Why outlining could be just what you need

I’ve been wanting for a while to write a series of posts about the process of outlining a story. As I sat down to write, I felt that some might like to know why it has been so useful for me.

I wrote a post early on called Plotter or Pantser, where I talk a bit about some of the difficulties I had before realizing I am inherently a plotter. I won’t repeat myself here, but I would like to share an insight I’ve had about the plotting process.

For many years I was stuck with the ridiculous notion that writing was supposed to be this god given gift that you either possess, or you don’t. And if you do, the words should just pour out of you like honey, effortless and golden. I learned the long and roundabout way that this is not true. I know for some people it works that way, but I need a roadmap.

When I started out I believed pantsering it was the only path for a True Writer. When I sat down to write, I thought the words would come pouring out in a nice, tidy, steady flow.


My expectation

It was like setting free a herd of sheep. I thought they would all just kind of trot in the same, general direction – go with the flow, so to speak – and for a while they did. But about two or three chapters in, they would start to scatter. Roam free, aimlessly, in every direction, until all I was left with was a jumbled scattering of vague impressions of where I had originally been heading. Directionless. Confused. For every story I started writing this same thing would happen; I would lose my way.

How it really was

So I read about outlining and had something of a revelation. It was one of those “Laaaa!”-moments for me, where the skies open up and shoot a single ray of brilliant light down to illuminate that moment, that insight.

For me, a story is like a jigsaw puzzle; I have to get all the pieces in front of me, study each one independently and as a whole. Then, and only then, can I put them together into one cohesive unit. A coherent, flowing narrative.

I went to work, and immediately made the next mistake. I didn’t follow through.

Oh, I made character sheets, location descriptions, research notes, pages upon pages of this stuff. I could spend six months just doing research and sketching character backgrounds. But the stuff I really needed, the story arch, typically, was just a page of jutted down, incoherent thought. So by the time I got to the actual writing, I ran into the same problem I had before. A lack of direction.

Double-bummer. But I was determined. Writing is my lifelong dream. I wasn’t about to let it go quietly into that good night just because I hadn’t yet found the right method.

scribophile-logoSomewhere I had read of this writing community called Scribophile. Now, I am something of a loner. When I exercise, I like to sweat on my own, thank you. During my day job I work with a closed door. The open door is for coffee breaks, ok? When I write I need to focus, on my own. The idea of a writing café boggles my mind. My one previous experience in online writing communities was unpleasant and not very rewarding, but I needed fresh eyes, so I gave it a chance. I’m glad I did. There’s some awesome people on there, if you’re open to it, and some much needed inspiration, information, and feedback. I have certainly learned more than I ever thought I would.

Among other things I found that there are many writers who, just like me, need an outline, and that there are methods to produce one that is helpful. Just like with all methods, there’s not really one that fits all. There’s Dan Well’s Seven Point Story Structure, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, and Syd Field’s Paradigm, along with any number of other theories, systems, and templates. They all do have points in common, though, and from those (as well as trial and error) I’ve cobbled together a method of my own.

If you’re interested in how I approach outlining, my next post will be an introduction to that.