Don’t Call It an Outline

Back when I first played around with the idea of writing a book, I opened up a spiral and started writing a story I thought my kids would enjoy. Every spare moment—at games and doctor visits and during lunch—I would invent problems for my characters to solve and things for them to say. I was a pantser, and I didn’t care about how to map out a novel.

Eventually, a plot formed. The first novel grew into two. Then three. I had an entire shelf of spirals and three-ring binders, all written in longhand. By then, I knew I could write a book because I had already written one, if that makes sense.

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Along the way, I read every craft book I could find, and I learned about things like story structure, characterization, and point of view. Finally, I decided to get serious and write a book for publication. I didn’t want to get halfway through my novel and falter, so I took a few days to plot it out. I became a plotter.

The premise helps you focus; any time you get lost while you are a writing, return to your story kernel. This one piece of information can get you back on track.

Don’t Call It an Outline.

I think many authors who write by the seat of their pants resist plotting because they fear it will stifle their creativity. They live for the spontaneity, the bursts of inspiration. But pantsers often have a folder full of unfinished novels.

Plotters don’t have all the answers either. If you are a plotter, you may be stifling your creativity by plotting every moment of your story before you start writing. How many times have you made it to the end of your work in progress without going off script?

As every military commander can attest, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Stuff happens. Things go wrong. Adjustments must be made.

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Honestly, these days I call myself a puzzler because I take the middle road between plotting and pantsing.

The puzzler approach takes a fair amount of prewriting and preparation before the real work begins, but don’t call it an outline.

Outlines give me hives. I have flashbacks to high school History, Science, and Language Arts where the teachers expected the class to pull outlined notes out of the air as they lectured. With Roman numerals and everything! And they graded your notes on how well you could outline. Yuck!

Plotting isn’t about creating an outline.

I know you’ve heard experts tell you that you ought to outline your book. You’ve read how-to-write books that instruct you to plot out your story. But I’m here to tell you that an “outline” for fiction isn’t what you think it is.

Dismiss that picture of the indented structure that you learned in school: Roman numerals, capitalized letters, Arabic numerals, and lowercase letters.

Dobby is a free elf!

Yes, Dobby, you are free. Free to create notes in any form you choose. Sorry, non-fiction writers, even if you start out in free form, you must eventually marshal your thoughts into a proper outline. You will probably need to create an index too. Sorry.

But back to Dobby, the free-elf fiction author who can make notes any way he pleases—doodles, diagrams, mind maps, or copious notes. Dobby can use notebooks, scrolls, butcher paper, note cards, Scrivener, or Evernote as long as Dobby captures his ideas before they get away.

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A premise is highly recommended.

In the center of your blank piece of paper, it’s a good idea to capture the kernel of your story idea, also called the premise. Try to state your premise in ten words or less.

Do you recognize the books/movies referenced below? Answers at the end.

The parents of five dowerless daughters must attract rich husbands. (10)
A powerless orphan is chosen to defeat an evil wizard. (10)
A private investigator addicted to cocaine solves difficult cases. (9)
A federation crew keeps a madman from deploying regeneration bomb. (10)
A conscientious objector becomes highly decorated war hero. (8)

The premise helps you focus; any time you get lost while you are a writing, return to your story kernel. This one piece of information can get you back on track.

Think about your characters.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash
The Underdog, get it?

Each of the story kernels in the examples begins with a character or a group of characters.

The more unlikely the character–a powerless orphan or a conscientious objector–the better. Readers love to root for the underdog.

Once you have identified your characters, flesh them out a bit. What are their strengths and weaknesses, wants and needs? What motivates them? What do they fear the most?

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Identify the stakes.

The dowerless daughters face poverty. The federation crew faces death itself. The investigator may lose his credibility or fall victim to a dangerous villain.

Each hero or heroine will lose big time if they fail. A premise hints at the conflict and what is at stake.

Story structure is the secret sauce.

Now that you have your premise and you have a main character, think about structure.

There you go again, imagining the worst. Forget about Roman numerals and indentation.

Story structure is the secret sauce to your plot. Think seven columns, five columns, or only three. Remember in elementary school when they taught you beginning, middle, and end? Start there.

Now you have a map to use during those days when writing is more labor than love. When you’re feeling a little bit lost, let your map get you back on track.

Remember in middle school when you learned about exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement? Maybe your teacher called it resolution.

In other words, think of your story in big blocks of time, and then subdivide those blocks according to the goals for each block.

Call it a map, a timeline, or a synopsis, but don’t call it an outline.

If nothing else, figure out what your showdown might look like and work forward and backward from there. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What happens after that?
  • How did that happen?
  • Why did it happen?
  • And what happened before that?
  • Before that? Before that?
  • How did this story begin?
  • Try thinking about the darkest moment before the dawn, when all seems lost for your main character.
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My stories benefit most when I pay attention to the hero’s journey or the heroine’s journey. You have probably heard of the hero’s journey, made famous by Joseph Campbell, but the heroine’s journey is every bit as strong. Neither of these structures has anything to do with your main character’s gender, by the way.

Anyway, you need to become acquainted with both structures because story structure is tried and true and time tested. Ignore story structure at your peril; it you pay attention to it, you will find a shining path to follow whether you are a plotter, pantser, or puzzler.

After I wrote my first few books, I discovered I was writing a heroine’s journey. Many aspects of my series made more sense to me.

Check out The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture by Gail Carriger for a great addition to your author library.

cover outline

Tell yourself the story in shorthand.

Do they actually teach shorthand in school anymore? Back in my mother’s day, she took shorthand in high school.

The beauty of using shorthand was how you could take notes in a way that didn’t require every letter of every word, but later, you could decipher your notes without forgetting important details.

The concept of shorthand is still viable for writers today. Tell yourself the story you want to write using a shorthand approach.

  • Use present tense.
  • If you don’t know the names, use code names like A and B, etc.
  • Give yourself the green light to get as crazy as you like.
  • If you think of a snippet of conversation or a witty line, jot it down.
  • Can you see a piece of the action in your mind’s eye? Put it where it fits best: beginning, middle, or end. Rising action, climax, or resolution.

Writing the synopsis first is another option.

When I decided to write a prequel to my series, I didn’t want to waste a lot of time going down dead end streets to create a good story. So I wrote a synopsis for my prequel.

Synopsis is a scary word that means summary. Okay, summary sounds scary too, but all I did was tell myself the story at a very high level.

Here is part of the synopsis I wrote before I started work on Pirate’s Wager, my prequel novelette to Mardan’s Mark:

“Samazor (thirteen) is brought aboard. His clothes, though faded and dirty, bespeak a more privileged life. Scar comes aboard, too, as the new first mate. The first night in charge, Scar banishes Aldan and Linus to the hold because they are “too little to be of use” and foreign to boot. Scar figures he can turn Samazor into a deck hand because he’s a big, strong boy, so he puts Samazor with the crew. People to mention: Fratz, Biscuits, the older black hand who plays the flute, Rozar, and Scar.”

Granted, this is more detailed than it had to be because I already knew the characters from the full-length novel.

I could have written it like this:

  • Samazor becomes a slave on a pirate ship.
  • The same day, a new first mate, A, is hired.
  • A is a terrible bigot and a very cruel man. He hates foreigners. There are two other slaves, C and D.

Or I could have started in the middle: “Because of something Samazor does, the cruel first mate decides to punish C, and C is in danger of dying.”

From the middle, it is a matter of going forward and backward on the timeline until you reach the end and the beginning.

You have probably heard of the hero’s journey, made famous by Joseph Campbell, but the heroine’s journey is every bit as strong. Neither of these structures has anything to do with your main character’s gender, by the way.

It isn’t an outline; it’s a map.

When you write your story beats as some people call them, they serve as a map to take you from beginning to end.

But you don’t need to know immediately where all the details belong. It is okay to write a jumble of ideas, moments, action beats, setting notes, and crazy thoughts in no particular order. Then do a preliminary sort and get started.

You don’t need to know everything that’s going to happen.

The unknown factor should make pantsers happy because the door is wide open for sudden inspiration, those golden, transcendent moments authors long for.

Transcendent moments should also please even the most devoted plotters.

Now you have a map to use during those days when writing is more labor than love. When you’re feeling a little bit lost, let your map get you back on track.

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Photo by Pedro Ramos on Unsplash

Give yourself permission to be messy.

Learn about story structure. Write the beats. Create a synopsis, if you like, or draw a diagram. But don’t call it an outline.

If you are in the middle of a story and feel lost, take a few hours to map out where you want it to go.

If you haven’t begun to write, identify your premise and figure out whether you are writing a hero’s journey or a heroine’s journey.

If you have already finished your book, map it in reverse. A synopsis will help you test your story for plot holes.

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The question of the week is: How do you map out your stories? What methods work best for you?

Thank you for reading this post. For more tips like these, subscribe to the Writing Pursuits Tips newsletter.

Answers for the examples:

Pride and Prejudice, Harry Potter series, Sherlock Holmes series, The Wrath of Kahn, Sergeant York

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