Outlines: Use them or leave them?

Outlines can be your best friends, giving direction in an organized fashion!

Some use them, others don’t; however, outlines are often an important tool in any writer’s toolbox. Outlines, while they mostly relay story events in order, are not necessarily laid out the same way — let’s face it, every writer is different, thus their outlines will be different.

I will admit that when I start a project, I will rarely start with an outline — the main exception being if I am working on a sequel, where events are tied to a previous novel or shape a following novel in a series. I just start writing, letting the “plot bunny,” as it were, run free. One of my earlier novels, which I started in junior high, did not have an outline for the longest of times — then I got mid-way through and hit a brick wall. To get around that wall, I had to plot where the story was going, during which I created my first ever outline. With it’s help, I made it the rest of the way through.

You see, outlines provide a chance to organize your thoughts and provide direction for a project; they show where a story is going, including character growth and major events. Outlines can be crafted prior to starting a project or after one is already started, providing flexibility.

What Does An Outline Look Like?

There is no simple answer to this question since each writer will have their own preferences for appearance as far as how information is organized, whether bullets are used, etc.

For my projects, I normally outline by chapter, meaning I will put the chapter name and then write a summary of the events that will occur within it, highlighting particularly major events or character developments. On my Scifi project, which is still very rough and not fully outlined, I just did an outline on major events that have to occur at some point during the novel, and during this month, I hope to flesh out the “in-betweens” of what happens prior to and after these major occurrences.

Other writers may solely do bullets of events in chronological order rather break them up into chapters; it is all just a matter of preference.

Don’t Be A Slave To Your Outline

Sometimes outlines become obsolete: characters revolt, a new plot bunny trail emerges that is too irresistible or some other unforeseeable event emerges. In such cases, do not become a slave to your outline, put it aside and explore your story; after all, outlines are just guideposts, not set in stone. Ideas evolve, and you need only ask yourself: Does this improve my story or my characters? If the answer is yes, then by all means explore that avenue. If the answer is no, the side trail is probably just added padding that is not needed.

I have gutted whole portions of outlines because characters have changed or matured, or the plot has matured. In fact, I will be reorganizing the sequel to “Passage” because an event within “Passage” was changed during revisions; however, the change will create depth and more mature plot lines in the sequel, making it worth it.

Don’t be afraid to step off the path you envisioned, because often times, the path you did not foresee is better for your story — even if you have to get through the thorns of major rewrites.


Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

One thought on “Outlines: Use them or leave them?

  1. You make some good points. Personally, outlines help me stay on track better than winging it; though, like you, I often start out just writing, then eventually create one as necessary. I completely agree with not “being a slave” to it though. It’s important to adapt to the changes that your plot or characters might present.

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