Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

I Hate Outlining.  Do You?

by Jean A. Schara
2004, Jean A. Schara

I hate outlining and I always have -- even back to elementary school days.  Maybe you do, too.  I understand the beauty and usefulness of outlines; they are supposed to help us organize our thoughts before writing and to make sure we don't leave out any important points.  I still hate outlining. 

So, when I saw the February Outlining Challenge  posted on the Forward Motion Website , I almost didn't check it out.  However, I'm working on a couple of books and understand that writers who have contracts have to deliver books according to the schedules in their contracts.  If I want to write for money someday, and presumably have contracts calling for my words, I need to be able to handle deadlines for my writing.  I believe part of that involves knowing where you are in your book.

 So, I clicked on the challenge link and looked it over.  It didn't look too bad, but I still was not ready to accept the challenge.  I clicked on a few of the reference links at the bottom of the challenge.  I'd read Holly Lisle's "Notecarding:  Plotting Under Pressure"  workshop before, and, though I know some will consider this statement blasphemy, it didn't help me.  It's an excellent technique.  It should work.  I tried it a bit for my National Novel Writing Month novel, but it didn't work for me.  I'm still a little intimidated by Lazette Gifford's phasing (I confess it sounds mathematical...) method.  I reread Peggy Kurilla's "Plotting for the Organic Writer," where she mentions Andi Ward's plotting class.  I've attended that!  So I reviewed the class transcript from her March 27, 2004 class  

Why have I gone through this long litany of links?  Perhaps one of the most useful things I gleaned from my graduate degree in Adult Education was a ready understanding of the term "eclectic."  The education field uses it to describe an educational approach employed when a practitioner takes bits and pieces from different educational theories and applies them in the way that works best for her situation.  Not only does the word sound great, but it captures my preferred learning, teaching, and working style: "use what works best in a particular situation."  That is what I have done in response to the outlining challenge from February.

I re-read Peggy's organic article and Andi's plotting class transcript.  I pulled out my trusty whiteboard, and jotted some notes for both my books.  (You can use butcher paper, sketch pads, or newsprint -- whatever you have.)  I confess I didn't do a complete plot as Andi's class recommends -- I just jotted some key points and put them on an arc.  After that, it just looked like a logarithmic curve, but the parachutes illustrated in Andi's class will appear a bit later.  I needed to do much more work before what I scribbled on the white board could effectively match up with Andi's instructions, but it helped to get main points down in a way similar to Peggy's article.  I still had to go back and do those critical plotting tasks, but, I felt more comfortable with the idea of an outline with what I did after taking Andi and Peggy's reference work into account.

After completing my whiteboard exercise, I looked at the challenge.  The meat of the instructions follows:

To qualify, the outline(s) must have beginning, middle, and ending scenes.  Yes, that means you can do multiple novels, but all outlines must include a beginning, middle and end on each of them.

The outlines do not have to be in final form.  The scenes can be as detailed as paragraphs, or as concise as a few words or a sentence.  However, a scene is a scene as you delineate it, regardless of how much detail you put into it at this stage.

The intent, I think, was for me to do one outline with scenes for the beginning, middle, and end of the novel.  What I saw here that I could use was a mini-outline for each scene where I documented the beginning, middle, and end of the scene.  Here's a typical example:

PBOTL Scene Outline #33

Beginning:  Inuit thwarts a robbery at her corner store

Middle:  Mixed hero or menace reviews

End:  Inuit comes out of top but has to answer questions longer than she thinks she needed to

When I wrote it out, the 37 words above translated into a 1500 word scene.  I chose to type these mini-outlines into a computer file.  You could do it on index cards, notebook pages, or your writing room wall, although I don't recommend the latter approach.  I've found some value in shuffling these scenes around, and moving wallboard is more difficult than I care to deal with -- you may feel the same way.

Used in conjunction with techniques gleaned from the articles mentioned above or other sources, you might be able to use or modify this approach to help you plan your work, even if you also hate outlines.  If used for the beginning, middle, and end of your novel or short story, this technique should net you a completed story outline just waiting for you to add the details.