Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


This Isn't Your Teacher's Outline

By Lazette Gifford
Lazette Gifford

Around six or seven years ago -- about the time Forward Motion ( was starting to take off -- I still despised the idea of outlining.  I hated it, and wouldn't do it...  I would start a novel as soon as I got a character and an idea, and let it flow.  I loved working that way and couldn't stand the idea of being restricted in my creativity.

But two things happened:

  1. My life became complex, and with less time to write I found it harder to track free-flowing ideas and keep them coherent.
  2. My stories became more complex.

These two combined to make it increasingly difficult to write a good first draft of a novel in my usual free-flowing style.  Since I have a rule that I have to finish everything I start, I would push through to the end, but I found that many of those stories were disjointed, the timeline skewed between characters, and important threads and goals were forgotten.

Finally, I decided to write down a few notes as I worked, giving me pointers to where I intended to go next.  I would write these notes as the last thing of the day, tacking them on the end of the WIP (Work in Progress), so that I could look at the last lines I'd written on the novel, see the notes for what comes next, and keep going. 

This abbreviated outline-as-you-go method helped me a great deal. So much so, that when I started getting new ideas for what I was working on, I would write out a paragraph for each chapter, pointing me to the right direction and what I needed to do to get the story from one spot to the next.

Then I started writing things out for novels I hadn't yet begun -- and found myself writing brief outlines without consciously thinking about doing any such thing.  I found it made writing a novel considerably easier, and the stories far better, than what I had written before.  I don't think this is all because of the outlines, though.  I believe starting to write outlines came at the same time as I took a general step upward in my writing skill, and the two complimented each other.

Since then, I've written both with and without outlines.  I still enjoy the occasional free-fall novel, but for the most part I enjoy the outlined novels more.  I've found that by outlining, I not only have a more coherent book, I also have one with more depth.

Outlines allow even linear writers (like me) to move back and forth in a simplified version of the story, adding in sub-threads, and tacking in clues to important steps, and all those other things that don't always arrive on time in your head.  It is far easier to edit the storyline in an outline than it is in a finished first draft.

It's also far easier to be daring and creative in an outline than most people believe.  The writer can put in something experimental, play with it along the storyline for a while, and then either keep it or delete it all.  Adding something like that in the actual story, and then having to delete it -- and all references to it -- is far harder.

Outlines need not be so detailed that you feel you've already told the story.  Sometimes I use very detailed outlines because I find they're a wonderful way to stay focused for a quick writing experience, but an outline might be a collection of single lines for entire chapters or scenes.

Chapter 1 -- Tom leaves for the store and runs into an old friend

Chapter 2 -- Tom and David head for a bar and get into a brawl with some aliens

Chapter 3 -- Tom and David are rescued by humans who ask them to join a secret anti-alien group


Writing an outline with this scant bit of information isn't going to restrict anything more than thinking about the story ahead of writing it would.  What it will do is help the author remember ideas and the sequence of events.  It can include notes on character development and worldbuilding, as well as those wonderful bits of dialogue that come to you long before you can actually write them into the story.

Outlines are fluid, adaptable, and easier to manipulate than first draft novels.  They're another of the important author's tools that many people ignore because they have a vision of an outline as something they had to do in high school and hated.  Once you get over that idea, those of you who find that life is getting too complex and interfering with your writing are likely to find the idea of jotting down a few notes about your story not so bad after all.