To outline or to not outline?

I have a very touch and go relationship with outlining. It’s not something I always use and I like having the ability to jump into a project and just GO. It’s not always possible to do that. Outlining is a good way of looking at things in the big picture using the small details as guidelines.

The outline can be a double edged sword. It can provide structure but it can also stifle innovation. It can show direction but it can lead down tiresome paths. The outline is a tool, and like any tool you have to know when to use it and when to set it aside.

Currently I like to make three generations of outline.

Basic

  • Used to construct the basic plot arcs, character arcs
  • Figure out the ending
  • Lay out the track of the plot through the story

Plot Detail

  • Used to figure out the exact steps of the plot arcs
  • Find the moments where the plot needs to pivot
  • Clarify the goals and purpose of specific events
  • Weed out unnecessary or boring parts
  • Solidify the focus of the story

Ideas

  • Lay out the character emotional arcs
  • Where does the character start emotionally, psycologically
  • Where does the character end up emotionally, psychologically
  • Do they revert, grow, or learn things?
  • How do they change

Once I have these worked out then I tend to step away from them and refer to them only as an aside while I’m in the middle of writing. Adhering to strictly to an outline can really add a dose of writer block to my process. When I start getting stuck it usually mean the flow or track of the story or the character isn’t doing what I need them to do, that’s when I know it’s time to change things up throw a little chaos into story.

Outlining can be good to use, because it will let you see visually where the holes are in your story, where there’s too much or too little there to carry the story forwards, the problem always arises when you think you’ve pigeonholed yourself into a corner because of it. An outline is one of many roads, not a static railroad track.

For example: I have known the general basic plot arcs of all five books of The Kinetics Sequence since I finished writing Kinetics: In Search of Willow. However, small details I work out as I go. I decided only a few weeks ago that the end of Book 3: Entropy wasn’t good enough/wasn’t what I wanted the ending to feel like so I “ripped up” the basic outline I made for it and started again making sure the new ending I had come up with was savvy with the beginning.

I have a new ending in mind that will raise the stakes and carry the story in a more interesting direction. I’ve now started to work on the Plot Detail outline and the Ideas outline.

I expect that as I start getting more involved with the principle writing that I’ll add or delete ideas from the outline but those are usually bridges I cross when I need to.

Regardless of whether you outline or not, don’t see it as a box or some kind of restrictive thing that you can’t escape from. Outline is first and foremost just one of the many tools we writers can use to make our writing process much easier. For smaller stories, like my Love Between the Stars stories I don’t even bother with outlining. They are very basic plots, very basic character progressions, and outline will just muddy up a very simple process.

However you use outlines, or if you do at all, remember that you are in control and writing itself is just a tool for expressing yourself and your stories.

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