Working with an Outline

This post is by Winona Kent.

One of the best skills I ever learned as an author was to work with an outline. I know there are writers who prefer to wing it, to make the story up as they go along and to just let it all spill out as it happens and preserve the spontaneity of their thoughts and their dialogue and their plotting. If it works for you, that’s great. 

I’ve always had to work full-time for a living, and my writing’s been squeezed into evenings, weekends and days off. Over the years I managed to get eight novels and a novella into print and I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all if I hadn’t first created an effective outline for each of them.

One of the main advantages of outlining ahead of time is that if, like me, you have to spend many hours away from your story, the next time you dive into it, you’ll know exactly where you are in terms of structure and plotting. You won’t waste time trying to remember what you were thinking, what the storyline was, and most importantly, where you intended it to go.

There aren’t any hard and fast rules about writing an outline. It’s all yours. Nobody else is going to see it except you, so you can make it as detailed, or as vague, as you want. 

I generally start by telling the entire story to myself. A straight narrative, beginning to end, with little bits of dialogue if they come to me, but basically, just a blow-by-blow description flowing right out of my imagination and onto a document on my laptop.

When I’ve finished telling myself the story, I go back break it down into chapters. I look for natural pauses, and for places where I can end the narrative and provide a hook to take the reader into the next chapter.

Once I have the chapters set, I go back again and identify the “beat points” – all of the little pieces that drive the story forward and provide shape to each individual chapter. “This” happens to a character, and then “that” happens as a result, so that each chapter is broken down into smaller paragraphs or sentences or points. If beat points are missing, it’s obvious to me where they need to be added, so I’ll do that as well.

And it’s only after I’ve completed this last stage that I begin the actual process of writing the story, converting my narrative into fiction.

The good thing about each outline is that it’s absolutely not carved into stone. I often change it as I work my way through the story. Supporting characters appear and disappear. New twists and turns emerge as I explore situations and make like difficult for my hero. And my endings are never, ever what I originally imagined. 

And I change my outline constantly while I’m writing. I keep the older versions and never overwrite them, because you never know when you might want to bring something back that you’ve deleted. 

If you find you’re stuck, or you’re having difficulty keeping your story straight – especially if it’s a mystery, with lots of twists and turns and puzzles – you might try the outlining process. Even if you’re halfway through your novel-in-progress, take what you’ve already written and strip it down to its bare bones so you can see what you have. Plot it all out, chapter by chapter, in a separate document. I can almost guarantee you’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel!

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2 thoughts on “Working with an Outline”

    1. Totally agree 🙂 I actually learned how to do outlines properly at film school – it’s one of the steps scriptwriters use when they’re developing a screenplay. I wrote two novels before I went to film school, and they were literally constructed with cut-and-paste pieces of paper stuck onto index cards, which I would lay out on the floor and move around as needed. When I learned how to do it the way screenwriters do it, it used up a lot less space in the living room 😀 But I do agree – it’s something you need to “bend” your mind to doing, and if you’ve found a successful way to write your novels without outlining, excellent!

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