Recently there has been few discussions about the benefits and pitfalls of outlining stories. More than a few authors have expressed a dislike for outlines, which is fair enough—our individual writing processes are different. But it made me look closely at which of my stories I outline, which I don’t, why I might or might not, and what my outlines actually look like.

Generally, anything over 1000 words will have some form of outline. Mine are usually hand-written in pencil in my notebook. I take a scene or a chapter, and summarise it. I’ll do this for all of the key scenes and chapters. Often they are not in order in my notebook–ordering takes place when I open a Scrivener document and start typing. But that is my broad outlining method. Pencil. Paper. Scenes (or chapters).

In theory, I love the idea of throwing caution to the wind and just writing off the cuff, seeing where the unfolding plot and characters take me. Some writers I know find outlining in detail can spoil the fun of writing because it eliminates the element of surprise and wonder, and ruins the discovery process. Not using an outline intrigues me and I’m sure it’s exhilarating, though it’s still too far on the side of disorganised and directionless for my taste.

As with most of these things, it depends greatly on the story and author. Often I’m struck with inspiration at inopportune times, like when driving at speed to work, or in the middle of a conversation with a friend. These are not the easiest of moments to grab my notebook. So I will make it my mission to write these ideas down as soon as possible because otherwise I’ll forget them. In this way, I absolutely have to outline and work out where these events are going to occur in the story.

As for flash fiction (anything under 1000 words), I rarely need to outline these as they are so small that the structure is usually pretty clear at the start. Flash fiction can explode onto the page without the need for pie charts and timelines and eight million summaries.

I have the utmost respect for writers who dive right into a new story without inflatable armbands and come up with something awesome.

So, fellow authors, do you always outline? If not, when do you choose to outline? Or are you a writer who tosses outlines to the wind and writes without a clear plan where you’re headed? Do you ever end up lost, and have you ever had to abandon stories when they lose their way?

Other Resources

Joshua Palmatier has a good article about this here.

K. M. Weiland also has a helpful article at Writer’s Digest: 7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline For Any Story.