Today on Twitter, a question came up about outlining: “What’s your favorite and most effective way to outline your work before you start writing?“
Good question. As an author, I don’t typically outline, but my current work in progress (“WIP”) is so closely tied to my first novel that I have to. As an editor, however, sometimes I think an author would have benefited from having developed an outline. But is outlining really that important, and if so, what is the best way to do it?
Just Get Started
Most writers have some idea of where they want the story to start, where they want it to end, and how they intend to connect the dots in between. They are an adventurous few who write from a mere concept without first thinking about where the story could go.
Whether you are a planner, a pantser, or a “plantser” largely seems to depend on your level of risk tolerance and need for structured thinking. Planners generally want to work through the nuts and bolts of a story before they even begin writing it, which can provide a reasonable level of security. After all, once you’ve got all the important details worked out, you’ll feel a bit safer investing your time into actually writing the story. Pantsers are more willing to risk starting a story that may just end up in the bin. And Plantsers fall somewhere in the middle — maybe they do a bit of rough outlining before they start writing, or maybe they’ll create detailed outlines for some stories but not others.
There is no right or wrong way. Being a planner doesn’t make you less creative than a pantser, it just means that you follow a difference process for expressing your creativity. No matter your style, the first hurdle is just getting started.
If you’re not sure how to start, just pick something, anything, and do it. Maybe you’ll have to stop halfway through and try something else, but that’s okay. You may start writing the story and then decide you need to do some planning, or maybe you’ll only create a partial plan before you dive into the writing. Either way, you’ve already done some of the necessary work. You won’t lose that just because your strategy changes.
On the other hand, if you spend all your time fretting and muttering about what to do, you’re wasting time that could be used developing your story. At this point, you’re just procrastinating. Stop that. Stop it right now.
Outline = Guideline
If you’re having trouble getting started, you may just be afraid to see that your ideas aren’t so great after all. Doubt can be your friend if you understand what it’s trying to tell you, but if it’s just making you feel insecure, smack it down. No one needs friends like that.
One of the advantages that pantsers seem to have over planners is the willingness to just wing it and see where they end up. Even the best planned book may go awry, and sometimes the best ideas are the ones you never saw coming. No matter your strategy, you’ll need to exercise some degree of flexibility at every stage in the writing process.
An outline is just a tool, not a binding contract that you make with some unwritten novel. No one is going to sue you into the dirt if you don’t stick to your original scene-by-scene plan. It’s just one way to get started.
Planning Methods and Tools
What’s the best method for organizing all those whirling thoughts? Consider whether you prefer high-tech or low-tech solutions.
As a recovering Luddite, I tend to prefer lower-tech methods. Given that the events in my WIP overlap those of my first book (which was written in non-chronological order), I need to ensure that the timelines between the two novels is consistent. I decided to just use an Excel spreadsheet. The first column lists the events of the first book in chronological order, the second lists the events of the second book in relation to the first, and subsquent columns indicate whether the events belong to the first book, the second book, or both. This spreadsheet allows me to see almost immediately how neatly (or not) the two narratives dovetail, it was easy to create and maintain, and it doesn’t require a lot of technical skill. For me, it’s perfect.
If you prefer no-tech methods or just like to use more tactile media, you can get a corkboard or clear some wall space to create a sticky-note flowchart that you can physically manipulate. You can also hang up a whiteboard or, if you want to go really old school, pick up some chalkboard paint and multicoloured chalk and take over a whole wall.
Technophiles may want to look into Scrivener and OneNote, which provide easy ways to collect, store, and organize digital media as well as text. While I can’t personally vouch for either (Luddite, remember?), I’ve heard good things about both.
Scrivener has a virtual corkboard and split screen functions that allow you to view multiple documents at once. You have to buy a licence for the software, but it’s less than CDN$70 (as of June 2020), so if you’re willing to invest, it’s worth looking into.
Microsoft OneNote is a “digital notetaking” app that you can get through your Microsoft 365 subscription or download for free, although I doubt it’s compatible with Mac devices. The app allows you to physically scribble using touchscreen devices, easily “clips” digital content, and if you’re using it on a portable device, you can do your planning anywhere at any time.
What Goes into an Outline?
The infuriatingly simple answer is “everything” — plot points, characters, world building, details, the overall point of view and, if you’re using a third person multiple POV, the viewpoint from which each scene will be written, and so on.
At this early stage, it doesn’t really matter where you start. If some particular aspect of the story fascinates you, then start there and work your way out. Do you plan to kickstart the story with a grand event? Outline what happens, and then build on the kind of world/society this is happening in, the kinds of characters that would be involved, and the lasting effects of this event that will drive the plot. If you have a strong vision for your main character, draw a picture of them, create a word cloud with all their physical and personality characteristics, or simply write their personal history. From there, you can decide whether/how they fit into society, what that society looks like, how the character responds to events, who they meet along the way etc.
Wherever you start, you will naturally find ways to branch out and make connections between the various aspects of the story. Eventually you will have to weave all these details into a complete whole, but don’t sweat over that just yet. Once you’ve developed a strong sense of the overall features of the narrative, you can embellish or modify them, or simply pluck out the pieces that don’t fit, no matter how much you love them.
Play around and see what works for you. If one method or tool for outlining doesn’t work for you, switch it up. The outlining stage (if you have one) is the best time to get crazy and make a mess. You can clean it up later, but only if you get started, so off you go.