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Exactly what is an outline?

Over the last few years, I’ve discovered some innocent sounding words or phrases that (when thrown into a conversation with a group of other writers) are all but guaranteed to provoke a heated discussion. 

In no particular order, they are: ‘I read books about writing’; ‘I write/don’t write short stories’; any mention of self-publishing/POD; and my personal favorite ‘I use outlines’.


I plan to cover all of these in future posts, but for now let’s start with outlines.  I’ve never come across a writing method that attracts such scorn. For the life of me I can’t think why?


Let’s be clear here.  I don’t care if you produce a fifty page outline for a novel, or write one on the back of a postage stamp.  Maybe  you just sit down and start typing.  Everybody has their own way of working, I respect that, but why the dismissive attitude?

In my next post, I plan to discuss this in more detail, but in the meantime, I have a question for any writers out there and I rather think the answers will explain a lot. 

Whether or not you use one, in your opinion, what exactly is an outline?


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( 57 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jun. 20th, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC)
I don't get it, either. There's no Right Way to write. There is no magic equation or Secret Key to the Writing Kingdom. Whatever works for you is what you should do. To have someone come along and say, "You should/should not write an outline" is asinine, imo.
Jun. 20th, 2009 03:54 pm (UTC)
but what do you think an outline is?
Jun. 20th, 2009 03:58 pm (UTC)
oops, forgot to answer your question
For myself I view an outline as a general guide for the story or novel. I don't commit myself to it. If, during the course of writing the story, I find I have a better idea than my outline, then I go with the idea.

I almost never outline short stories, but I know some people who do. I usually make a very brief chapter outline for a novel, though, usually just one or two words to note the main idea for that chapter. But, again, I don't limit myself to following only that when it comes time to write. It's just a general guide and nothing else. I'm not constricted by it.

But that works for me. Another writer might find it easier to outline a lot of detail. No one way is correct and anyone who says otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about.
Jun. 20th, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC)
Re: oops, forgot to answer your question
Thanks for sharing. By the way, how's the toe?
Re: oops, forgot to answer your question - kmarkhoover - Jun. 20th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: oops, forgot to answer your question - jongibbs - Jun. 20th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: oops, forgot to answer your question - silverton - Jun. 20th, 2009 11:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)
For shorts, I usually use no more than a three or four sentence outline. I try to have the ending in place when I begin writing, but I don't always manage to do so (and sometimes I think of a better one half way through!).
Jun. 20th, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
For novels, I use a chapter list, saying which scenes will ocur within each chapter.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jun. 20th, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
Good point. I think people do get a little defensive about outlining. We are all really attached to our "process" whatever that may be. And often the You Must Outline camp tries to force the Organic camp to see the light like it's religion. And maybe it happens vice versa too--but I've most often seen the Outliners as the pushier side. Also I think agents and editors are sometimes in the You Must Outline camp, and they can be the sort to make writers feel bullied. AND a further issue is that often if you sell a book on a partial you are required to turn in an outline--so writers who don't normally do one are faced with the outlining task in order to sell a book before it's actually completed. And financial pressures or pressure from your agent can make these kinds of things happen causing a hatred for the outline.
Jun. 20th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
Lol, and in your opinion an outline is... :)
(no subject) - edithspage - Jun. 20th, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 20th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
Ah, the old 'magic violin' ploy, I've used that one my own self ;)
Jun. 20th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
I haven't written a new novel in a few years, so I'm talking about short fiction here. The next novel I write I'm sure I'll outline on paper.

When I first began writing shorts I used to outline. If only a list of scenes. I don't do that anymore except in my head. It's probably still the same process, but having written a lot of stories I don't feel the need to put it on paper. I also think I've gotten better at feeling my way through a story by intuition. Having made all the classic plotting mistakes in my first 50 short stories, with the second 50 I quickly dismissed ideas that I knew would lead me down a false path. Still, not every story works but the ones that don't are usually ones I can't find an answer for.

I've said before that I'll write a short scene or two and stop for the day and sleep on it, let my subconscious mull it over. Mostly what happens is that in the time I'm waiting to pick up the next scene I'll work things out in my head. Often it's not like I'm really forcing myself to think about it. Just while moving about my day new ideas will come to me and I'll have an A Ha! moment. A Ha! moments don't come to me often when doing an outline. More often in the shower or while folding my laundry. ;-)

Edited at 2009-06-20 04:29 pm (UTC)
Jun. 20th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
That 'always have a notebook and pencil handy' advice is some of the best ever, right?
(no subject) - marshallpayne1 - Jun. 20th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - justin_pilon - Jun. 20th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marshallpayne1 - Jun. 20th, 2009 05:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jun. 20th, 2009 05:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
I think the reason that mentioning outlining tends to raise hackles is that it is often touted as THE WAY TO WRITE -- I've come across it in books, seen it in classes, heard it from various authors. Often this comes with specific instructions on how to outline.

If that kind of outlining doesn't work for you, and yet you are told you can't write without it, you might get a little defensive.

And it might harken back to a lot of highschool English classes where teachers tried to hammer Outline structure for writing papers into the heads of reluctant teenagers who didn't want to write a paper in the first place.

On the second part of your question, for me an outline is something I do after I have some kind of story going. I often create an outline after I'm well in so I can track what I've written and keep continuity. It can be very formal, or it can be a list of points, or a set of 'chapter goals' -- whatever I want. However, it took me many years to develop an ability for outlines, and I don't use them for short fiction at all -- by the time I get an outline written, I've finished the short and revised it twice. I don't find a use for them there.

Back to the first idea of why such things get contentious -- well, it might be because of the more deepseated reaction many have to others saying "What you do is WRONG, you are WRONG, and..." blah blah blah. Many people are very welded to their ways and think of them as the ONLY RIGHT WAY to do something, and if someone else's method differs, it's almost an attack. Depending on how you feel about your methods and your past experiences, it might well BE an attack. And if you have two or more people feeling attacked, you get a nasty situation.

It can be very hard for some people to adopt a "people are different, and different methods achieve the same goals" point of view, especially if they are glued to the idea of Only One Right Way. Thus do we have the political, social, and religious diversity we have. Hell, I've seen people get into heated debates over the "correct" way to barbeque steaks. Are you old enough (or have you watched enough reruns on TV) to recall "All In The Family" where Archie and his son in law argued about whether it should be sock-sock, shoe-shoe, or sock-shoe, sock-shoe?

Edited at 2009-06-20 04:55 pm (UTC)
Jun. 20th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
All in the Family? Must be an American TV show, I only moved here in '04 :)

Thanks for sharing.
Jun. 20th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
I agree with whatever works for you. I'm usually at my best when I start with an idea and the story builds naturally around that, when I get too ahead of myself and write a chronological order of scenes the story never seems to come out right, or otherwise sits in an idea folder collecting dust and never being written. I hate having to push myself through scenes I've already built especially when the initial excitement of thinking up those scenes has faded. I need that initial rush to get it down. That said, I really do want to finish off a bunch of those outlined stories...
Jun. 20th, 2009 06:20 pm (UTC)
Personally, I find one of the best things about having a plan is being able to change it when needed :)
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 20th, 2009 06:21 pm (UTC)
All good points. Thanks for sharing :)
Jun. 20th, 2009 05:44 pm (UTC)
If you look outline up in the dictionary, here's what you get for the noun:
out-line [out-lahyn] –noun 1. the line by which a figure or object is defined or bounded; contour.
2. a drawing or sketch restricted to line without shading or modeling of form.

For me, that is exactly what an outline is. I think of it as, say, the chalk-drawing around a body at a murder scene. It shows you where the body was lying, how it fell, the shape of the body--all sorts of basic stuff. It gives you a good, general idea of what happened, nothing more. For me, that's all an outline needs to trigger the rest.

My outlines are pretty sparse on detail. I'll spend a writing day, usually no more, rambling through the story as if I'm telling it to myself. Sometimes it turns out to be 10 pages. Sometimes it turns out to be 60 pages. It's definitely a stream of consciousness thing. Character sketches have more plot points than my outline does. Perhaps the sketches are PART of the outline--that's another discussion completely!

Once I have my outline, all those lovely lines with no shading, I start. Inevitably, I discover that while my conscious brain has the basic story solidly in the outline, my subconscious brain already has so many of the details in the works. When it comes to writing, they're usually just...there. Sometimes it takes a read-through to jiggle them lose (like it did this past week!) but generally, they don't make me work too hard to find them.

Outlining, FOR ME*, is imperative. I used to be a pantser (one who writes by the seat of her pants *g*) and discovered through much trial and error that, FOR ME*, I need those lines and contours to keep me in line. Without them, I fly off on tangents that ruin the story. An outline ensures I know where I'm going, where I've been and who was there along the way.

(*the caps are so no one accuses me of being one of those who thinks her way is the only way!)
Jun. 20th, 2009 06:22 pm (UTC)
Great description. Thanks :)
Jun. 20th, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah...I agree with most of what's already been said: "Outlining" is often presented as writing The Bible, as opposed to a bible--ie, the document from which most TV series are generated: A pilot episode, some characters and their relationships, some sub-plots, then set it loose and see what happens. I often start with a bunch of things I know "will" or "need to" happen. The alchemical transition comes from realizing, most often while writing, exactly how or why these same things are going to happen. Without character, plot is just a list of events--character provides both glue and gasoline. And characters--their motives, their desires, their evolution--are why I outline, and what I concentrate on while outlining.
Jun. 20th, 2009 09:01 pm (UTC)
Nice description. Thanks :)
Jun. 20th, 2009 09:08 pm (UTC)
I have to outline, simply to keep my plot straight. I go chapter by chapter, scene by scene - but only for novels. I just write out my shorts in pen then add as I type over.

I don't get involved in any arguments about how people should write. As far as I'm concerned it's none of my business and I'd rather spend the energy writing than bickering.
Jun. 20th, 2009 09:56 pm (UTC)
Fair point, though I must say, I do enjoy the occasional bicker ;)
Jun. 20th, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
I think I can't get that formal "outline" version from grade school that I always hated out of my head, and that's why I don't like outlines. So I always say I don't do outlines. But I think with writing, an outline is a much more casual document, more like an essay about the story line, plot, and characters. Some people make it more formal and more intense than others. Mine is usually pretty vague (if I do one at all) regarding plot -- pretty specific in the beginning and the background and characters, pretty sure of the ending, but the middle is usually about a sentence or two.
Jun. 20th, 2009 09:57 pm (UTC)
I left school at sixteen, and I don't think I ever learned about outlines (if I did I'd long since forgotten).

Edited at 2009-06-20 11:42 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - stormdream - Jun. 21st, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - chant_1 - Jun. 22nd, 2009 02:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - stormdream - Jun. 22nd, 2009 07:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2009 11:24 pm (UTC)
that's odd...
why would anyone get snippy about using or not using outlines? Outlines aren't really set in stone, after all.

now, the Self-publishing thing... I do understand.
Jun. 20th, 2009 11:42 pm (UTC)
Ooh, you trouble-maker! ;)
(no subject) - keireland - Jun. 21st, 2009 12:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jun. 22nd, 2009 10:14 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2009 11:43 pm (UTC)
An outline for me can be so many things. And it gets so disorganized and messy. I write down the basics of the story, the beginning, middle and end, and then I fill in little sub-plots and motivations. I actually write it all out, I can't just jot down "Escape" because by the time I get back to it I'll have just forgotten all the bits and pieces that go along with it. And then, even though I've written all that down, I still change my mind and scratch it out and write other possibilities and... well, its a long ugly process. I've yet to see how truly effective it is for me... I'll let you know.
Jun. 20th, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing :)
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