“Do I really have to outline?” – Accepting the Inevitable

Spoilers: Yes. Yes, you do have to outline.

When I first started writing stories, I just sat down and started writing. As you can probably guess, it took me years before I finished my first story. I discovered through many, many exhausting and arduous writing sessions that I simply could not reach the end of a book, novel, short story, novella, flash fiction, whatever if I didn’t plan ahead.

Outlining isn’t much fun, though. At least it isn’t for me, or it hasn’t been until recently. It’s not exactly the romanticized image of a writer we may have in our heads: hunched over scrawled notes, disordered bullet points, spreadsheets and digital documents, flash cards, and snippets of quotes and magazine cuttings. Outlining doesn’t appear to have a set pattern you can just pick up and so many of us are left to descend into our own inner chaos, all the while paralyzed by detail.

Our fantasy of the idealized writer, whatever that looks like in your mind, is one of the most unhelpful thoughts we can have.

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Over time, I’ve found what works for me. I think that’s the best any writer can hope for. It’s the exact same sort of outlining I did when I wrote sermons: I basically write out the shortest possible version of the story just like I’m writing this out. Full paragraphs, complete sentences, rarely using anything like code or shorthand. I underline or highlight as I go. I occasionally create a set of bullets for things I don’t want to forget (a necessity for someone like me with a poor memory); if I want to hang onto that vivid image of a scene or piece of dialogue, I have to jot it down somewhere, even if a margin surrenders itself for the purpose.

I’m also prone to doodling.

Over time, I scratch out names and settings, and my rough outline starts to look like a checkerboard. That’s when I go digital: it’s neater to type it all up for a second run through an outline and this time I make liberal use of organizing features (bullets, breaks, headers, etc.) to get all my thoughts in order, until eventually, I can see my entire story from start to finish.

All that’s left is to fill in the meat on the bones, or in other words: the actual writing of the story. This method prevents me from running into a brick wall mid-story, keeping an eye out for illogical leaps, shifts in character, or other inconsistencies. I also like to include a few words separately somewhere on the outline on the cast and themes (themes are very important to me). It’s not perfect, of course–is there a perfect outlining method?–but it does help me get the job done.

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Scrivener has been a great tool to help me get this type of outline completed, and I haven’t even explored it to its fullest potential.

Ok, so maybe you don’t have to outline. Maybe you’re one of those writers that can get it all done in one sitting. Somehow. Still, I imagine a little extra organization couldn’t hurt. But if you’re like the rest of us and you are coming to accept the inevitable that you really do need to outline more, then let me know what kind of outlining you do? If you’re currently working on a story, how has outlining been going?

This is an opportunity to talk about the craft!

-M. Norton

5 thoughts on ““Do I really have to outline?” – Accepting the Inevitable

  1. Good read, and I’ll definitely check Scrivener out. The story I’m writing started life as a joint project, me and 2 friends (who I now co-host our podcast with) came up with the universe in which it’s set together and each was to write a short story from it. Only mine survived, and so I kind of fleshed out that universe with a lot of my own whims and ideas. It’s been chaotic to write, I’m still rewriting entire segments and fleshing out, but I can actually see light at the end of the tunnel now!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I outline as much as I write the story. One document I have is the manuscript and the other is the document planning the story which I also use for preserving omitted material.
    At first, the outline was a premise that I fleshed out into a paragraph, describing what the story’s about, how it would end and anything else I knew about the characters, which wasn’t much at the time. After that, I wrote down all the questions I’d initially have to answer about first the world building followed by how the opening status quo becomes the new ending status quo. That was the bare bones of the plot, though I’m more interested in how we get there.
    Once I began writing, I required more outlining. As more things in the story presented themselves, there were more questions I’d need to answer and more opportunities that I saw, so I’d add them to the outline. If there was already a fitting place for it, that’s where it would go – otherwise, I’d add them to a section at the end listing the things that I’d like to happen at some point, if possible.
    The outlining process is just as exciting for me as writing because the outline is the real story, and I’m constantly generating more material for it. Just last night, I was reminding myself of certain lines of dialogue to add to the outline when I thought of how a particular scene could end, so I added that in. The outline is a living document because it grows and responds to stimuli from the manuscript. The outline reminds me that I know what I’m doing, it’s the reminder of why I’m so interested in telling this story.

    Recently, I rediscovered old manuscripts I never finished. They had no outline. I suppose an outline is a test of how much potential a story actually has that measures whether it’s something I should really write or if it’s just a gimmick that has no depth to it.
    Outlining has never felt like a chore to me because it’s the process of writing down everything that I already think about in my head all day, every day.

    Liked by 1 person

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