The Flexibility of Outlining

A color-coded, cross-referenced story outline.

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

I’ve done… er… a few blog posts on outlining in my time, to put it mildly. (I’ll link them all at the end of this post.)

If you’re new to the writing scene, let me warn you now: you are going to hear a lot about why outlines are bad, or why outlines will solve all your problems, or why if you’re doing anything other than writing the actual story, you’re wasting your time.

Ignore all that.

If you’re an outliner by nature, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly. Your stories will likely wander otherwise, and there won’t be a visible plot in your story if you just ‘wing it’, even if you started with a specific plot in mind.

But outlining your story does not mean that you’ve lost all chances of improvisation, or letting your characters ‘come to life’.

I have sat in workshops at writing conferences and listened to bestselling authors claim that, even though our plotting processes were identical otherwise, outlining would make the story ‘flat’ or the characters predictable. Simply because plot points were written ahead of when you ‘needed’ to know them. (In my case, too, if I don’t write them down, I tend to forget them completely.)

Um. No.

If anyone – anyone – whether they’ve written a single story or have multiple bestsellers, tells you that by outlining your story you’re destroying it, ignore them. They act as if an outline is engraved in stone. (And even then, there’s still workarounds. I’m looking at you, Moses.)

What an outline really is, is a map.

Like those maps from before when the world had been fully circumnavigated. You know, the ones that said “Here be monsters!” or whatever. You have a map. You know where you’re going, but sometimes you have to wander into the part of the map that is unknown. You just needed the map to find the unknown in the first place.

If you’re an outliner feeling lost in writing because you think you shouldn’t outline for some reason, you probably feel like you’ve been tossed in the unknown part of the map without a compass.

Here’s the truth of the matter:

Everyone writes differently. Everyone uses different processes. Outlining is simply a tool, and not everyone needs the same tools.

If you’ve been reading the Ferret blog, or my personal blog, for a while, you may have wandered back and seen my outline posts.

My outlines tend to be extensive, especially for novels.

But they don’t have to be. They aren’t always extensive for me.

Here’s my confession:

None of my outline methods are identical from story to story.

I do prefer index cards for most of my outlines. Index cards come in all different sizes and colors, though, and you can get them unlined (though that just usually means messy writing in my case). They are small, and they force you to be concise, but they’re easy to move around so you can make changes to the order of events in your story and see what would happen.

I’ve also made outlines on the computer, with WorkFlowy or with Word.

I’ve jotted outlines for short stories in a composition notebook. Usually one or two sentences per scene.

Ferret Eris has become an outline convert (she used to write solely ‘by the seat of her pants’). But the method that works best for her is literally a ‘plot wall’, consisting of, well, her wall. And Post-It notes. A lot of Post-It notes, I’m sure. I’ve used Post-Its on the wall for tricky scenes, but not usually an entire story, personally. I would have to fill up every wall in my house in that case.

Every story is different. The amount of outlining you’ll need to do will vary for different stories. Sometimes you’ll need to change-up an outline method between stories just for your own sanity, and that’s okay.

Play with different things, and if you find a method that works well for you every time you write, that’s wonderful!

If you need to change things up with every story, too, that’s great! Whatever keeps your creative juices flowing. That is what’s most important.

And just because someone hasn’t talked about a specific outline method, don’t worry if it’s ‘legitimate’ or not. All that matters is if it works for you.

Other Posts on Outlining:
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5 thoughts on “The Flexibility of Outlining

  1. Great post! I use an outline when I write. It’s like a GPS system to me. I’ll follow its lovely voice but when I need to exit and head down a country writing road, I do it. The outline is a guide.

  2. I agree! I outline a lot, but I still leave myself plenty of room for creativity. And besides, stories always have a habit of not following the original outline anyway.

    • Oh boy, do they! Usually mine follow the major plot points, but my characters take over their own development, so things often happen in ways I didn’t expect them too.

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