Outlines are something of a controversial subject among writers. Some just don’t like doing it – if they’re going to write, they should just write, right? Some think it constrains them too much. Some think it’s impossible to write anything without at least a thesis statement and a dozen bullet points. Some writers without an outline are constantly on the verge of crippling panic attacks. And on and on it goes.
As I mentioned before, I’m working on the outline for Water Fall, the second book chronicling the activities of the U.S. Government’s secret agency that handles talented individuals (read: superpowers). This has been a therapeutic exercise for me, because I love outlining. It lets me get all my ideas out somewhere I can look at them and mess with them in a physical (or at least digital) medium.
See, I don’t like to just write and run with it, because whenever I do it I wind up leaving something out. On the other hand, when I’m outlining it’s often a frenzied exercise where things just pour out in a rush. For example, on my first pass at the Water Fall outline there were at least two dozen points where I just wrote, “So-and-so does things.”
Sometimes I included a note as to the tone of the things being done, like, “Tension!” or “Foreshadowing” or, my personal favorite, “CD” which of course stands for “character development.”
Not every part of my outline is that vague, some scenes I have a very clear picture for, they just don’t all string together nicely and I frequently have to fill in the gaps between major events during second and even third passes on the outline. Of course, to keep my mind fresh, I usually let the outline sit for a week or two between passes, which is how I come to “still” be working on it. (Because it’s not like I’ve been writing anything else…)
One reason I like having an outline is because it lets me quickly run through the pacing of my story and see how I like it. It’s at this point that I spend the most time moving things around and tweaking what characters a scene might call for. But this isn’t the be all and end all of what I’m going to need, frequently in the process of writing details that I hadn’t anticipated come up and the outline can get changed on the fly. While I like having it, I try not to let it become diktat, that alone can kill a story.
It’s important to keep your outline and the length of your story in perspective. For example, Heat Wave had an outline with 80 to 90 points to begin with. However, Trial by Winter had a ten point outline. Obviously, Trial by Winter was not 1/8th the length of Heat Wave. Rather, each “point” represented a smaller chunk of the story. (Exactly what kind of outlines I tend to use and how they tend to translate into story is probably a subject for another post.)
On the whole, outlining is something authors can do to help them get a handle on their story and keep the broad strokes of it in mind, and easily at hand, so that when they are buried in the minutia of the story in progress they don’t have to stop and run through everything again in their mind to get a handle on where they are. Whether it’s something that they haven’t written yet or something that has already been put down in digital print, a glance at the outline brings it to mind much faster than relying on memory or having to page through pages and pages of what’s already written.
So, an exercise! (I know, I’ve never done writing exercises before. If you don’t like them I promise they won’t become a regular thing.) Find your favorite book and put together an outline for it. Then, find a story you’ve written and do an outline for that. And lastly, create the outline for a story you’d like to read from scratch. You don’t have to finish it, just rough out the ideas. Most importantly, enjoy!