Writing Wednesday: Outlines

You have an idea. You might even have a first chapter. Now what? Where does the book go from here?

To outline or not to outline, that is the question.

If you ask people in the writing community, they generally divide themselves into two camps: outliners and “pantsers” (or people who work by the seat of their pants). The truth of the matters is that there are all sorts of permutations in between.

Some people need to know exactly where the book is going before they start. If that’s the case for you, you might be an outliner. Your outline could be anything from a one page list of bullet points listing key events to a detailed chapter by chapter summary. Let’s call this “Extreme Outlining”. The extreme outliners I know tend to spend a lot of time on the outlining process, since that’s where the major plotting and rethinking occurs for them. By the time they get to the writing, it goes fairly quickly, since the major kinks have already been worked out.

People this works best for: people who need lots of structure; plot driven writers.

On the far end, you have Ulitmate Pantsing. This consists of sitting down in front of your computer (or clay tablet) and just seeing where the characters take you. My ultimate pantsing friends tell me that this involves a great deal of trial and error and rewriting as they get to know the characters. The upside? Going to all sorts of interesting places you never imagined the story would take you. The down side? Increased antacid use as you wonder what on earth is going to happen next.

People this works for: people who are comfortable with chaos; character driven writers.

Then there’s the in-between, into which I fall. I’ve tried Extreme Outlining. It failed miserably for me. By trying to make my characters adhere to an outline I’d written months before, I wrote myself into one of the worst cases of writer’s block of my writing career. The characters wanted to grow and develop in a different direction. I had to scrap the outline and re-think the trajectory of the plot before that could happen.

On the other hand, ultimate pantsing tends to peter out for me after about four chapters. At some point, I need to have a sense of where I’m going, of what I’m writing towards.

My solution? I wind up outlining about five chapters ahead. I re-outline constantly as I go, scribbling on little bits of paper that I then throw out about a week later. That way, I have some sense of structure, but it stays dynamic and flexible.

The downside, of course, is that there is still that measure of chaos. I never know exactly how a plot-line is going to resolve itself until I’ve hit that five chapter zone. On the plus side, since I’m constantly re-thinking and re-plotting, I don’t write myself into as many dead ends.

My suggestion would be to play around with different levels of outlining to figure out what works for you. An outline doesn’t have to look like an outline to serve an outlining purpose. Some people think well in bullet points, others don’t. Often, I find just sitting down with a pad of paper and brainstorming plot ideas and bits of dialogue helps provide direction. It may not look like an outline, but it’s still giving you an idea of where the story is going.

I know other writers who keep dry erase boards in their office, with outlines that can be altered as they go, smudging out old bits, adding new ones. They keep family trees there, character traits, whatever they might need to go forward, with the comfort of knowing that dry erase means that none of it is locked in stone unless they want it to be.

Some writers swear by collages. (Check out Jennifer Crusie’s article about her book collages.) For the artistically oriented, that serves the same purpose as my long-hand brainstorming: it forces you to focus and think out your plot and characters.

For character-driven writers, writing character sketches– bits of their back-story, their emotional reactions, their likes and dislikes– might serve a similar purpose by helping you to get to know your character better. Where the character goes, the story goes.

Don’t be too worried if you don’t know everything that’s going to happen before you sit down to write. (Unless, of course, you’re an extreme outliner by nature, in which case, why are you still reading this? Go write that outline!) Figuring it out as you go along can be part of the fun….

Have you stumbled on any outlining techniques that work for you?


  1. Julie H on May 23, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Hey Lauren,

    Thanks for doing these posts. I love seeing how other people go about writing. It’s so different for everyone!

    I tend toward extreme outlining. But, like you said, I tend to get stuck if the characters aren’t wanting to fit into my plan. I need to work on backing off a bit… 🙂

    What I want to know is how on earth you managed to write books while working and in school. I’ve been in writer mode this week, and I keep finding myself staring at the wall, thinking about my characters while I’m supposed to be auditing reports!

  2. Jane B. on May 23, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Index cards work for me. I use a different color for each character (my long stuff’s all multiple POV so far) and pin the scene-cards to those three-fold display units so popular with students doing science fair projects. I can move scenes easily, and it clues me in fast to slip-ups like having someone show up bruised before the fight actually happened.

    The only drawback is that my writing room gets a bit crowded as the project progresses and the boards multiply. I’m currently experimenting with Scrivener (LOVE the idea of having a program keep chapters numbered and background info sorted) but I’m not sure it will really save me time.

  3. Nancy on May 23, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I’m not an outliner (or at least I do not write it down).

    I get an idea for a story and start to tell it to my husband. He is my “can this really happen” critic. I flush out the who, what, and why with him, writing a paragraph(or just a few lines) here and there, usually not in any order.

    By the time I actually sit down to write something I have the whole story in my head. Some changes occur but the general line of the story stays the same.

  4. Céline on May 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    When I started my book, I wrote the first chapters with only a vague idea of what was going to happen. And as I wrote on, I realized that I wanted to come back at the beginning and add bits and bits and change things and rewrite others… then I decided it was time to outline and I went in full outline mode. Like, really detailed. And I’m still stuck, more often than not, because I keep going back and forth and changing the structure and adding bits and bits and wondering how the hell I am going to insert that bit in this other one and why the hell I decided to write a double story and why, why why! 🙂
    But the plot is unfolding in my head, writing a detailed outline helps me get to know the characters as if I was actually writing the book, so I guess I’m an outliner! But I don’t rule out the possibility of changing everything while actually writing the book… and I have the feeling that’s exactly what’s gonna happen! 🙂

    Thanks a lot for your insight, it’s really helpful to know how talented writers work!!!

  5. Céline on May 23, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    And just like Julie, there are days when half my brain is at work and the other half is plotting and outlining and thinking about my characters (when it’s not the whole brain that’s plotting instead of working on what I’m actually paid to do!).
    So I ask the same question. How did you do it? 🙂

  6. Jessica C on May 23, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    This probably sounds borderline insane, but I’m a dream-outliner. I always take forever to fall asleep (30 minutes on a good night) so I fill in that time by plotting out stories. Most of them have their genesis in my dreams (if the dream is interesting, I like to finish the story off). I’ve got two full stories almost entirely plotted out that way – all I have to do now is actually write it all down… and then get the courage to actually show them to another person!

  7. Shannon M. Howell on May 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    I’m still looking for that balance. Part of me would like to just outline, but I tried that and I couldn’t figure out what my characters would do, so I needed to develop them more. Then the plot just started going, and now I’m totally stuck. I think I need to find a balance between the two. The outline a few chapters, then write approach might work well. I’ll try that if my latest attempt doesn’t work.

  8. Imani on May 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    this is really helpful. i tried doing the pantsing and it didn’t work well for me. i get halfway thru the story b4 i stumble. so i’ve tried outlining, and have outlined like 8 chapters, but i feel like i’m getting bored by the process. mayb i can do the half-half, like wat u seem to be doing..hmm

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