When to Outline and Why

When it comes to outlines, there are lots of ways to tackle it. You’ve got story structure, skeletal narratives, beat sheets, breakdowns of scenes and plots and arcs and this and that.

Depending on how you do them, outlines can be a lot of work with what you choose to include in them.

I don’t usually outline when first exploring a possible story idea.

When it comes to initial glimmers, I follow whatever strikes the inspiration – whether that is notes jotted onto a piece of paper, a ramshackle collection of music and art, a short story from a character perspective, Sharpe scribbling on my skin, a summary of a possible world, a first few chapters, or random patchwork scenes that come to mind.

Outlines come after the brainstorm.

Outlines are an attempt to make sense of all that.

To bring order to chaos, if you will.

And successful outlines can save you a ton of work later on.

Not only can you examine plot points, scene beats, and arc progression, but also timeline and consistency.

There are two points, currently, at which I put together outlines for a work.

The first outline comes after the initial brainstorm of concepts.

We’ll call this, the Sketch Outline™.

This outline gives the barest information like summary sentences with quick notes such as location, involved characters, perspectives, what needs to happen, etc.

Details aren’t written out, narrative prose isn’t included.

Don’t you start writing scenes on this bad boy! Don’t you do it!

Because the freedom of the Sketch Outline™ is that it offers a chance to get an immense amount of information together in one place where it can be referenced while not having to worry about word choice or showing vs. telling vs. hiding.

Also, this process can trigger new ideas that might not have occurred otherwise (such as missing scenes, or the order of events, or even a change in the character cast).

Some writers take this initial outline and use it directly by expanding the sections until they have a rough draft like some kind of reverse nesting doll where the dolls get bigger as you work inward. I sometimes do this, but other times find it becomes too stilted for me.

Mostly, I use the Sketch Outline™ as a reference guide.

As a way to keep focused and quickly refresh where the story is going, what is happening, and many other details that would otherwise eat up time by searching for them or improv-ing them on-the-spot.

Roleplay Sidenote: I use sketch outlines for roleplay campaigns also. Arguably, this might’ve been where I first learned the advantage of this tool. It helps when GMing multiple session campaigns to have a quick reference as to where the story has gone and where it is going.

In this way, sometimes, I’ll create sketch outlines for completed works (if I’m working on a follow-up- or however it is related to it), to have that reference… these are, though, tricky and tedious to put together, if waiting too long after the completion. So it might be a good idea to write out a third outline (a final Sketch Outline™) as soon as a piece is complete, knowing that all of those included notes aren’t going to change and making it into an official (internal) reference guide!

Let’s call it The Reference Outline™!

…….I may or may not have just thought of this while writing that out… and will now apply it to my own work! I already kind of do this, but in ramshackle, reactive ways with patchwork sticky notes and loose leaf paper. Mostly the sticky notes… so many sticky notes…. hordes of sticky notes… hundreds and thousands of sticky notes…

*stares off into the distance*

Usually, I wait a long time before doing something like this because I’m sick of the manuscript and I don’t spend time on outlines or background never-to-be-seen work unless I feel it is necessary.

Why? To avoid the trap of getting completely lost in worldbuilding.

A while back, I taught myself to spend the majority of my time on developing a work to be guided by the will-be-seen work. …Though this doesn’t mean it is light on the development. A lot can go into creating “unique” worlds and shaping them to the point where they can be meaningfully shared. An author has to be selective on what they spend their time on – because every moment spent on never-to-be-seen work is possibly taken away from will-be-seen work.

Again, roleplay GMs/DMs understand this inherently… those first campaigns of spending hours upon hours in creation of a world or subsection of the world, only for 75% of it to never be discovered because in the first session, Rogue #1 decided to burn down an entire city because they failed a bluff check, and all those developed townsfolk with backstories and assuredly interesting quest-lines perished in the flames… rip.

ANYWAY.

The second outline comes after the first or second draft of the manuscript.

We’ll call this one, the Frame Outline™.

The majority of pivotal scenes are written by this point.

Whatever changes occurred in the writing process between the Sketch Outline™ and the actual draft can be applied to the Frame Outline™.

Now, an actual overview of the story’s structure is available to be scrutinized and examined for revision purposes.

There are a lot of templates and various outline structures encouraged by writers out there. Sometimes I use these for an extra boost of motivation, or to think about things I might not have otherwise, or when I feel a bit lazy… but I never keep to them.

Every structure I examine from the specific needs of that story, as it develops. Though I study Plot Points, and those triangles and pyramids and diamonds and spirals and whatever shapes writers come up with to express structures, when it comes down to it… there is an inherent structure that gradually makes itself known while working on a story – for me.

So why Outline?

For what I’ve mentioned here, because it gives an opportunity to look at your story from different perspectives – which ultimately, offers chances to realize things, how to present scenes, what might be missing, what might be too much,

It saves a ton of work in the long-run, especially in the editing process. Catching those contradictions early-on, saves up attention for editing to be spent on other more tricky and subtle things that might try to wiggle on past. Having a Frame Outline™ also saves work when something major needs to change, either a character arc, or the order of scenes.

Both outlines combined can make this as simple as moving a few things around, compared to if you don’t have these outlines – when you run into that major contradiction, you’re going to have to hurriedly try to make poor versions of what could have been these outlines, and then use those to fix things without creating even more contradictions for yourself.

In summary…

  • Create The Sketch Outline™ AFTER the brainstorming and BEFORE the first manuscript draft.
  • Create The Frame Outline™ AFTER the rough manuscript draft and BEFORE the revised draft.
  • Create The Reference Outline™ immediately AFTER the final manuscript is complete and BEFORE starting on your next piece.
  • Use these outlines for reference, to catch contradictions, to generate new ideas, to check structure, keep focused and excited, and give your story the development it deserves.

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