Plan Every Day: Our Frenemy, the Outline

dream plan write

Something else I learned in my high school creative writing class is that planning (or pre-writing) can be your friend. Thinking solely about research projects and essays, as much as I disliked doing them, writing an outline first always made the actual writing easier.

Cut to now, when I have no classroom to work in, no teacher to force me to do every tedious step of pre-writing, and no grade for my effort, or lack thereof. And you know what? I still do pre-writing, at least to some degree.

The debate of whether it’s better to be a plotter or a “pantser” rages on out there in cyber space. I’ve seen more than one comment of, “I’m not much of a planner. I write out broad plot points, but I have to give room for my story to go where it wants to go.” I have a response to that, but I’ve already ranted (jump to point 3) a little on that topic.

Planning might just help more than you expect. Don’t ever think that pre-writing locks you into anything. Very rarely do I even outline an entire story. Often, I outline to somewhere in the middle, then start writing. Sometimes when I get to the end of the outline, I’m on track. But more often than not, I derail before that point. Then I either just keep going or stop, regroup, and outline from there. Various sites call that a con to be a planner, but is it really that big of a deal? Most likely, if your story has gone off-track from your plans for it, then there’s a reason, and you’ll likely be happier following the new path. Yes, you might have to write a new outline, or you might just pants the rest of the story (it’s okay to be a hybrid planner/pantser).

Have you ever had a story or scene rolling around in your head, maybe even playing itself out? There have been times that I feel like I’ve written half of the story before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). But when I do sit down to write it out, one of the following things happens: I’ve forgotten many of the important parts; what was playing through quickly in my mind takes a lot longer to write out and I can’t get it all done in one, two, or even several sessions, leaving me again in danger of forgetting what I don’t get to for a while; or I simply can’t figure out how to start.

So instead of going directly to writing, I make an outline. Then I can get a lot of story out before I forget it. Even aside from potential forgetfulness, outlining a lot of the story at once can let you see how it will go from a distance, which sometimes lets you catch mistakes or fill in plot holes before they happen.

One last note I want to be clear about–don’t think that in order to make an outline, you have to use the formal format.

outline

You know the kind, with the Roman numerals and all the indentation.

That’s great if it works for you. I tried it once, but I didn’t care for it. Normally I just write broad plot points one line after another, sticking in details when I think of them and want to remember. Here is an example:

outline

Plan for yourself: It’s not easy to practice or try out planning or writing outlines, but I do have a few ideas. And keep in mind, I’m not trying to convince you that planning is better than pantsing. If you already know you work better without an outline or much forethought, then you should feel free to skip this whole thing. However, if you’ve never really given it a try, now’s your chance. If you’re like me, you have at least one story idea rattling around in your brain, waiting to be given form. Take some time now, even if you weren’t planning to write that story now or even soon, to start planning that story. Write out the key plot points, make a sketchy outline, and get it out on paper before it disappears into the void.

Another option, if you’ve written a story (or part of one), have characters you’ve created, and don’t have other ideas just now, is to take those characters and the world they live in and just think up a new situation for them. Something unrelated to the story they’re already in (or it can be related too), even something crazy that you know wouldn’t happen. Outline a scenario, long or short, and see how it feels. The idea is just to see how outlining can feel, with just a random scenario that doesn’t have to have any further purpose. Though who knows, maybe this will spark a more solid idea simply because you’re pushing yourself for a new idea. But even if not, get a feel for the outlining and see what you think. You may like it, you may not.

Of course, if you do write an outline for a story that interests you, the next step would be writing from that outline. You can’t fully evaluate whether you’re a planner, pantser, or hybrid, without going past the outline. But the actual writing is a subject for another post.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the great debate, or anything you produce from the above ideas that you’d like to share.

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4 thoughts on “Plan Every Day: Our Frenemy, the Outline

  1. I used to think it was more honest to write everything off the cuff and fix it with editing but these days I plan and make outlines. I found that I can write more complex pieces this way, and it’s been rewarding

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    • It seems to me that a lot of writers (especially younger writers, but I can’t be sure about that part) think it’s cooler to write “off the cuff,” as you put it. There are various reasons I’ve heard for why they think it’s better–yours is a new one by me. I read a post a couple days ago where the blogger stated that the unplanned approach is the “creative” way to write. The implication there being that writing an outline first is less so. I really considered commenting on that post, but felt I would only end up ranting, and I didn’t want to do that (though I still may…if I can keep it toned down).

      At the same time, though, I have also noticed that some people who say they do not normally outline are going on to say that they know it’s easier, or less time-consuming, to plan the story before you start. Your comments on the difference you’ve noticed by outlining now are very interesting too. It does make sense that you could put more depth into your writing by planning ahead.

      I’m glad you took the time to comment; you’ve given me a whole new perspective on the matter!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I just graduated grad school. When I started the program, I found I could no longer write term papers without planning them out beforehand and it affected my fiction writing. Then I read that Elmore Leonard wrote an outline before every book he wrote and I decided to try it out. It actually helped my creativity, which is the opposite of what I had heard.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I wonder why outlining and other pre-writing has gotten that reputation. If I had to guess, it’d be because of the bad memories from being forced to it in school. But that may just be me.

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