Monday, March 14, 2011

Craft Note: Outlining

It's Craft Note Monday! (These may be harder and harder to do in the future, so give me some ideas if you feel game.)

I have heard two schools of thought in regard to writing and planning/outlining.

First, some authors believe in absolutely no planning and just write as it comes to their head (write it organically). To outline is to kill that creative side: You're no longer just going with the flow because your mind has already come to conclusions and climaxes.

Second, some authors believe in planning and outlining everything about their project down to the very last scene.

I subscribe to the second school of thought, but I didn't always.

When I first started writing stories (I've been writing since I was nine, but really got serious about it all at 13 when I was starting high school), I would just sit down and write what came to me. Outlining was a foreign concept. I would write and write and write letting the characters do whatever they wanted--which often included a lot of kissing and maybe a few nude scenes... what can I say, I was a bit naughty back in the day. I had no clear purpose or ending in view when I wrote, just two characters interacting. Making out or shooting guns and riding horses. (I was big into Westerns for a short amount of time. I blame the movie "Bad Girls".) I've been told that "just going with the flow" can produce the best kind of story (you'll often find that literary stories do this, focusing more on character than plot), but I quickly became bored out of my mind and ready to start the next great idea. I probably finished maybe one full project from the time I was 13 until my early 20s. I have dozens and dozens of 20-75 page stories that just kinda end, and maybe a handful that actually made it to "the end."

It wasn't until "Killing Memories" (the first Es and Moo novel on FictionPress) that I decided I needed to know where things were going. I credit my change into outlining/planning to the readers of KM1 who reviewed and showed their excitement for story. I didn't want to let anyone down. I needed to take KM some where and actually have an ending. So, halfway through that novel, I grabbed a piece of paper and outlined what needed to happen to get to the end. From that moment on, I've been a planner. I LOVE OUTLINES.

I tend to imagine my stories having around 20 chapters in them and list 1-20 on a page and start filling in the numbers (several will end up blank because I don't know everything that will happen). I have key areas that I know I need to hit and try to work my way to that spot. So, it might look something like this:

1. Beginning, introduce characters and problem
2. Build characters and story line
3. Introduce villain or main obstacle
6. Big Party at XXX's house leads to first kiss.
7. Aftermath of party
12. Villain starts to make things difficult for YYY.
15. Build up to main conflict.
16. Main conflict occurs (what is it?)
18. Conclusion - YYY and XXX break up and go to college.

This isn't any real story that I'm working on, just an illustration of what I usually end up doing. Sometimes I'm able to fill in all the blanks. And sometimes, even though I've planned for things to happen, as I write stuff will shift and change and I have to reorder the chapters or add new ones. A lot of things change in the writing process. Last week I worked out plot ideas for books 2 and 3 of my Fallen Guardian novels, just so I know what I'm working toward. I need to know how I want that final book to end. Outlines become loose guidelines that help me know that I'm working toward something, even if all the stuff in the middle flip flops, erases, or changes all together.

Here are a few links on outlining:
Fiction Factor - I tend to follow the chapter-by-chapter guide idea.
Pro Writing Tips - Just some interesting perspectives.
Advice on Novel Writing - Check out the "Ten Points on Plotting"

So, what school of thought to you follow in regard to outlining/planning?

Side Note: My heart goes out to all of Japan. So scary!


  1. Yeah, my cousin is still in Japan and we all had a few days of worry. But he's safe... his area wasn't affected as badly.

    As far as outlining, I think I'm in between. However, I think NOT outlining has probably been my biggest downfall and why I've never actually finished anything. So maybe I should put this writer's craft into action more.

  2. Oh good, I'm glad your cousin is safe! My sister sent me a CNN video that showed the ground opening and closing and water shooting up through the cracks. It was the scariest thing ever.

    My only real advice on outlining is to not let it rule your life. To jot down a few quick notes and then get into writing ASAP. Sometimes I outline just to get the story out of my head and then I don't write it. What's the point of that! :)

  3. I'm a bit of both. I used to be a pantser, whatever happened in my head hit the page. I finished my first short story when I was twelve and didn't finish my next until I was about ... 17/18, lol. And it was horrible. First story I put on fp and just, wow, no, LOL.

    it wasn't until I had to scrap a few stories once I hit about midway and had way too many possibilities and no idea where it was going that I decided to start to create an outline.

    I normally have a pretty rough idea of what's happening, I don't know which chapter each scene happens but I get the major points down then try and brainstorm how to get from one part to the next.

    And then, when I start writing, I write a quick summary or outline for each chapter once I start to realize how to connect it.

    That's where I get into a few problems since I usually end up with a few continuity issues.

    I find your way of doing it interesting, and more organized then mine, lol, but it doesn't seem super restricted either.

    And for my series I really just have the major plot points and then the scenes I know have to happen written out in snippits in case I have to lay the groundwork in the previous novels.

  4. Yeah, my system for outlining really isn't restrictive at all. And I'm like you in that I like to have the big scenes set and work up to them. I don't even look at the outline when I'm writing most of the time. Every once and a while I'll look at it and ask "okay, what did I plan next?" and then I either go with that or switch it up, depending on where the writing has taken me.

    I love going back and looking at some of my work. Sometimes I'm like "oh lord, no" and other times I'm like "oooh, I was kinda good!" Haha. It's a fun experience (at times).