Why Do I Need (or Want) an Outline?

Happy Tuesday, squiders! It is freezing in my house and I can’t find–oh, here they are. Never mind.

We’re continuing to talk about outlining today, tackling why you might want–or need–to have an outline.

What’s the point of an outline?

An outline serves as a guide for you while you’re writing the story (or nonfiction book). It helps you remember what your plan was, keeps all your information in one handy spot, and can help you develop ideas from vague thoughts into something deep and meaningful that will make your story super cool. It can even help you spot problems before you get started.

An outline helps you write your story, simple as that.

Aren’t I trapped?

This is a common misconception that comes with outlining. Many people think that if you have an outline, you’re trapped. The story must happen exactly as you’ve planned it. Creativity is dead!

This is not true at all. An outline works for you, not the other way around.

That’s why, in the intro section, we talked about experimenting with what information, and how much, you need for your outline. And the good news is that an outline is not a static document. 

If you write a scene, and it’s more natural to go a different way than you’d originally envisioned? Great! Update your outline. If your planned ending feels forced? Try something else. There’s nothing that says you have to stay with your outline if it stops fitting the story.

I would recommend updating your outline if you decide to radically change things, but we’ll go into that in a minute.

Additionally, you can outline at any point in your writing process. If you started off pantsing and find yourself in a corner, you can start outlining from that point as a way to figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be. This is actually how I started, once upon a time–I would pants the first half or so of the book, then outline the end, so I could make sure all my loose threads would be tied up in a logical and entertaining manner.

You can also outline revisions and rewrites. Because you already know the story (and what’s wrong with it), it can help to lay out what needs to be changed and how, to limit the amount of drafts you have to go through in the end.

Outlines are the solution to writer’s block

The biggest pro of outlining is that it virtually eliminates writer’s block.

(There are exceptions, as there are to everything. That’s another subject.)

Have you ever been happily writing along, throwing every terrible thing you can think of at your main character, and run into a brick wall? Things have gotten too terrible, and you don’t see how they can ever get out of it. Or your main character is flitting around from subplot to subplot, not getting anywhere, because you’re not sure what they’re trying to get to?

As I said before, an outline can be basic. Just knowing what your character wants (and whether it will be a good or bad thing when–if–they get it) can help shape your entire narrative. A little more structure, and you can know where you’re supposed to be at what point (“okay, at the midpoint, she finds out that who she thought was her sister isn’t her sister at all”). Nothing has to be specific–you don’t have to do any great detail–but knowing where you’re going, even vaguely, helps eliminate that flailing feeling where you don’t know where to go next.

NOTE: It can also be useful to outline the next day’s writing when you stop writing for the day. This can help you easily remember where you were and what was happening when you come back, and it gives you an idea of what you need to do for the day. It’s always faster to write when you know what you’re doing versus when you don’t.

(If you’ve ever read one of those books or articles about increasing your daily word count, you’ll know they almost always talk about having a plan for your daily writing. Same idea here.)

Next week, squiders, we’ll start delving into the types of outlines (complete with examples).

Thoughts on outlining?

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