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.
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.
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!