May 17, 2022
To Outline or Not to Outline, That is the Tiresome Question
by Samantha Hoffman
The question of whether or not to outline your novel is probably explored more often than any other writing topic.
I do not outline, I just write. I have an idea in my head, something I've thought about for a long time, and I begin. I know the beginning, middle and end of my story, and the two or three main characters, and the rest is a process of discovery.
That worked for my first (published) book and it has sort of worked for books two and three (unfinished, unpublished). When I'm stuck, however, when the story has gone off the rails or the ending isn't working, or I'm wondering if certain characters are necessary, I think, I should have done a damn outline. And then I think, well, I still can so at times I try that. I'm not good at it. I set out to lay the nearly-finished book out in a linear way. My thinking is that I will be able to see it all as a piece and figure out what's wrong.
Seems like that should be easy since I know so much of the story by that time, but it's not. One of the problems is I'm not sure I know what an outline should be. There are lots of different methods How to Outline a Book in 7 Easy Steps, various recommendations How to Outline a Book, lots of models 12 Best Novel Outlines.
For my "outline" I try to write one or two lines for each chapter describing what's happening or what should be happening. (I also put in the time of year or how much time should have passed since the last chapter, because it's really hard to keep all that straight as you go along.) That's been helpful. Not the resolution I feel like it should be, but helpful.
I Google this subject often and this article by K.M. Weiland Writer's Digest is one of the best I've found. She says:
She also says that your outline should begin with a tightly crafted premise sentence that can answer the following questions:
Who is the protagonist?
What is the situation? What is the hero’s personal condition at the beginning? How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
What is the protagonist’s objective? At the beginning, what does the hero want? What moral (or immoral) choices will she have to make in her attempt to gain that objective?
Who is the opponent? Who or what stands in the way of the hero achieving his objective?
What will be the disaster? What misfortune will befall the hero as the result of her attempts to achieve her objective?
What’s the conflict? What conflict will result from the hero’s reaction to the disaster? And what is the logical flow of cause and effect that will allow this conflict to continue throughout the story?
Maybe even more than the outline, I think that crafted premise is essential.
If you don't outline, and have no desire to, try this: Can you describe your novel in two sentences? I can't. Not yet, but I'm working on it. Best selling author Ann Garvin says you should create your elevator pitch as early as you can, two sentences that, when someone asks what your book is about, you're ready with the answer.
That's brilliant. It's a mini-mini-mini outline. Having that in your head as you're writing helps you focus on the story.
I'm curious, and I'd love your help. If you're inclined, please answer these questions and maybe we can help each other.
Do you outline?
If not, why not?
If an outline is essential to your process, do you have a template you use?
If you write to discover, are there exercises or tricks you use to keep the story moving?
Writer, editor, artist, personal assistant, private chef, runner (8-time marathoner), film and theatre buff, traveler… Author of What More Could You Wish For (St. Martin’s Press).
V.P. of the Chicago Writers Association, Executive Director of Let’s Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference.
Visit me at www.samanthahoffman.com
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Nancy on Tuesday, May 17, 2022
Yep, I DO outline. It’s kind of innate for me, a logical way to organize the story, to “see” how it begins, what happens in the middle, and how it concludes. I usually go back and rewrite my outlines, oh, say…..many times!
Samantha Hoffman on Tuesday, May 17, 2022
Nancy, do you have a form that you use?
Maggie Smith on Tuesday, May 17, 2022
I use a developmental synopsis - it’s a play-by-play through each chapter in order - includes the reason for the scene, what happens, emotional tone, and approximate number of pages - also if it’s more than one scene, then each scene gets a separate summary. I follow (loosely) the Save The Cat outline method.
Nancy on Thursday, May 19, 2022
Samantha, I do not have a form I use for outlining. I hate forms! A one-size-doesn’t-fit-all for me. The outline process I did for my memoir (a chronolgical grid of time going across the page and experiences going down the side of the page) was different from the outline for my Book 2 of fiction. I outline in headings ( I, II, III etc.) and subheadings (A. B. C. etc then a 1, 2, 3 etc.), like the old-fashioned way I learned to outline in grade school!
Ophelia Julien on Friday, May 20, 2022
I don’t outline. Even when I was in high school, I wrote the term paper first, then took the outline from that and submitted it to the instructor. (Always had my papers done early!)
I have the storyline in my head and then keep a laundry list of “things that have to happen.” I also can’t write a novel unless I absolutely know the ending. I frequently write the ending before I’m very far into the book.
Ellen cassidy on Wednesday, May 25, 2022
I don’t outline, though like you I’ve wondered whether I should. I don’t know why, other than it feels like too many words and work, and the idea of all that analysis makes my eyes glaze over. I do keep notebooks full of random scenes, and I have a rough idea of how it’s going to progress. So, that counts, right? LOL