To outline or not to outline…?

Consider this a combination writing-process-post and request for help.  There’s always a debate about whether it’s better to plunge right into writing a new draft or to craft a meticulous outline first.  I know of hugely successful authors who do both, and I think a lot of it comes down to what works for the individual writer.  But what if you’re a plunger…working on a project that wants an outline?

I’ve never really been an outline person.  More often than not, I start a new book with a bare-bones premise and a fairly clear sense of who the characters are, and then I let them guide the story.  I write every night but usually go to bed without a clue as to what will happen next.  Then I sit down the next night, read over what I’ve written, close my eyes for a few minutes, and watch and listen until the characters do or say something.  Then I write it down.   I keep doing this over and over until eventually I can see the end. 

It’s the driving-at-night approach, where the headlights illuminate things bit by bit, but only as you move forward.  In THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, for example, I was writing about Gianna’s grandmother for months, following her around, thinking, "Why does she keep doing things like this?" before I could see that she was showing real signs of dementia and that was what was really upsetting the family apple cart.

All of this plowing ahead and figuring things out as I write leaves me many, many messes and dangly bits to clean up in revision, but I’m good with that.  I like revision, and the whole process has worked pretty well for me.  Until now. 

Enter the  middle grade mystery project…the one that makes me bounce up and down in my chair with excitement.  The one that sent me off to Washington D.C. a couple weeks ago for research, certain that completing said research would throw open the doors and make the process work for this book, too.  The research trip was wonderful and illuminating and really, really fun.  But I have started writing this book five times now, and I’m ready to face the truth.  It wants…no…needs an outline.

So here’s the request for help part… If you are an outliner, what do your outlines actually look like?  Are they formal outlines?  Or  just summaries of each chapter, written out in a synopsis?  Do you use some fancy-schmancy outlining software that stores only sell to organized people?  Index cards? 

And are there any "plungers" out there who have needed to outline for a particular project?  I’d love to hear how it all worked out. 

32 Replies on “To outline or not to outline…?

  1. I am a dyed in the wool plunger who has learned that plunging can be a freaking waste of time. At least for me. So now I do this version of driving at night. I ALWAYS know where I am starting the trip from, several very key spots along the way, and loosely where I am ending my trip. Then, I hop in the car and let the headlights show me just enough to get to the next pit stop.

    So, I know the beginning, most of the characters, some or many important plot developments and resolutions, and roughly how I want to end it. And I have done everything from write a chapter each per Post-it note (so that I have to be super brief, just “Sally talks to her mom about the dog. Her mom eats the dog. Sally realizes she must run away from home.”) to a paragraph in a Word document summarizing my plot line.

  2. Outlining

    Hi, Kate-

    I didn’t outline for Spy Tree, Reaching for Sun, or 42 Miles but when I tried to write a different novel it just crashed and burned without an outline. After that, I decided to at least sketch out the major events for Circus before I started. I thought it might bore me, knowing ahead of time what would happen but it didn’t at all. How all the events led to one another, discoveries about characters and details from the various settings kept me as thrilled as when I was trying to solve plot by driving in the dark (in a hurricane). If this book is calling for an outline, try it. You don’t have to use it. I basically had one sentence for each chapter before I started…

  3. I am also a plunger, but usually I know where I’m going from the outset — so it’s like an outline in my head.

    Unfortunately, there is one WIP that has time-travel and mirrored logic so I *had* to outline enough so that all the particulars made sense and had support to justify the end results. How did it fare? I don’t know. It’s at the 50% mark and I’ve switched agents so I’ll have to let you know later on…

    Wishing BOTH of us luck! 😉

  4. I always outline, so I can’t give any tips as a plunger, but I can share my outlining process.

    I usually first do a whole lot of jotting down pointform notes figuring out how I want the story to begin and the sequence of events after that leading to the end. Often I’ll stop here and there while doing this to brainstorm character motivations or backstory or that sort of thing.

    Once I have a straight line through from beginning to end (even if it’s kind of messy or there are a few little holes), I get out my index cards and divide that line up into scenes or chapters, expanding on what will happen in each section as I go. I note all the important plot events, details of character development and plot foreshadowing I want to make sure to include, and anything else I think it’s important I keep in mind while I’m writing that scene/chapter. Usually each card has several pointform sentences on it. And that’s my “official” outline.

  5. I’m definitely a plunger, but because my wip is a) a novel in verse and b) told in multiple voices, giving perspectives on events and relationships, I needed to outline. My outline grew. It’s not a formal outline, because I have never ever been good at those (as several of my graduate school profs will certify). I have a sheet of paper for each section, and on that sheet I jotted the order of the speakers and what is going on in each subplot. It’s been easy for me to add any inspirations that strike while I’m working on another section.

    This method has been useful, because I could work on whatever section inspired me at any given moment, because I wasn’t waiting to find out what happened next.

    I’ll be interested to hear what your method turns out to be.

  6. I use a paradigm before I start writing my story. I use a model similar to THE STORY, breaking story up into acts. I got my outline from Lou Nelson who teaches Writing the Novel at UCIrvine.
    I also map it out on a huge whiteboard in my writing loft, using different color markers for different character’s arcs. So far the max I’ve done is 2 different POVs.

  7. I’m a total plunger, but I had to employ every trick in the book to get Once Was Lost done. I was outlining, I was using index cards, white boards, post-its, EVERYTHING. At one point I used a Scrivener-like program for PC, and that was helpful. Now I use actual Scrivener since I have a Mac and love it.

  8. not an outliner

    But I do recommend Elizabeth George’s book WRITE AWAY. She’s a mystery writer and does a TON of preparation/plotting/etc before she writes. Her approach might help you.

  9. Re: Outlining

    Thank you, Tracie! It’s good to know that writers I admire so much have gone from plungers to outliners & survived. And nice to know that outlining doesn’t take away all the discovery that I love so much.

  10. See…I think your time-travel book feels like my new project – too messy to fly by night and not pay for it later on. Let me know how it goes!

  11. Thanks for taking the time to describe what you do, Megan. A quick outline, followed by an index card detail-fest might just be the ticket. Especially if I use colored index cards…I like color coding things. I’m putting that on my list of things to try.

  12. Oh I like this idea! I’m picturing all of your sheets spread out on the table so you can jump back and forth as need be, adding notes. Thanks!

  13. I’m so glad you commented, Sara – thanks! I finished ONCE WAS LOST on Tuesday and thought it was just about one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read, with everything – the mystery element and the character development woven together so perfectly. It offers me great hope to know that you were a plunger who tried something new with this book and it worked out so beautifully. Thanks.

    I’ve been thinking about Scrivener, actually. I downloaded a demo a while ago but never spent enough time with it to give it a fair chance. I’m a Mac person, so that just might work for me.

  14. Re: not an outliner

    Thanks, Linda! I’ve actually been looking for a good book about writing mystery and wondering about recommendations. I’ll put this one on my list.

    Also, I was thinking about you this week. How did your talk at the DCF Conference go? Wish I could have been there to hear you!

  15. Hi Kate,

    I make an outline after I have a first draft. This usually has just a one line/sentence that lets me know what the chapter is about. I also include how many pages the chapter is. I use this just to get a feel for the flow of the book/sequence of events. And then under each chapter/sentence entry, I write notes on the things I need to fix or work on.

    I also sometimes do storyboards, with an actual sketch for each chapter, but this would probably take a phone call to explain. 🙂 Maybe I can tell you about it at one of the brunches.

    Good luck!!

  16. If I were a novelist, I’d be an outliner for sure. How do I know? Because when I read Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY, I was giddy about her process. It is perfectly anal and lovely. (Isn’t that a funny sentence?)

    Anyway, maybe you should give her book a look? I’d be happy to send you my copy if you like …


  17. I completely plunged my first book, mostly plunged my second, but with my third, which required a lot of research, I found that the research drove me to outline. I wrote key research points on sticky post in one color and then key plot points and scenes in different colors. Then I stuck them on a white board and played around with them. As I was writing I could look at the white board and if I got stuck on one scene, I could jump to another one.

    It’s like Laurie Halse Anderson said at KW two years ago – each book requires different tools.

  18. Wow! This was really helpful to me. I have always tried to be a plunger, and not gotten very far, so this gives me a lot to think about. My one published book was non-fiction and I used an outline for that.
    I hate outlining.

  19. thank you thank you a million times thank you!

    Try Scriv. You have to really get in there and play with it before making a decision. I’m going to forward you an email a Scrivener pro sent me when I was trying to decide…

  20. I’ve done rough outlines at the end of Draft #1 before, too…but I’m afraid I’m not going to make it to the end without one for this one. Considering Scrivener…

  21. I haven’t read WRITE AWAY but plan to find it ASAP! Any book that both you and Linda Urban recommend has the absolute seal of approval.

  22. Well, I myself don’t usually outline. It just comes to mind and I jot it down on whatever it is I am writing.
    That boat trip actually did give me an Idea for the end of the book I am writing. It has nothing to do with what we did on the trip but just being on a boat in the middle of the lake made me think “What if the boat suddenly stopped, there is no cell service, no source of help and you are stranded with a very dangerous person?”
    Ok, so maybe that never happens but it’s fiction right? I think of it as dementedally evil.

  23. reformed plunger

    I recently decided outlines were the way to go. I realized that part of my problem in using the plunger method is that I don’t end up writing quite the page turner that I like to read myself. To my agent, I described the difference as a plot-driven vs. character-driven novel. I’ve always de-emphasized plot; as a result, I’ve been a plunger. Maybe I imbibed some literary snobbery–it seems to me that the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction has always been that genre fiction is plot driven and literary fiction is character-driven. And I guess I used to turn my nose up at genre fiction. Not any more! I’m beginning to realize how important plots are–not that writers should de-emphasize characters but that characters are born out of plots rather than plots emerging out of characters. Or maybe it’s a symbiotic process.

    Anyway, I’m writing a psychothriller right now with an outline. It’s going amazingly fast. In 6 weeks, I’m 2/3 through the book–and I know it’s a page turner. I also know that I keep having to revise and tweak the plot. Even though I wrote an outline (barebones, admittedly), it hasn’t worked completely. Right now, I’m kind of wondering how to revise the ending.

    So even with a plot outline, you still end up doing a lot of plunging. Maybe that’s not true if you spend a lot of time working out all the details of the plot in the outline….

    –J.L. Powers (