Writing 101: The Outline

I've been spending time on the Goodreads forums lately, and one topic really struck me as I was reading along: the book outline. It's a hot topic on the forums, and every writer seems to have their own style of using (or not using) an outline to keep their plots straight and their books organized. So today's Writing 101 lesson will be the outline -- how to use it, when not to use it and what to do when your writing doesn't match it at all.

Outline Basis

Everyone arranges their outlines differently, and it's not always the method of organization that matters (but I do know that pets and Post-Its aren't a good mix). Some writers organize outlines by chapters, some by events. I write mine by days and dates; maybe you've noticed I'm always very clear about which day of the week it is in the DOL series. Again, it doesn't matter how the outline is organized, only that it is organized. An outline isn't a huge chunk of text, it's a map of where your story is going to go. Create spaces and design an easy-to-follow layout if you want to follow this map.

Your outline is going to change. If you absolutely have to hard it on hard copy, don't simply write out an outline using pen and paper; you want your outline to be mobile so it has room to evolve. Instead, write out each plot point, chapter or day (or whatever) on an index card. Don't number them; they can be kept in a certain order, paper clipped or color-coded to help you keep track. I always write my outlines in a blank Word document so I can change them at will.

Writing the Outline

You've made a firm decision on the layout of your outline and you know just how you're going to write it. So...what are you going to put in it? Writing the outline should take considerably less time than writing the book itself. You don't need to get extremely detailed, or even spell out every single plot point.

Remember, the outline is nothing more than a set of notes you're writing to yourself; it's just a way to keep yourself organized so your writing turns out exactly as you want. You know what your book is about, so you may record your outline in nothing but certain keywords. I write short sentences that don't seem to make much sense: "Rain school. Owen reaction. Fallon attitude?" That might be four pages' worth of story right there, because I know what each item means: write a scene with Rain at school, be sure to include Owen's reaction to the news, what is Fallon's attitude like these days?

Following the Outline

Once you write your outline, it's there to serve as your guide -- but you are not a slave to it! You purposefully designed your outline to be changed, so don't be afraid to change it. I know that I've started writing many times, and found my story going in a new direction I never expected. If you start writing and you get onto something, don't force yourself away just because it doesn't exactly follow your outline. Only change it if it's bad, if it makes no sense or if it's completely out of place in your story. If it's good, work with it and include it in the outline. Always stay open when you're writing, because many exciting things can happen.

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