Friday, September 3, 2010

Outlining––Why It's Awesome!

A long, long time ago (well, okay, about a year ago) I wrote a lengthy post on how to write a novel. Most writers have the same big problem: they can write pretty well, but they can't write a whole novel no matter how they try. The key to finishing a novel, in my opinion, is the outline. So, I thought I'd elaborate on that point.

I know what a lot of you are thinking … Eew, an outline? Why should I write an outline? I know what I'm going to write! and/or I'm just going to wing it and see what happens!

Well, I'm not going to tell you there is one "right" way to write a book. You can do whatever works best for you. But if you never outline, I strongly urge you to try it. I find that if I have a full outline––or at least most of one––I'm more likely to finish something and to produce something I like.

I didn't discover the beauty of the outline until about two years ago. Before then I always made up stories as I went along, but this led to a lot of boring parts where I didn't know what to write, to plot holes … to overall messiness. All rough drafts are going to be very messy, outline or no. And outlining isn't going to make writing a book "easier". But at least, if you plan carefully, you can find a sense of direction in your story and be aware of where its gaps are.

So, how do you go about outlining? Well, you can break it down to three simple things––the setting, the characters, and the plot.


Decide where the setting is. Is it in a city, a town, the middle of nowhere? What time period is it? Does it even take place in our world? How does the location/time/world affect technology, how people dress, how people act, how people survive, etc. ?


Decide on a main character. Male or female? How old is he/she? What's his/her objective in the story? What's his/her personality like? You can do more detailed planning on your MC using character inventories or character interviews (You can easily find ideas for character outlines/interviews via Google or another search engine). What are the supporting characters like? Friends? Family? Love interests? Plan out the most important characters. (And make sure none of your characters are Mary Sues, please!)


There are several different techniques for plotting out your story. I always start by writing down the basic premise––a few sentences, maybe a paragraph, about the story. Then I write a more detailed summary––something two or three paragraphs long similar to something you'd read on the inside cover of a book. And then I get to the real dirty, extensive outline. There are a few approaches to this, and everyone has a different method. Here are three pretty common/basic ones that might help you.

1. The detailed outline: Write what's going to happen in every chapter, paragraph by paragraph, down to the very small details. The pros: You pretty much know everything that's going to happen, including dialogue and descriptions. The cons: You sacrifice some freedom/spontaneity, and you might end up feeling constrained by this type of outline.

2. The rough outline: Write a bullet point for each chapter––only a few sentences at most for each point. The pros: It leaves freedom but still gives you a sense of direction. You can simply figure out what to write but not necessarily how to write it. Sure, you're free to put in specific descriptions here and there But it's not necessary to plot out every single little detail. The cons: In this case you might end up with more "holes" in your outline, which can be frustrating. Sometimes you just have to wait for inspiration to strike. But of course, that's better than starting to actually write a novel, only to find that you have no idea where it's going.

3. The Snowflake Method. This is like a combination of the rough outline and the detailed outline. That is, it's a method where you start with a rough outline, and then you keep adding details until it's a detailed outline. It uses the idea of a fractal to explain how to go about doing this––starting with a "triangle" and ending with a "snowflake". The whole thing is explained better here. I've never tried it and it looks a bit time consuming, but if you have the patience it looks like it would be helpful!

An outline template that looks useful :)

Thanks for reading! Hope the advice was useful. As always, post questions if you have 'em.

Tuesday Teaser tomorrow! :)


  1. Amazing advice, as always, Brigid! I know I keep saying this, but you're so smart. :) I love this blog. And I agree, outlining is very important. I fail at outlining, though. I've tried to plan out each chapter before and that never worked for me. My outlines are 10 pages of scrambled, out-of-order, random notes, so that whenever I want to find something I have to read all 10 pages of random notes. X_X

  2. Great advice! I absolutely suck at outlining :(


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