Outlines have always been my personal bane. I never know what to do with them. For today, I want to talk about outlines and my frustrations with them and the benefits they bring.
Pacing, plot elements and character growth are all crucial for good fiction. It’s something that every author strives for when telling a good story. Putting them all in the right place at the right time can take some practice. We’ve all been told in elementary school that outlines are supposed to help, organize our thoughts so we can make a concrete and solid story. Then, as we get older, we hear from famous authors and some writers that they don’t even use outlines. Thing is, outlines are not for everyone. Mechanically, they are great for figuring out the plot points, the flow and pacing of a story, and engineering all the dynamics. The problem is that they can be very cumbersome and for those like me, they can be exhausting to write and I don’t always follow them.
So, what is a writer to do? Why are outlines so cumbersome? My experiences with outlines have been mixed. I usually have a solid story in mind but sometimes plots get tangled, or I have to re-write something or the characters have changed. Eventually, almost every time, really, I have to throw mine out and start again. Or I have done an outline and I get too exhausted to even write. I seem to have a cursed touch with outlines. So eventually I stopped using them, and so far so good. If I know the ending, I usually can get there will little trouble. I might have to re-write or re-structure something, but the job still gets done.
However, outlines can be crucial for writers. They provide guideline and structure when it’s impossible to do it on your own. Here are a few outlines that I use outside of bullet-point; these might help writers figure out the direction of their story, in a way that is more engaging than listing ideas. These are the few that actually work for me.
Plot trees are used to figure out the structure of a plot and where plot threads are going as well as the results they might cause. I use a blank wall in my bedroom (you can use wherever you write), grab some post-it notes and sometimes string, and I start writing places, people and main events, and I stick them on the wall. With the strings you can start connecting them together, figuring out how each event is connected to a place or a person. You can even go further by adding some notes suggesting how an event ends or climaxes. This is great if you’re hyper-visual and you need to see your plot before you write it.
This is a good tool if you need to know how your characters are are developing or what kinds of motivations they might have. Sitting down and having a conversation with your characters helps you get into their heads and see how they might react, process or understand something. It will help you get to know your characters and provide plot points and structure. Plus, it’s also fun to do and many writers enjoy sitting down and playing with their characters a bit. Once you get a general idea of how your character acts or what they like, write it down. List it. I do this mostly for main characters.
For folks that are more linear, writing down plot points and structuring out them out in a chart might help see where your plot is going and it’s great for long overly complex plots. It acts as a map knowing that Event A is going to lead to Point B and result in Solution C. It’s good for keeping things solid and concrete and it’s great for writers who know exactly where their story is going. I don’t always like using it because I tend to be rather capricious with my plots, but it’s good when I need to know what will happen if this event train starts.
For writers who are very visual and artistic, drawing out characters and scenes might help you have a better look on how the scene looks and feels. I like using it to see what my character will look like so I can plan out their expressions and reactions clearly, or for setting up a scene that is very descriptive. It can be rather time intensive and exhausting but if you love drawing it’s great for getting a scene just right.
Overall, it’s clear this is less about outlines and more about writing tools. Fancy that. So readers, what is in your tool box?