Writing Style: The Intensive Outline

It’s time for my (first?) writing style post, and I’m so excited! We’ve already read Michelle’s post on non-scary outlining.

Michelle explained how she first creates a loose outline for her first draft with the beginning scene, a couple of middle scenes, and the story climax. She continues to add to this loose outline as she writes.

Then she reads her first draft and makes a detailed outline from there to see how the story needs to change to be told better. (Rest assured, no matter what type of outlining you do, you WILL be rewriting your story. Likely several times.)

I’m the other true outliner of the Ferrets. I learned this the hard way in 2009, during NaNoWriMo. I finished the month with 50,000 words (for the first time ever!), but they sucked. And they rambled. There was no plot – even though I’d had one in mind when I started writing. Even four years later, I… still haven’t had the courage to re-read that mess.

The next year, I did a loose outline much like the one Michelle does for her first draft. The writing went much smoother, but still rambled too much. So, in 2011, I finally caved to my true desires.

See, for years, I’d been hearing that if you wanted to be a writer that you needed to just sit down and write. That you weren’t a real writer if you didn’t just sit down and write.

But writing is just like anything else – each person has a different process that they need to go through to create efficiently. Just like studying. Some people learn better by hearing things, some people learn better by seeing things, and others learn better by doing things. Some learn best by a combination of all of those.

So for NaNo 2011, I made an outline.

outline, writing, index cards

A massive outline. (Even the cat is in awe.)

A color-coded, cross-referenced story outline.

A insanely detailed outline. It *ahem* may or may not be color-coded and cross-referenced.

character charts, novel planning, pre-writing

And character charts.

It was wonderful.

For the first time, whenever I sat down to write, I didn’t struggle with ugh, what am I doing? I only struggled with actually constructing sentences.

I didn’t outline every single detail of every chapter. Honestly, I didn’t outline chapters at all.

I simply wrote down what needed to happen with every major plot point.

You see, there are really only two things you need to know to write.

  1.  What happens.
  2.  How the characters might react to it. (This is where character charts come in for me, but I’ll do another post about those later.)

And, contrary to everything I have just said, you don’t even need to know all these things in detail before you can start writing.

By all means, leave room for things to change. You’ll be able to tell when your story is coming to life when it starts doing things you weren’t expecting.

That’s what your outline is for: to decide when you can veer off course, or when you need to gently nudge the story back on course.

Sometimes, though, even when you stumble off the path, you suddenly find that it actually fits perfectly with where you wanted to go in the first place.

So if you’ve found that your writing flounders, or that your characters wander around aimlessly, try sitting down and jotting some notes. Talk to your characters and find out what their motivation is. You are the author. You don’t have to be lost to the whims of your characters, but you do need to listen to them.

Sit down and write, yes.

But it’s okay if you need a plan first. Just don’t get stuck on only planning. You need to do.


14 thoughts on “Writing Style: The Intensive Outline

  1. For my first novel, I kind of “outlined” but no where near as indepth as you did. And if I did….my kitties would be soooooo scotching through all that paper on the floor! How in the world did you get your kitty NOT to?!

    • A firm ‘no’?

      Honestly, I have no idea why Winnie wasn’t attacking the note cards. Both the cats walked over them, but neither tried to play with them. I was a bit shocked.

  2. I needed to hear this. I used to outline like a champ, but before Camp NaNo, I took on a 90 day novel challenge. The first 30 days were spent brainstorming using stream of consciousness exercises from Alan Watt’s book The 90 Day Novel Challenge. I thought that would be all I would need. I had answers to the big questions. I was set, right??

    Wrong. When I started writing (when Camp NaNo begun), I completely floundered (good word choice, btw). My characters went on random outings for no reason. My plot changed each week. It was chaos.

    You’re right. Every writer is different. I’m not a write-a-novel-in-90-days writer. I’m a planner and a let-the-ideas-simmer kind of writer. Lesson learned. 🙂

    • I am definitely not a 90-day-novelist, either. The only things I can sit down and write without an outline are short stories, and I *have* been known to outline those as well.

      And my ideas usually simmer for months, if not years, so I know exactly what you mean :D.

  3. Laura Weymouth says:

    This is NUTS. I can definitely see myself doing this for a second draft though because edits just get confusing if you aren’t super organized.

    • *nod* I’m also aiming to eventually not have to revise 5-10 times before something is decent. In all honesty, the one story that ended being… maybe the first three “levels” of note cards in this outline is the ONLY story I’ve been able to go back read and not see MAJOR revisions I need to make. It’s more surface revisions like adding a bit more detail, typos, etc.

      • Laura Weymouth says:

        Ugh, yeah, I was plugging merrily along through my current WIP, thinking I wouldn’t need any major revisions but I just hit a patch in the middle where I realized some things need to happen that I didn’t write in. I can’t go back and add them in now though because I know it would kill my momentum. So it’ll have to happen in the second draft.

  4. I love your gorgeous outlines, Rebekah!

    I’m with you on discovering the need for outlines after watching my stories careen wildly out of control.

    In the middle of outline for the Camp Nano novel I started!

    Here’s what I’m trying to nail down:

    1) Scene Goal: What is my character trying to achieve?
    2) How does the Scene Goal relates to my story goal?
    3) Conflict: Who/what opposes this goal?
    4) What’s the Outcome/Setback?

    1) How does my character feel about this?
    2) What does my character think, and what is their plan now?
    3) What’s the final decision, and how will they get back into action?

    Enlightening to realize *I didn’t actually know a lot of this stuff* about my story scenes. Ouch!

    No wonder my stories drift into the perilous waters of “I have no idea how to get from point D to point E.” or crash against the rocks of “I’m sure I’ll figure that out later, for now I’ll skip ahead…”

    This is actually encouraging. Because it is something I can fix.
    And I know brilliant people who excel at outlining :D.

    • 😀

      My mind is evidently a very organized place of its own volition. I just wish it would trickle over into my house… slowly but surely getting there!

      I’m thinking we may need to have a pre-NaNo outlining workshop, lol.

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