Outlines: What are they good for?

Not this kind of outline!

Not this kind of outline!
(silhouette of Jane Austen, from the 2nd edition of Mansfield Park, c.1810)

Well, the Labor Day weekend really threw off my blogging schedule last week. But I’m back now, so let’s dig into today’s topic: outlines.

When I first got into fiction writing, I heard a lot of contradictory information about outlines–those preliminary notes that are sometimes prepared before starting a story proper. It wasn’t always clear to me what an outline was, what it should look like, and what it should be used for. The first thing I had to learn was that there was no one “right way” to outline and compose my thoughts.

Everyone’s approach to outlines is different: some don’t use them at all, while other people carefully choreograph every scene beforehand. And of course plenty of people are somewhere in the middle. Some folks need Venn diagrams, charts, and other visual elements, while others are fine with just words on a page.

Finding out what works for you often takes some experimenting. I have a little experience in that regard.

The first novel I wrote had no outline at all and was pretty much an enormous mess–but that’s to be expected from a sixteen-year-old. I didn’t want to outline because I felt compelled to just let the story spill out. Stopping to sketch things would just sap my enthusiasm, or so I thought.

In college, when I was working mostly on short stories, I developed an approach that worked for me: half a page to one page of loose plot summary, sprinkled with a few lines of dialogue and other random notes. Typically, I’ll go through a couple of iterations as I get events lined up properly and work out kinks in the plotting. Once I’m satisfied, I then leap into the story and barely look at the outline again, except as a life raft when I run into a problem. This approach gives me some direction, but I’m still able to follow new leads where they take me. As a result, the story I end up with often differs significantly from the outline.

For my second attempt at a novel, I tried to scale this approach up. I wrote my half page of rough plot summary for the entire novel. Then I did a half-page outline for chapter one, wrote the chapter, outlined chapter two, wrote it, outlined chapter three and so on. Individually, the chapters benefited from this approach, but the novel as a whole suffered. My master outline had insufficient detail to sustain the whole novel, while outlining and then writing each chapter piecemeal led to all sorts of adjustments and narrative drift down the line, producing a meandering and repetitive story.

For Sheep’s Clothing, my current project, I decided to take a different and more comprehensive approach. I would write a lengthy, multi-page master outline and then outline each individual chapter of the novel. Only once every chapter was thoroughly outlined would I begin to actually write the prose proper.

So far, this approach to outlining has helped me avoid some of the structural problems that afflicted my novel. I was able to encounter and find solutions to some thorny issues that came up, without having to do the extensive backtracking and rewriting I’d have had to do if I had just dived into the novel. Likewise, I don’t really feel that it has dimmed my enthusiasm for the project. Writing a summary of a scene has generally just whetted my appetite to write it in full.

Even so, I’m not quite sure if I’ve quite struck the right balance yet. This approach has been time consuming and occasionally a little clunky. I may have tilted just a little to far on the side of over-preparation.

What approach to outlining works for you? Do you think I should try anything different? Let me know!


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