Monday, March 1, 2010

Teen Inklings: Vol. 8: THE OUTLINE

Some writers find it necessary to write an outline for their book before they can put the first words on the page. I’m one of them. You may be, too!

When starting my first novel, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into things before I’d freeze up and stop. I had no idea where things were going, so I couldn’t keep up the momentum. When that happened I felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough, like I was a quitter. But no matter what I did, I just couldn’t get the words on the page. How frustrating!

One day I was browsing the internet, feeling like a complete failure, when I stumbled upon an interview with the popular teen author of Eragon. As it turns out, he had the same problem when he was just starting to write. Eragon is a book that stood on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 120 weeks, so obviously the author got from point A to point B. How’d he do it? Outlining.

An outline is a complete overview of the novel you intend to write. My first outline was seventeen pages long, not including my extra notes, and I wrote it in a furious one-hour brainstorming session. You don’t need to write seventeen pages (seriously, I had snippets of dialogue in that monstrosity), even only one page is fine, but you do need to write it. Writing an outline now will give you practice for that critical synopsis you’ll someday include in your proposal.

Some writers have dubbed themselves "Seat of the Pants" writers. These people like to sit down and write their books knowing little to nothing about the plot or characters involved. If that’s the way you do things, cool. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s a method that works for some people. However, it isn’t perfect. A common trait with first draft manuscripts that weren’t outlined is that they wander about from sub-plot to sub-plot, racking up the word count higher and higher. A novel like that would be a pain to edit, and I just don’t see the point. So I outline.

One argument against outlining is that it takes the surprise out of things. I haven’t found that to be true, even with my seventeen-page whopper by my side. The characters and plot have surprised me several times, sometimes in major ways. It may be a good idea to leave some things vague, though. You can just write the Monkey Princess broke out of the castle, you don’t need to outline exactly how she blew a hole in the wall with the bomb concealed in her crown and swam across the moat. Less is more sometimes, especially if you want some explosive surprises. Just make sure you have your major plot elements down.

When outlining it’s important to keep an open mind. At some point you’ll leave that Outliner’s Omniscience and write your first draft. Once you get onto that nitty-gritty level with things you may realize that some of your earlier plot points don’t make sense anymore. Good! Change them so that they do. You may want to write a new outline at this point, or fix the old one to suit your changes. It isn’t an issue unless you treat it like one.

If you want more info on exactly how to turn your story idea into an outline, visit this web page:

Note: No Seat of the Pants writers were harmed in the writing of this article… lol


  1. nice post. I'm a mixture of both. I outline some things, but then others I just completely fly by the seat of my pants. :)

  2. Same here, JT. Though I do outline some things for my characters, they really grow organically while I write. If that involves going back and tweaking things in the edits, I'm fine with that. For me, characters are the hardest things to get right. They're also the most important. I'm glad it's a learning process, because I know I'm nowhere near perfect yet.

  3. Very good post, again! I've tried writting stories before without writting an outline, and I didn't get past the first page. I can see now that an outline would make things a lot clearer for the writer. Thanks for this post!

  4. Thanks, Emily! Yeah, the outline is really helpful. If you lose yourself or get bored, you can pull it out and see the light at the end of the tunnel. Outlining has really helped me.

  5. I'm glad to hear you have "organic" characters and they aren't full of preservatives ;)

    I'm a seat-of-the-pantser and proud of it. I feel constricted by an outline - like I cant deviate from it even though I know I really can. But then what do you do with the extra index cards of scenes you outlined but now don't use? Recycle them? Hardly. Sigh. It's a conundrum I cannot face. Shall not face. Hence. I seatofthepantsit.

  6. I'm an outliner to the core. Besides my basic outline, I have rough maps, lists, diagrams and charts for everything. Like the amount of time it takes to ride from one city to another. So I don't say, in one place, it took two hours, then in another place, that it took five. I love my outlines!!! :)

  7. That's really interesting, Jaime. The outline should be seen like the Pirate Code from the popular Disney movies. More like guidelines than anything else.

    "Seatofthepantsit" should be a word. :-)

  8. Wow, that's pretty in-depth, Ellie! I drew maps, too. I've also got a few notebooks filled with thoughts and tidbits of info I think are helpful, like how far different breeds of horses can travel in a day.

    I can't say I've made diagrams or charts though.

  9. This is great advice, Christian. The big advantage is that it gives you peace of mind that when you finish the novel you have a workable story with a good structure that shouldn't need revising in a major way.

    Another good resource for outlining is James Scott Bell's advice:

    Thanks, Christian!

  10. Exactly, Mr. Treskillard. I should've said that more clearly.

    Great link. It's funny, I was thinking about writing my next article on the 3-Act Structure. Maybe I'll just give that link instead. haha

  11. This post was great! In the past, I've really struggled with outlining and my general distaste for it. I used to shy away from major outlining, grimacing at the thought of it, and just dying to get to the actual writing. But now that I've repeatedly experienced the head-slamming, migraines, and frustrating dead-ends that result from a weak plot, I have developed a tolerance for it -- knowing that it will only make things easier and more enjoyable when it comes to writing the main body of the book.

    As you said, I like to let my characters grow "organically." I've tried to put "preservatives" (nice metaphor, Jaime) into them, and write out paragraphs about each character, but it can be more exciting and surprising to just let them -- their attitudes, philosophies, and personalities -- just develop naturally, shaped by the circumstances they encounter.

    Nice link, too! Really helpful! =)


  12. Hello, Kailyn! I used to not like the idea of outlining, but, like you, I found how useful it is. Like Robert said above, an outline really gives you peace of mind that you have a workable story.

    For characters, I only outline their physical qualities. Hair and eye color, build, height, weight, etc.. There's few things more embarrasing than a critiquer pointing out that your characters' eye color changed somewhere between pages 80 and 180! :-)

  13. Do you have any trouble with conversations? it seems to me, when I get past the introduction, it doesn't sound cool anymore. I hope I'm not the only one.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Thanks for the reminder Miles! On page 48...mind blank. Why? Forgot to outline further, so now that I am back to the drawing board finally there is HOPE! Thank you!!!!!!!!!!

  16. Sananorin, dialogue is really hard to get right. But it gets easier with practice. Keep at it!

    Jessica, I'm glad to help! The number of times I froze up before I discovered outlining... astronomical.

    Elyse, yup, homeschooled all my life. :-)

  17. Hey! Just found this place. Love it! I also find outlines indispensable. I always make a good long detailed one before I start the actual writing. I've written one novel so far, and am looking into the publishing aspect of things--which looks complicated :) Looking forward to next month's posting!
    Best, S. Dahnim

  18. Agreed, outlining is great... :)

  19. Hey,
    After I read this post I decided to finally do an outline. I already had a pretty well thought out plan for a book so it didn't take much to write an outline (haven't finished it yet). I can't decide if I like doing an outline yet though. I've always started books with very few ideas towards it, and I still think one of my best books was one of the least thought up ones. Anyhow in a year or so we'll see if it helped me.