To Outline Or Not to Outline - How Plot Outlines Improve Your Novel

To Outline Or Not to Outline – How Plot Outlines Improve Your Novel

To Outline Or Not to Outline - How Plot Outlines Improve Your Novel
Image by Eric Heupel

To Outline Or Not to Outline – How Plot Outlines Improve Your Novel

One big debate for novelists is: do we create an outline for our story or do we just wing it?

Many writers worry that an outline hinders creativity. If they outline the story, they won't be able to stray from it.

But there are many different ways to look at outlines. Some writers create in-depth outlines, detailing scenes and/or chapters. Other writers use structure outlines and let the story unfold within each plot point.

Creating an outline of the plot helps us to stay on track of our writing goals. And it gets us thinking about character motivations and conflict. If we know the basics, we can start considering what needs to occur for each part of the story to make sense. Remember that fiction has to make sense. Real life is messy and full of poor reasoning and wishy-washy behavior. But in fiction, characters need to act and react for specific and believable reasons. Considering these details ahead of time will help us write a solid first draft.

I've worked with several different types of outlines and I've also written stories without them. I've found that, for me, the bare minimum needs to include a structure outline to keep me on track of my word count goals. I need to know the plot points, the pinch points, and the black moment before I start writing the story. Sometimes I'll dabble with the first eight thousand words to see what comes out, but then after that, I need structure and direction.

As I write a story, I make a list of all the elements that need to occur for each plot point. Many of the specific details between the plot points unfold on their own. Doing it this way allows my creativity to come out while keeping me on track of the plot structure and character growth. If any adjustments need to be made to the plot or characterization, I reevaluate the story outline.

Allowing plenty of time to consider plot and character details before writing will help us stay on track to producing a great novel as well. That means letting the ideas sit for a while. It takes time to write a great novel, and it takes time to come up with a great idea. If we start fleshing out a new story while we're still writing its predecessor, many of the problems may work themselves out before we start writing the new story. This "marinating" time varies for each story.

But whatever we do, we need to use whatever works best for us. What works for me may not work for you. And what works for one story might not work for the next one.

Jody Calkins
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