I will admit that I never used to outline at all, throwing myself into work without any thought of where I was going (or if I had a thought, I was convinced I would remember the relevant points when the time came…most of the time I didn’t and the ::ahem:: blinding flash of brilliance was lost forever)
I don’t usually outline for flash pieces under two hundred words, although any longer than that and I may jot down a few lines in a notebook to keep me pointed in the right direction and keep me well away from any tangents.
Longer pieces of work usually go through a similar start up process. I’ll have an idea (or a line or scene will come to me);I’ll stick it in my notebook and then either brainstorm a bit to flesh out what I’ve got, or leave it there until I think I need it.
Once I decide that I am going to use it, I start to flesh things out: who’s who? what do they look like (the bits I need to remember – musn’t have Hero with green eyes on page 4 and grey eyes on page 9). I’ll make a guess as to how many chapters I think I’ll have (so far, this is always wrong but doing it this way helps me with the planning). Then I start to fill in what will take place chapter by chapter, marking off who’s POV a scene will be in, and so on. If I’m on a roll, I’ll even do an outline for the last chapter – sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t.
My outlines started out on notecards but, as they tend to be quite detailed, this wasn’t feasible for long and I ended up transferring it all into a Word document.***
Now I just put things straight onto the computer, and my notes will often include dialogue or phrases that I like and want to include (although putting it into the outline doesn’t mean that it will be shiny enough to survive edits!) There will also be the odd note reminding me to look something up (e.g. a specific date something was introduced, clothing etc.)
It isn’t set in stone; chapter contents can move around, characters can change. I’ve just found, for me personally, that having some kind of plan makes it easier to continue. The starting off is usually all right – it’s the continuing beyond the first couple of pages that the outline makes possible. I usually aim for at least a paragraph per scene in the outline.
Once I’m happy with the plan, I get cracking on the actual writing and this is where the chapters begin to move around a little. This doesn’t worry me. The outline isn’t meant to be a map I stick to fervently for fear of heading off into Here Be Dragons territory, it’s more of a guideline. So if you discover your characters doing something completely different in chapter four than you’d envisaged in your outline, worry not. The outline can be altered as you go along to take new actions/ dialogue/ adventures & escapades into account.
Don’t let the outline strangle you. It’s there as a helpful tool – if it’s not helping, don’t use it. Outlines help some people all of the time; some people some of the time; and some people none of the time. If you’re in the some/none category and you prefer writing on the fly – that’s fine. If you’re not sure whether outlining is helpful to you or not, try it on something short. If it helps the words flow from your fingers/ pen then that’s great. If, however, it leaves you blocked and grumpy then maybe outlining isn’t for you.
So. Do you outline, or not? What are your reasons either way. If you do some form of outlining, what method have you used and have there been any problems? Do you have a shining example of a great method to share with us?
***Some people use mind-maps/ spider diagrams and other, more visual methods to outline or plan their story.
See Jim Van Pelt’s post here for a look at the method he uses.
See also Jay Lake’s post here on his method – it also contains a link to Justine Larbalastier’s related post.
Also, take a look at the post on Editorrent on Scene Charts – this gives some advice on managing big projects.
And for those of you who love sticky-notes, Diana Peterfreund has a number of good entries on using plotboards to visualise the scene/chapter plan.