The Benefits of an Outline, and What I learned from Not Having One
Updated: Feb 2, 2019
Stephen King is one of the most influential authors of our time. He has written at least 88 Novels, 75 of them being made into movies, and yet Stephen King doesn’t outline. He is quoted as saying he uses a notebook more now than when he was younger, but that is what happens when you get older. In his memoir On Writing, he even says that other writers shouldn’t use an outline either, and that plot is better when it’s allowed to organically develop. And in no way am I to say the Great Stephen King is wrong, on the contrary, I think he is both wrong and right.
Two years ago, I began a journey. I was struggling with the loss of my grandmother, who was my soulmate. I had the strength of a million men while I had her in the world with me, and when she exited I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, sometimes to hold my Tala and cry, sometimes to star blankly into the black screen of a TV I rarely look at while it’s on, but my favorite nights were spent at the kitchen table writing stories as they came to me, and my faithful heart patch Tala licking my feet until I was ready to close my eyes and sleep again.
These were the nights when I took the advice of Mr. King and just started writing. I mean I have always hated outlines, ask my English Professor, she would constantly hand me back my work with note saying brilliant, missing outline, or again extremely creative, but no outline, and for my final, the read have you thought about writing novels? You can outline your own way or not at all after you graduate. Missing outline. God, I miss her, and I hope she is well where ever she may be in this world.
So as the story was flowing out of my brain and onto paper, I started running out of pages, and my husband was the one who asked if I would benefit from a laptop instead of notebook after notebook. He bought me my laptop, and I started putting what I had on paper into the word doc, and jest kept going and going. My story was picked up by a close friend who offered to critique it for me, and she came back and asked do you have an outline. “How long have you known me?” We wont’s mention how long. “Have you ever known me to enjoy outlining or to even use an outline?” Silence fell between us until she spoke up and said: “well that explains a lot from way back when.” So, I told her I was what is now known as a pantser. This is slang created by someone who needed to identify as something other than to busy to bother with outlining, and that was me 100%.
That is when my beloved friend asked me, what was the purpose I was writing for. I explained that I wanted to world to read my story, and maybe be able to pay my bills from writing. So, she began asking me question, where does this story start, what is the point of this story, where do they live, you know the meat of the story kind of questions and I finally (many years later) finally saw what they (the educators I would get so frustrated with) were saying. Except now I had a goal, and I was writing for me, and not them.
I started researching outlines, how to outline, why should I outline, benefits of outlining. And that was the moment I realized outlines are like road maps. They keep you from getting lost on the journey. With a great outline, you can literally write with cruise control on, only worrying about the details of the story, and dialog.
There are two types of outlines. The formal outline you learn in Middle school, High School and is beaten into you freshman year of college. And the more laid-back Informal outline. I prefer the more easy-going informal outline, it’s extremely forgiving, and can be changed at any step of the way. This is the one I will be talking about.
For this example, I will be using an outline from a story not related to the Awakening series.
STEP 1: Make the Map.
This step is easy. I use step one to make a list of the chapters I anticipate having in my book
Chapter 1. Introduce the main character or characters
Chapter 2. Main characters meet with clients at a party
Chapter 3. Characters return home where a new character personality is introduced.
Chapter 4. Main Characters interview new clients, organize another party
Chapter 5. Main Characters go to client party, party lasts three days, at the end of party one client is dead, but no one knows who dun it.
Chapter 6. Police start investigation, main characters continue planning parties,
Having just the skeleton will help you from getting lost in the forest of creativity but adding detail to the outline will save you time as you cruse on down the coast. Step two is more detailed, and a little more fun. In step 2, you go down the list of chapters adding as much, or as little details as you want. This step is fun, think about the skeleton as the road map, and step two as each state you are going to visit. Step two allows you to see potential timeline holes, plot holes and other places you might need to tweak your story.
1a. Who are the main Characters? Jax Winters and Scarlett Winters. how do they know each other, do they know each other?
2a. Clients are Mr. and Mrs. So, and so. They are clearly nervous at being with a party planner for the first time. Scarlett does her best to walk them through the vetting process, to ease their nervousness. Explains the ins and out of the business, how they keep their clients safe, and what will happen to their personal info if they ever discontinue being clients with (adult party planners inc.) Jax invites them to a party as observers only. Mr. and Mrs. Accept the invite and the four meets at the airport to go to the party.
3a. After returning home, the new clients agree that they want to join in the festivities and leave. A new Character is introduced her name is Lexi. Jax enjoys Lexi’s company for a short time but gets annoyed with her quickly. Explain how the three Characters know each other. Have a time laps, so that the test results are back on the new clients, Scarlett call knew clients with good news and invites them to join a party the following week.
Opps we have met a problem. This is where Step 3 begins. As you are writing, and reading back what you have written, you will see places where your original thoughts no longer line up, or as you were working you decided to make a small change. All changes within the outline catch up with each other and can change the direction that your story flows. This is because when you use an outline that you are comfortable with, you also allow your plot to develop in a natural progression instead of forcing into a cog. Step 3 is the cities you will visit along your journey and the fun you will have in them.
In this example in Chapter 4 it says that the MC (Main Character) interviews new clients and organizes another party, but because of 3a we no longer need this, and so we can change chapter 4 to read: Main Characters go to client party, party lasts three days, at the end of party tragedy strikes, but no one knows who done it. Chapter 5 has become chapter 4, so 4a would read like this.
4a. Mr. and Mrs. (need a name) arrive at the office, Jax inspects their bags to ensure their bags don’t contain items not allowed at the party. (Here you have just thought of someing that you want to make sure is in 3a when Scarlett gives the rules to the new client. 3b would read like this.
3b. Scarlett reads a list of prohibited items that help to ensure their clients privacy is kept at all costs. The use of multi colors allows you to see where you have made changes within your outline, it also allows for your subconscious to help in your outlining process, each color will have its own meaning. I like to use RED for the skeleton, Teal for step 2, Lime for mental notes, Yellow is used for important information I want in the story but am not 100% where it should go. And Pink for the detailed information. Most of your outline will be in this color, so pick a color you enjoy looking at. Most likely you will do this without thinking about it.
And that is it. That is my method to outlining. It’s simple yet effective, and most importantly it’s mine. I would encourage each writer to find a method that works for them and see for yourself how much faster you will write. How much more clearly your thoughts will be on paper, and most impressively you will complete projects in record time.
Happy Writing. ~Dana G.