The Dreaded Outline

In my mind, outlines are like roadmaps. They help you figure out where you’re going and stay on track. You can still take side roads and choose another path and make detours, but it generally keeps you going strong.

I don’t normally outline. In college, when I was asked to turn in an outline for an essay or a paper, I would write the whole thing, then write the outline. And then I could make any necessary edits.

I do the same thing for novels. Write, then outline to remove chunks that don’t work or that I dislike or to move things around. But for the last several weeks, I’ve been super stuck on my novel. I’d start to write, and then I’d get confused, because I didn’t know where it went in the story or what the purpose was. On the right of my Scrivener file, I had several chapter notes that said, “Figure out the purpose of this chapter.”

While on vacation, I decided to come to grips with the fact that my pantster style wasn’t working for me, at least not at that particular section of the novel. So I thought about what I wanted to happen in the grand scheme of the story, how it was going to affect the characters and then what I needed to do.

Then, I sat down and came up with several ways to make it happen. I described the different scenes and how they would influence my character and the decisions she’d have to make. Then I created a brief outline detailing the chapters.

And now, I’m going back, figuring out whether what I’d written previously fits into any of the outline and where it belongs if it does.

So, what did I learn from this?

  • Having direction makes me a more confident writer
  • Having direction makes me a faster writer
  • Knowing what the purpose of a chapter is makes it easier to come up with a variety of ways to obtain that goal so I can fit the characters and the situation best
  • Outlining is a lot of work
  • The work pays off

I don’t know that I will outline every chapter or every scene. It certainly helped in this instance. But when the steam gets going, I want to be able to not have to stop and outline or refer to an outline, and I’m still too new to outlining to feel comfortable diverting from it for long chunks of time. Although, on the other hand, it could come in handy to keep the idea train coming.


How do you feel about outlines? Do they help you along, or do you feel they hold you back? If you’re usually an outliner, have you given pantsing a try? And for those of you who prefer to see where the road takes you, have you ever created a mini map before getting started?

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  1. Good comments. I was born in Vancouver, WA but later lived in Vancouver, B.C., Canada (shown on this map), though I live in a NW Minneapolis suburb now. I’m interested in why you chose this map as your sample.

  2. Robin says:

    Delores – Oh, no particular reason. I’ve never been and I saw it and I thought, “Cool.”

  3. In High School I used to finish writing my papers before the outline deadline, so I could write the outline knowing what I wrote. My mind is always taking twists and turns when I write. I have general idea of the beginning and the end and then I sit down to see what is next. Outlines and I still aren’t best friends. LOL!

  4. Beth Steury says:

    As a pantster , i think this makes total sense. I’m kind of stuck right now and am going to go back through the last two chapters to see if that will help me decide what comes next! Outlining all the way through would drive me nuts and actually be counterproductive BUT i can see the merit in it if/when i get stuck.

  5. I’ve never used an outline, per se, but I’ve interviewed my characters in my head to know their strengths, weaknesses, their fears and their dreams. Sometimes, especially in short stories, I see the story in my mind. It’s like it’s a movie. I know the message, the beginning and how it’s supposed to end, and see it happening in front of me. But I don’t always see what gets in the way of my mc getting what he/she wants. Not at first anyway. Great thoughts, Robin. I think there are a lot of people getting ready for NaNoWriMo who have a general outline, but it’s loose enough to allow their creativity to shine.

  6. joan says:

    Up to now I’ve only written short stories and I never outlined them on paper. But, just as Michelle said, I always knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Now that I’m attempting NaNoWriMo, my first long text, I’m scared I’ll get lost and so I do try to outline my story. Let’s see how it goes. 🙂

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