With NaNoWriMo coming soon, I am going to start pushing my old agenda again — why and how fiction writers should use outlines. I’ve probably already lost at least 1/3 of you, but if you’re still reading, thank you for hearing me out.
Anyone who knows me well can tell you I am not an organized person. It’s not in my nature to keep things where I can easily find them again. Only the most important things — money stuff, tax records, my passport — are kept in special places. So, when I say “outline,” I in no way mean one of those Roman numeral-infested abominations we all had to do at least once in high school. Those make me shudder and they’re a pain in the ass to format in Microsoft Word.
They also do exactly what a good outline should not — they stifle creativity and box the maker’s ideas into a predetermined, inflexible format. When I say “outline,” I mean “guide,” or maybe “road map.” An outline should be a tool you can use to find out what your story is about and where it’s going.
Two of the most common misconceptions about outlines is that 1) they have to follow a set format, and 2) they’re set in stone once written out. I’d like to debunk both those myths here and now.
An outline should take whatever form works for the individual writer or project. Outlines don’t even have to look like what you think they might. For example, here are two of my outlines for past projects:
The first one is for a story I wrote in high school and the other was for a literature paper in college. They’re almost complete opposites in structure, but they both worked for their respective projects. But even on the more formal one, I still went with what I felt was most comfortable and what worked for how my mind jumped from idea to idea. Neither included just one aspect of the work, either — the top was generated on notes about plot, character, setting, and theme, and the bottom included my thesis idea, supporting facts, and so on.
Neither one was intended to box my writing into a format or keep it from growing or developing as I wrote. These outlines were written with the express purpose of getting my ideas onto paper and figuring out what the hell I wanted to say. If and when I got lost while writing, my outline showed me where my ending was. My outline is the skeleton of my story, where I make notes, ask questions, try on new ideas. If I get into writing and find the characters take me somewhere else, the outline gets stashed away (since I keep everything o.O).
THAT is why I think outlines can be so helpful to Nano writers. They can give us a basic plan so we can jump in headfirst, screaming, and not sit there staring at the blank page wondering what to write (or writing “I don’t know what to write” a thousand times). Outlines, for me at least, also help calm the pre-Nano “I love this story and I want to write it NOW!” jitters.
Hear a few others’ thoughts on outlining: