The Importance of Outlining Your Fiction


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I’ve been writing fiction for a long, long time. My mother says that I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil. I have boxes of stapled together printer paper–the books that I wrote and illustrated from a very young age. I have floppy disks of half finished chapter books that I wrote in elementary, junior high, and high school and hoped to share with the world one day.

As I continued to write through college and beyond, I didn’t really have much in the way of “writing process”. My process was thinking up something cool and then sitting down and writing about it. I would often run out of steam and lose direction and motivation–hence all the half finished chapter books.

As I’ve gotten older and realized that I could actually make a career out of writing, I’ve become more dedicated to following a writing process and it’s made all the difference in the world.

The biggest change I made was outlining. 

I know there are a few schools of thought on outlining–Stephen King, for example, doesn’t outline. He sits down and writes from his ridiculous brain, formulating stories that amaze, stun, and chill, but I’m no Stephen King. Not many of us are. Hell, I’m not even one of those folks with a million reads on Wattpad (to date, I have about 29 reads of my story Fighting Chance most of them, I suspect are mine as Wattpad counts author views for some reason).

However, I recently finished a 70k word manuscript in three months. How did I do it, you ask? Outlining. There were some other methods at play, but the biggest change I made was outlining.

I was never a fan of outlining. I wanted to “write organically” which is Prosepunk speak for “fly by the seat of my pants” or “produce with the smallest amount of effort necessary” but it wasn’t working out that well for me. My stories, pre-outlining, took me years to finish. The stories were often badly executed. I don’t mean that my 5-year manuscript is bad, just that the story isn’t as taut as the one I wrote, using an outline, in three months.

Outlining Helps You Focus Your Thoughts

Maybe you have a general idea of what you want to write. You know what characters you want to include, and you have a good inciting event that propels the story, you have a vague idea of the conflict that will motivate the characters, a fuzzy idea of the ending, etc. That’s all well and good if you’re writing only for pleasure and for your eyes only.

Otherwise, you need an outline.

Outlining allows you to bullet out all of those ideas in order to see what components are weak, and which ones aren’t character defining or moving the story forward in a meaningful way.

Having fully realized characters and a taut story is the mark of a good book. If you don’t take that fact seriously you’re probably writing the same drivel that I was.

Outlining allows you to create a chain from beginning to end, each event linking to the one before it until you reach the ending, which if done right, will have been set up perfectly by the multiple events that happened earlier in the story. To have impact, your ending must be the culmination of a thread you’ve woven through the beginning and middle of your story.

Outlining Creates the Soul of Your Story

Before I became “an outliner” I thought that I was sapping my story of its soul by outlining it first. When I wrote my earlier stuff, I thought it was important that I write like I was the reader, being surprised by what came next with no thought given to how I was building my plot, communicating thematic elements, or constructing my characters.

After writing a bunch of story-less manuscripts that were interesting if not meandering, I realized that I had to make a soul, it wasn’t just going to appear through the randomness of my stream of consciousness.

Speaking of stream of consciousness, Jack Kerouac, one of the my favorite writers, hindered me from utilizing an outline as well. In his essay “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” he romanticizes his method of simply writing without thinking or planning, which created all of his poignant yet meandering work. I say that to say, unless you can meander like Kerouac, use an outline.

Once I realized that I was incapable of creating engaging spontaneous prose, I got serious about charting out my stories, and giving my work the elusive soul that they deserved.

Soul is: impeccable character development, increasingly high stakes that progress the story, vivid settings, vibrant subplots, a kick-ass ending, taut prose.

Soul-less: Loose plot, static, one-dimensional characters, flat environments, nebulous settings, stilted dialogue, I could go on but I’m sure you see what I’m getting at.

Outlining Releases the Pressure of Writing A Novel

This is the most important thing I learned about outlining. Before, when I’d start work on a manuscript, there was this pocket of overwhelm sitting in the back of my mind. I felt in over my head the entire time and unsure of where things were going. There was always this hope that, by chance, my ending would be good and connect well to the words preceding it.

This didn’t work for me. Hence the subpar manuscript that took me five years to complete and my “Writing” file folders floating on my desktop, bloated with unfinished work.

Outlining allows you to tell your story without telling it. You know how everything is going to happen before it happens and so you’re properly prepared to put it down on the page. Then, all of your concentration can go into creating great dialogue and spinning engaging prose rather than having to formulate the story as you write.

It was freeing, really.

Outline However You Want To

When you hear the phrase “outline” you’re thinking of some exhaustive document with bullet points and sub bullet points and numbering and blah blah blah, but you’re a creator, and your brain works different from mine, and every other creator out there, so make an outline that works for you.

Write it out in paragraphs. Use snatches of dialogue. Create an abstract of the setting. Think of it as an awful first draft devoid of the bells and whistles that make beautiful prose. Get your ideas out there in black and white and then write from there.

I use bullet point points because it allows me to get key events down on paper in a clean way. I use Microsoft One Note because it’s easy to use, no frills, and has cute bullet points, check marks, etc. that I can use. It allows me to be messy without adhering to the maddening constraints of a Microsoft Word document.

Outline in a stress free way, get your key ideas and your ending on the page, read through it a few times and make sure you see a thread that goes from beginning to end, and then start writing.

Remember, You Aren’t Chained to Your Outline

Your outline is a guide, a group of goal posts. If you’re writing and something in your outline doesn’t feel right, change it. If you want to change your outline, you can, it’s yours.

Your outline will contain succinct ideas of the big ideas that you’ll allow to grow in your work. You can fill in those spaces between bullet points with whatever you want, but the entire time, you’ll be following a path that you built out for yourself.

Use your outline as a tool, not as a tether.

Reflecting on all of the writing advice I’ve read and heard over the years, I wish I would’ve paid more attention to the pro-outline advice, because it’s the one thing that was missing from my process. Try it out for one of your stories, I promise you’ll wonder why it took you so long to do so.

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