As part of a new series I’m going to be looking at outlining as a technique for writers and I’m going to start by acknowledging the obvious – everyone is different. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another, so my objective here is not to tell you how to write or what to use, but to encourage you to develop a portfolio of tools and techniques that will help you to organise and direct your thoughts and be more productive.
This series is aimed at writers of long fiction (i.e. pieces over 20,000 words) but some or all of it may also be useful if you are writing non-fiction, or shorter pieces, or a dissertation or long-form essay. It’s up to the reader to pick out what is useful to them and incorporate it into their methods.
So why outline? Why not just write?
There are a number of advantages to outlining a piece of work both before and after writing it. The first is perspective. It’s much easier to get an overview of a piece of work if you can look at it all at once. This is useful at the planning stage to allow you to experiment without commiting yourself to hours of work just to see whether an idea will bear fruit.
It’s also useful in editing when you can see scene-by-scene what is happening. It helps you identify sections where the plot may be flat, or unfocussed, or just plain confusing. By resolving these at a higher level it then enables you to dip into the text and resolve the issues one at a time and work through the text to resolve the issues while keeping the narrative flow intact. It can also provide you with an overview of character-arc, or themes, or key events. With the right software it can even help with timing.
One of the most common weaknesses, particularly for new writers, is a lack of structure. Without a framework the story tends to lack pace and direction and the writer can end up stuck – not because they can’t write, but because they have reached a place in the narrative where there is either no believable progression or resolution for the characters, or because they feel blocked. Outlining allows you to unwind to the point where the story can branch anew and find a more fruitful and promising direction. You can experiment in outline with different scenarios until you find something that works for the story, and for you as a writer.
A major challenge of any work over 50,000 words is to organise what is being done. Outlining allows you to easily order and re-order scenes, move elements around, experiment with sequence, timing and the interplay between actors before investing time in writing the scenes. It also allows you to dip into key scenes and write them first, putting into place the crucial turning points in the plot and crystallising these so that the rest of the story can form around them, then using these as waypoints in the narrative for story development. It liberates the writer from the timeline.
By freeing the writer from the timeline and giving them the framework of the narrative, the outliner is able to drill into a scene and focus. It allows the writer to think about that scene in context and understand what is being delivered in terms of plot development, character evolution, escalation, tension, narrative twist, humour, horror, suspense or any other element. When the scene is written it can be edited both as a scene, and as an element of the whole
Even using outlining it is possible to spend weeks or months on a story and then find that for one reason or another it doesn’t work. Having an outline to go back to allows you to restructure rapidly. Instead of lamenting the lost time, you can use the experience to rapidly introduce new character perspectives, develop new plot threads, and find out what’s not working. Doing that with 100,000 words would take months in itself, but using an outline it’s possible to see what can be saved and what must be scrapped. It allows you to maintain momentum when you feel like you’re paddling upstream.
The most common argument against outlining is the proposition that somehow by outlining a story in advance it nullifies the sense of discovery that can be experienced through story development; that by pre-empting the story, you remove the opportunity for the characters to surprise you. This may be true for some writers. However, the first rule of outlining is that you don’t have to stick to your outline. It’s a framework and frameworks can change. If you discover a creative thread that looks promising you can follow it. You are not tied to your outline. Even if you throw it away and start again you’ve lost very little.
Some writers prefer to hammer out a first draft and then develop it in editing. One way of looking at that is to say that the first draft is the outline; it’s just longhand rather than note-form. Knowing the plot is only the first part of telling a story. Setting a scene, building expectation, developing characters, crafting dialogue; all of these and more besides are part of storytelling and must be addressed in your writing process. If you choose to do them in second or third draft then that’s your choice.
If you’re writing already then you’ve probably discovered that writing isn’t one skill, but many. The exercise of those skills is what makes it challenging, demanding and rewarding. Outlining is a skill like any other, it must be acquired and practiced before it can be mastered, but mastering it opens doors that might otherwise be closed.
As the series progresses I’ll be showing how that skill can be developed using a variant of software (and more prosaic) tools, so that you can add outlining to your skill-set.