Every author has their own way to outline. Some want minimal detail, some want a lot. Some keep the same outline process for every book they write. Some change from book to book—a new method for a new writing experience. Is there anything they all have in common? Yes, they do.
Whether you write pages of detail or scrawl five lines on the back of a till receipt, the outline has one important function—it stops you getting lost.
But wait! Do you even need to outline?
Outlining from Your Gut
Some people claim to write a book off the top of their head, in a state of creative flow. People who do this successfully are usually not beginners. They’re following craft processes that have become innate, like a sense of when to apply the brakes or change gear—or throw a spanner in the works. They can wing it with confidence. But they’re still following a sort-of plan.
This is a clue to the true nature of a useful outline—a sense of structure.
Structure is the core of outlining. Why? Because it’s one of the most important ingredients in story. It’s the invisible mechanism that makes the ending work, and all the surprises between beginning and end. Structure will also govern where you vary the tone—with funny bits, serious bits, according to your genre (or lack of it).
A well-controlled structure is the difference between a story that hits the spot and a rambling narrative that goes off piste, loses focus, and has an unsatisfying ending. A strong structure will even help with thematic and poetic resonance—you place the ingredients so that the reader will notice them.
The outline helps you impose control on all your wonderful ideas. So what do you actually need? Again, this is personal. You need enough to help you know where you’re going, and so you don’t forget anything important. You need to leave room for your creativity to take over, when appropriate.
This is very individual, but here are some approaches.
What are the essentials?
Outline 1: Just the turning points
Beginning + the major turning points in the plot. This might include the end, or you might want to leave that until the actual writing. While we’re talking about the beginning, be aware that you might change your mind about the beginning once you’ve written all the way to the end! That’s fine. But your outline’s job is to get you going, so for the time being, devise a beginning that launches you into the writing.
As well as your plot points, figure out your main characters. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Why does the action matter to them? Whose story will involve the most challenge and change?
Outline 2: Just the characters
Another approach to outlining is to start with the characters. If you know the people, you’ll know what they’ll do. This is especially good if your initial inspiration is psychological complexity—a contradiction in a person that has grabbed your interest, or perhaps an impossible choice that seems to cause deep-seated internal conflict. In that case, you might find that free-writing some character studies, or maybe answering character questionnaires, will help you build a rich character. Aim to figure out what they’re searching for. Then take them badly, madly out of their comfort zone. Map the structure in terms of their increasing psychological and emotional challenges and how they change. There’s your outline, in a character arc.
This can be anything you like. Do any of these, or combine them!
1. Scene by scene list: just the major scenes, or all the scenes. As little or as much detail as you like. Create an outline from a list of the ‘becauses’ - this event happens because of this, which kicks off this…
2. Discovery: write your outline as a brief story in itself. It might be risky to write the whole book without knowing where you’re going (aka pantsing), but if you write an outline by the seat of your pants, you can be outlandishly inventive but still see where you’re aiming.
Getting Creative with Your Outline
But wait! Your outline doesn’t have to be written in prose. Or even written. All you need is a guide, and guides can come in many forms. Try these.
1. A text scrapbook
Write snippets as they occur to you—dialogue, descriptions of places. Drop these in roughly at the points where they’ll appear in the story.
2. A pictures scrapbook
You might build a set of pictures of people and places. As this document is just for you, you can break all the copyright rules. I used to trawl Flickr, looking at pictures of random people—it was a good way to find a surprising face that might be the start of a character. I once saw a picture of the broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh and decided he was perfect for the role of Prime Minister of Canada! As you’re not publishing this document, you can make anyone into anything you like. (P.S. Do not share this outline on social media because you don’t have permission to use the pictures publicly! But you can use them in private to jog your memory.)
3. Outlining by music
Why not build your story’s key emotional moments as though they were a playlist? Think of musicals and how they mark all the emotional story beats with a song. There’s a ‘what I want’ song. An ‘I’m doing something new’ song. An ‘I’m in big trouble’ song. Even a finale song. Does a song seem to capture the emotional heart of a character or a scene? This kind of outlining might work for you—especially if you prefer to discovery-write (I’ve actually got a blog series about this, called The Undercover Soundtrack).
Troubleshooting Your Outline
There are a few key items to look for when you're troubleshooting your outline.
Logic gaps—are any story beats missing?
Are the characters doing things for solid reasons? Is anyone doing something stupid just so that it can advance the plot—in a way that is not true to them?
Is anything predictable? Do you have enough surprises?
Have you got enough variety in the mood, as appropriate to the genre?
The Best-Laid Plans… How to Use the Outline and Go Off Piste
What if you change your mind during writing?
I’ve already mentioned that you might not devise the end until you’re well advanced with the writing. Also that the beginning you first think of might not be the best beginning, ultimately. Restructuring is routine for most seasoned writers. And an outline actually makes that easier because you can see the book as a whole and keep the structure in your mind.
I write from an outline, and I usually make extensive changes along the way. Certain details don’t turn out the way I expected once I’m eye to eye with the characters. Some events require more set-up. Sometimes the characters won’t do what I expected them to. That’s inconvenient, of course, but it’s also great. It means I’ve developed a deeper understanding of them. So I pause, reconsider the outline, adjust as necessary and get back to drafting.
This is inevitable, actually. Drafting and outlining are not the same thing. When you draft, you experience the story moment by moment—and that’s when the surprises come. Even with the most meticulous outline.
Do You Ever Ditch the Outline?
Some writers do. Some use the outline to get them started, then once they’re confident with the world and the characters, they let inspiration take over and fly it where it wants to go. But the outline was the groundwork that got them there.
Outlining—the Basic Aims
The outline can be as strict or as loose as you want. You might fix the events of the beginning, middle, and end. Or you might want to be more inspirational or off-beat with character arcs, pictures, moods—anything you don’t want to forget.
Ultimately, the outline is your personal safe space, where you can interpret, experiment and—hopefully—surprise yourself a little too.