d like. I’ll just turn to my outline, a writing aid in its own, but now fleshed out with more detail than I usually put in it, and get a clearer picture of what I’m doing. Adding depth and information to the outline not only reminds me of what I’m doing, it also makes it easier to sit down and get to work.

Let’s make this prefectly clear: I don’t think you should fiddle too much with your outline when you’re writing. Figure out the story, outline it, and then write, write, write. That’s how structured writing works. However, small visits to Outlineville can be a good idea, and while you’re there you’ll sometimes want to build a shed or something. Yeah, dropping the metaphors… What I’m saying is that it can help to not only consult the outline, but even tweak and flesh it out. When the writing’s rough, a more detailed outline is better, at least to me.

There are no rules. You write the way you write, I write the way I write. It’s likely that you’ll benefit from an outline, and the more effort you put into it, the more it can help you. It’s a tool you should remember to use.

Thoughts? Let @tdh know on Twitter, or find me elsewhere. There is also a newsletter.