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Writing Life: Three Reasons to Outline

I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants writer. My characters are the strong point of my writing and I’ve never felt a need to exhaustively plan out the various happenings of the story: just put the characters in a world and make stuff happen to them. While this makes for great free-writing, and can be a way to finish a book, it’s not a way that’s ended up being very effective for me. Below are three simple ways an outline can help improve your story, even if it’s one you’ve already started! Read on for more.

Part of the reason I always rejected roadmaps was because I got too bogged down in the little details. Before I’d left scene one I wanted to plan everything out, down to example dialogue to include, so that I always got discouraged and quit before I’d gotten through the entire story. I never ended up with a framework that I could actually use for the story.

An outline is most helpful when it’s kept short and succinct. Keep the broad strokes as your focus, rather than every little event. I found it helpful to write down the main characters’ motivations/goals for each scene, to keep things focused. If a scene doesn’t have much connection to any of the main characters, I cut it.

Next, it’s essential that you finish your outline in a few marathon sittings. Push through places where you are stuck and keep moving forward. If you let stuck plot points dictate your outlining, you will find yourself in the same place you would be if you wrote the story without an outline. Instead, power through those points, changing the story drastically if you need to, and only stop outlining if you know where you’re going to go next. If you can plan ahead that way, you’ll have some jotted notes the next time you sit down to keep you on the right track.

Don’t worry that an outline needs to be the final, perfect version of your story. You will change a lot in the process of writing the story. Some plot points in the outline will end up being inconsequential, while others may blow up beyond what you’d imagined for them. Of course, in drafting and revising, your story will change — and it should!

Because you’re working with such a skeletal version of your story, feel free to blow plot points up if they don’t work for you. In the process of re-outlining my story The Two Fathers, I’ve thrown away entire chunks of story that were huge plot points in earlier drafts. The whole idea of an outline is that it’s a fast and loose version of your story, where you can feel free to move fast and break things, without worrying about writing all the scenes you’re planning.

The whole idea of outlining is to give you a rough guideline so that you know where you’re going every time you sit down to write. Think of it as a state road map, rather than a set of Google Maps directions. Which leads us to our third benefit:

A good outline goes a long way to eliminate writer’s block. Because you’ve already sat down and written a 20,000 foot view of your story, you don’t need to worry about how the butler will escape with the princess in chapter 17, because you’ve already planned it out. I find that I get stuck with writer’s block most often in figuring out how to write my characters out of scrapes I’ve created. And sure, those will be there even with an outline. But many times, you’ll find that you’ve already paced up and down, stewed over the problem, and found a solution: all while you were outlining.

I love outlining because I’m focused entirely on the plot, and not on the quality of the writing or any of the other elements of writing. It allows me to put my full attention on solving plot problems and moving the plot forward. The end result is often a story that flows together really well (because you sat down and thought it up in three or four marathon sessions, therefore everything is pretty consistent) and doesn’t have too many dead spots without any progress.

Outlining has been an excellent way for me to organize my thoughts and grapple with my story in the overall. It’s a valuable tool: if you take the time to master it, your stories will thank you.