Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Outlining Through the Block

By Heidi Elizabeth Smith
2003, Heidi Elizabeth Smith


So while working on your first or fifth or fiftieth novel, everything is going great.  This is the best thing you've ever written. You're zooming along like a Porsche on the Autobahn. Exhilaration pounds through with every keystroke. Words are the thrill you live for.

And then the story hits a brick wall at top speed. The rhythm is completely broken, and with no idea what happens next in the story you find that desperation takes the place of exhilaration.

Nearly all writers encounter this situation at some point. Some have a horrendous time actually starting the book while others have trouble with the end or the middle. Different writers face different problems, and the problems may change with new stories. I've written books that I had no problems starting but had trouble with ending, and others that made me feel like I was dragging my feet all the way through the beginning.

What can a writer do when writing each word feels like cutting a hole in her belly with a dull knife and yanking out her own guts? Sometimes just gritting your teeth and kicking yourself through it works. I once finished a stalled novelette this way. Other times, it doesn't work. Last year I tried this method with two novels, the last in a trilogy still in progress, and my NaNoWriMo project. Both stalled, and trying to push through the block only left me feeling miserable and depressed.

At the same time I was working on these two projects, I was also working more slowly on my auditor's project for Holly Lisle's Writing the Breakout Novel course, Stronger than the Night. Earlier in the course, outlining had been part of the assignment. Before, I'd flat-out refused to even try an outline before, because I believed it would stifle my creativity and spontaneity. For the course, I opened my mind, determined to try something new, no matter how alien and difficult it was.

Outlining surprised me. It didn't have that greatly feared effect. Rather, outlining all the scenes and mapping out the book via the method Holly describes in Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure ( made it easier. Because I'd already jotted down the scenes, I knew what would happen. I just had to write it.

Having my book planned and outlined didn't detract from the fun of actually writing. It's like the difference between a rough sketch and finished artwork. The outline skips all the detail and texturing. There are no characters in action, witty lines, or adrenaline surges that come from writing climactic scenes.

While some of the thrill of writing comes from wondering what happens next, like turning the page of a good book, there's an advantage to outlining. In her article, How to Finish a Novel (, Holly Lisle describes "candybar scenes" -- scenes that you just can't wait to write. With outlining, I managed to make every scene in Stronger than the Night a candybar scene. I didn't have to worry about deciding what'd come next. I breezed through what would otherwise have been a nerve-wracking climb up treacherous mountains while rocks rolled down into my path.

Had I written Stronger without an outline, I would almost certainly have hit the same block towards the middle that I did with both Vengeance and Smoking Mirror. Because I already knew what was going to happen, I just had to buckle down and write it. I could focus entirely on the scene at hand. Stronger was an easier book to write than any of my previous novels, even though we were warned at the beginning of WtBN course that our projects would be harder than anything we'd written before. My project dealt with darker themes than my other books, and is much more intense. It was easier to write because of the new methods I used.

In my previous books, I grasped at straws trying to think of what would happen once I hit the middle, and grabbed the first thing I could think of. I now have one structurally unsound novel that needs a complete replot from the ground up, because I wrote the entire novel that way. It's easier to make structural changes to the plot during outlining than it is after the book is finished.

Okay. But what if you've already started the book and have already hit that block? Then my advice is pretty much useless, right?

Wrong. Sometimes starting from the beginning and outlining what is already written to the point where the story stopped moving can help break that block. When I outline before I start a book, it usually takes me about a week to finish the outline, so don't expect to have it written and finished right that day. Take time to ruminate over plot ideas. That is an important part of the writing process, even though it isn't commonly acknowledged.

And what if that doesn't work? What if you still can't get through the block, even starting through the beginning? Don't give up on outlining. Try filling in and organizing scenes that are already planned. If you're stuck in the middle and have this brilliant climactic ending planned, then figure out how to get from the middle to the end. Look for clusters of scenes that are disjointed from each other. Having them outlined and organized on screen -- or paper, if you work better that way -- might be enough to click in the missing scene/s to make everything fall in place.

Not everything works for every writer. People are all different, with varying strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Outlining may not be your solution. However, when you're blocked, about anything is worth a try. It's not a bad idea to try outlining as prevention. If it doesn't work, you're no worse off. If it does -- then you're back on the road, laughing as the wind blows in your face and your fingers fly across the keyboard.