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To Outline or Not to Outline?
Laura Dwyer
Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 10:04 AM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192


Gang - I'd like to get your take on whether creating an outline for a book idea is a must, or whether it's acceptable and possible to create a good work without one - i.e., winging it.
I've tried both in the past, with mixed success. My problem is that creating an outline is sometimes difficult for me because the idea often takes shape and changes as I write, so I end up straying from the original outline. Or, I nix the outline and run out of steam with only 15 chapters. 
What do you all think?
Ron Yoo
Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 5:04 PM
Joined: 5/17/2011
Posts: 3


I am new to the site and not a professional writer (more like a retired engineer!).  However, I have a finished novel on Amazon and never could manage to create an outline.  One reason is that I tended to write a specific scene (3 or 4 pages, about 1500 words) based on some story idea that I liked. Then I'd jump to some other scene -- usually out of sequence and a different character -- where the new core  idea was triggered by the one I'd just finished.  (When I'm writing a scene, it feels like I'm watching a movie in my head and describing the movie as it unrolls!)

When I have ten or twelve loosely related fragments, I organize them on a story board, try to sequence them, and scan the "mess" to find ideas to further the development.

Probably very inefficient because I wind up throwing away a lot of scenes that don't lead anywhere or don't fit.  However, it worked really well when I had about three quarters of the story with no ending.  I finally wrote a scene to end on, which I really liked.  I tacked it onto the story board and then figured out a bunch of scenes that bridged the gap.

Jessica Crupe
Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2012 10:58 AM
Joined: 3/21/2012
Posts: 33


I have a weird way of doing it. I write an outline for a few chapters ahead. Then I work on the. Few more chapter outlines, write chapters, etc., etc. it works was because the story can go any direction and it won't matter much.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2012 1:26 PM
it works was because the story can go any direction and it won't matter much.

I have to disagree. It matters a great deal. A story, in the end, is about someone's attempt to regain happiness. As we watch, a character is placed in a situation they dislike. They feel so strongly, that they have no option but to try to change the situation to one they view as better. It might be political, physical, or anything that screws up what the character thinks of as normal. In the end, the character will change and may even come to think of the new reality as desirable, but in so doing they restore happiness.

Take the case of the careful accountant who collides with the screwball dog trainer who makes it her mission to change him "for the better." His life will be in constant upheaval, and though she fascinates him, he can't handle the pace, so he tries to apply the brakes, with zero success.

Things get worse, until our friend is faced with the fact that he is a boring person, and unless he changes he will lose her. It's the realization that he doesn't have to be boring, and that he has elements of his personality that he's been suppressing that can make life a lot more fun that triggers the change that brings a level of comfort greater then he had before. And that's where you end the story.

A story isn't a chronicle of interesting events, it's that character's attempt to restore happiness (or comfort, if you prefer) Lose sight of that and you no longer have a story. Instead you're recording "a day in the life of..." which is a very different thing.


PureMagic
Posted: Monday, April 16, 2012 9:44 AM
Joined: 12/1/2011
Posts: 35


Laura - I am a big proponent of outlining for a lot of reasons, but honestly the main reason (and, it would seem from your initial post, one of your main concerns) is to help keep me moving forward.  I outline 4-6 chapters ahead, sometimes more or less, but always in a simple form - just enough so that I know what I want to happen from chapter to chapter.  If I find myself stalling out or having difficulty, I turn to my outline for something to do to keep me moving forward.

I do have a second step in my outlining as well, which involves taking my short & simple outline & fully fleshing out each chapter and sections within the chapter.  This includes mapping out action scenes, making dialogue decisions & planning certain conversations, and reflecting on past chapters & how they will influence the action in that particular chapter.  Again, this gives me something creative to do in case I block up.

As for your second concern - don't worry if your outline changes.  Mine changes all the time as my ideas develop and I get ideas that had not occurred to me in the initial planning of the story.  Some of those are my best ideas.  An outline is not set in stone.  Look at this thread for some more ideas on a similar topic: http://bookcountry.com/Community/Discussions/Default.aspx?id=126843


LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, April 16, 2012 12:09 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Hey, Laura, don't fret. My current novel up here I sat down an started writing in high school. In college I sat down, took the plot points and character actions I wanted to keep, and turned it into an outline. Then I started to rewrite the whole thing. Let me just say, that if I could put photographs up on this site, you could see that even an outline from an already piece of work constantly changes. I like making outlines after writing my passages because they allow me to see the bigger picture. I can rearrange scenes and cut ones that don't work. I use an outline like a storyboard.
Danielle Bowers
Posted: Monday, April 16, 2012 12:13 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 280


I know this is an older post, but I'll pipe in. 

Before I write the words Chapter One, every story I write has a skeleton plotted out.  I call it the skeleton because the main story arc is planned. The muscle, blood and flesh of the story is formed as I go.  With salient points set as a guide, I can keep the story on its path, but how I get to those points is left up to me and the characters to decide.  There's room for shortcuts, side trips and detours along the way as the story comes to life..



Laura Dwyer
Posted: Monday, April 16, 2012 1:50 PM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192


Thank you, all. It helps to have different perspectives, and I think the bottom line is that, realistically, we all need some sort of diagram for how our story will go (if we have hope of it actually being a story and not some ramblings we send to an editor). I suppose that as long as I have a general idea which touches on the proper story elements and arc, deviations into greater creativity are acceptable. Correct?
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, April 16, 2012 7:34 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Deviations are perfectly fine, Laura, as long as it benefits your story as a whole. You may come up with something better as you write than what you had originally planned. That happens with many writers.
stephmcgee
Posted: Monday, April 16, 2012 8:35 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245


It sounds like you're a pantser-plotter mix. The trick is finding the balance that works for you.  I'm the same way, pantser-plotter.  Pre-first draft the outline is typically this:

"Chapter 1: The characters go here and do this
"Chapter 2: The characters go here and do this"

And so on.  It's very fluid.  I generally have an idea of what I want to have happen, the plotter part of me, and know who the major players are.  The loose outline that hits the major plot points that I know will be happening but not the dots on the map in-between.  This allows my pantser side to have room to play with in the first drafting.

After the first draft, when I'm revising, I use two methods.  I'll only talk about the one here since it's the most relevant. After a few drafts, I create my detailed outline which helps to spot those plot holes my pantsing ways created.  This outline is super-detailed.

"I. Chapter 1
"...A. Scene 1
".......1. Setting
".......2. Characters
".......3. Events"

Scene by scene and chapter by chapter. But this way both sides of your writer personality are able to play and you still get work done.
Laura Dwyer
Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 9:23 AM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192


Thanks, guys, again. And Steph, I like the idea of improving upon the generic outline with the more specific one as a way of staying on-track and fixing plot holes. Great idea! How did you know I had a split-writing-personality? 

GD Deckard
Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 10:24 AM

The outline is where I put my notes. When a thought ocurrs, I write it down on anything handy, Moleskine notebook, iPod Touch, something borrowed.... But these thoughts are not organized until I put them where I can find them when I need them.

Outlines on a computer need not be linear since we are really using a data base. You can search any topic in a Microsoft Word "outline" & dump your note there. Search again when that topic comes up in the story & see all your notes about it. Definitely a must in my case for ideas about the major themes, little ideas that keep the story believable, character notes, etc. My "current outline" file is always up whenever I work on my draft.


Laura Dwyer
Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 10:41 AM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192


GD, that's exactly what I've done with my other WIP, so maybe I need to apply the same methods to my other story. With fantasy, I think, there's so much more to keep track of because it all originated from your imagination. The police drama I'm working on, however, is based in the real world, so I feel like it's much more solid and that I don't need as many notes on it. I most definitely could be wrong about that, though. Thanks.
PureMagic
Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 12:08 PM
Joined: 12/1/2011
Posts: 35


Something which I have heard of people doing, though I have never tried it myself, is using index cards to "story board" your novel.  Again I have not tried it, but it would seem a logical way to keep scenes and ideas ordered, plus make it very simple to add or remove scenes as needed.  My work space is small, so I don't have the room to do that kind of thing, but if you have a bulletin board or a lot of free wall space, I think it could work.  It could also be helpful if you have multiple story lines working within 1 work (as I do).  Chronology can get confusing from time to time, so this might be a help.  Hey, maybe I will try it.  Couldn't hurt!!
stephmcgee
Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2012 8:18 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245


Laura, because your description of the success and not-success you've had with outlines sounds exactly like mine.
 

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