Thursday, 25 February 2010

Outline – very important

Some semblance of normality is starting to trickle into my life at the moment, so I can at least blog about some things. I've never written an advice before, especially one for writers, but I felt I had to after reading the blogs of some writers on Absolute Writers.


Some published and unpublished writers don't do it.

Well, I'm going to tell you now – you need to do it.

Eschewing outlines doesn't make you smarter than those who embrace it, and it doesn't make you more awesome or the greatest writer ever because you can visualise your plot from start to end almost seamlessly. Every decent writer can do that. It's not nearly as difficult as you think it is.

Outlining helps you understand your plot in ways you never thought you did, which in turn aids the transition from idea-I-dreamed-about to written-and-completed-book – the real challenge for any writer.

Let me explain it to you like this. (For those of you studying at university level you'll probably grasp this concept better.) While tackling your dissertation, you know you're going to write a report at some point. So the smart and professional thing to do is research as you go along, writing down whatever useful information you stumble across. When the time is right, you gather your research – the outline of your report – and because that outline gives you a broad perspective of what your final report should encompass, writing your report isn't as difficult as it should've been. You probably won't use everything you uncovered from the internet and books, and you may add some new stuff to your report that never graced your outline, but your journey to completion will still be so much less stressful.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: "I don't have to sift the internet for material to write my book, at least not to a large extent. All I have to do is sit down and write. Research isn't required!"

But you're wrong. You do have to carry out research for your book, though not necessarily by looking at websites or other books. The real Information on your book is stored in your most personal library – your head. That's where your ideas reside. That's where they're bouncing about, waiting to be plucked. And that is where you must go. They're scattered, disjointed, and raw, like crude oil. What you need to do is take that crude oil and transform it into petrol, and you do that by outlining.

It's not enough that you've concocted some brilliant idea for a book: "Oh man, I have this totally awesome idea about a boy who is a wizard but he doesn't know it. He wakes up one morning and discovers he has magic powers and decides to save the world when an evil sorceress kidnaps his little sister as a plan to bring about the apocalypse! Wow – rock on!"

Yeah – awesome, dude. Really awesome. But:

  • How does your MC discover his powers?
  • What's he doing at the time he discovers his powers?
  • Does he turn to anyone when he finds out he can make things disappear with his mind?
  • If he does, do they teach him how to control his gifts or try to manipulate him or try to stick him in a mental institution?
  • How does his sister get kidnapped?
  • What is she doing at the time she gets kidnapped?
  • Are they really close that he'd be willing to risk his life to save hers, and if so how are they close? (Just because she's his sister doesn't mean they're BFFs. Plenty people hate their sisters, or don't love them enough to embark on crazy adventures.)
  • Where were his parents at the time of his amazing discovery? Or at the time of his sister's kidnapping? (Are they even alive?)
  • Does he turn to anyone to join him on his adventure – friends, other siblings?
  • Does he travel to a different world?
  • Does the world have languages?
  • Blah, blah, blah?
  • Blah, blah, blah, blah?
  • And plenty, plenty other questions.

So many questions.

So many important questions.

Questions that, while you can sit down and think up their answers, you may never remember to address them, because you had no outline to remind you. Then you finish your "awesome" book and send it out to your betas, and your betas come back saying things like, "Yeah, this is cool, but how come your MC didn't think about going to his parents first?" or "What happened to the dog weapon he found in page 3? He had it all along, didn't he? So why didn't he use it to easily finish off that baddy in page 16, instead of wasting time from page 4 to page 14 trying to learn all that hard magic?"

Little plot holes emerge. Soon you find yourself trying to patch things together, and the more you patch, the more your plot rips, until finally you have to rewrite the whole thing.

Then there's the classic my-novel-sags-in-the-middle problem. Your idea about Wizard Boy is crazy awesome, because:

  • The first few chapters will focus on his discovery of magic, how his sister gets kidnapped, how he and his family react, and his decision to go on some insane magical adventure to save her. A great opening – will surely leave readers breathless.
  • The last few chapters will centre on his use of magic to defeat the evil sorceress and liberate his little sister. Oh, the action – so riveting, so out of this world. Your readers will be clamouring for a sequel.
  • The middle chapters will ... um ... er ... will talk about ... well ... his training ... and some other stuff that you don't really know right now but you're certain you'll know when you get there.

Yeah. Right.

If you had an outline you'd have a good idea of what the middle of your novel would look like, and if the middle is rubbish, you'll know where to add new plot devices to spice things up.

Be aware, outlines do not prevent plot holes or other writing related problems. They minimise these problems by getting you to think really hard about your plot – if it's actually something you should spend days and months writing. True, the idea of a wizard boy trying to save his sister is awesome, but then you don't want to get to chapter 15 and realise you actually don't have that much to write about, because your idea just doesn't have enough meat. That's something an outline would have told you before you went about wasting your time.

There are some accomplished writers who don't write outlines, you could argue. They just sit down and write, and in the end they produce classics. You know what else? Albert Einstein came up with all those physics theories and solved those complex physics calculations without using a calculator. Doesn't mean we all can.

In the end, no one's going to give you a "Best Book that didn't require an Outline" award, and similarly you won't get an extra score in your exams for not using a calculator when everyone else did.

The end product – a book with a great plot – is all that matters. Be smart.


  1. Well said! I for one have been on the outline bandwagon since I started writing anything longer than a few pages. As you said, they are NEEDED. I can't imagine how much worse my books would be if I didn't utilize them. Too bad about the outline award thing. I really would like to receive one! lol

  2. Wow good points, but I can't outline. Never have been able to. *shrug*

  3. Lol don't worry, you'll learn as time goes on. The more complicated and demanding your plots become, you more you'll be pushed to outline. There is no known format for outlining. It could take any form you wish :)

  4. This was a fantastic post! I loved all your points. I didn't write an outline for my first, first draft (am on a revamped first draft now) of Call Me Robin Hood, and I'm thinking I should have. Mostly because maybe I would have come up with this new plot for CMRH BEFORE I even spent time writing it/revising it. It was only when I got around to write a query letter that I found out (thanks to a bunch of AWers) my plot wasn't big enough. So yeah, now that I do have a much better plot, I was actually thinking an outline would do. Thanks so much for this post! I think I shall try to outline!

  5. I'm glad to have helped, Karla :)

  6. I kind of sort of outline...LOL I write a rough draft of my query 1st, keeping in mind to make it sound like a book I'd buy.

    Once I have my rough draft query done, I start working on my story, and it's kind of like a mini map.

    Just how I do it. :)

  7. Since I am studying at university level, I completely agree.
    I never used to outline. Just like I tended to dive right into an essay.
    Jumping right into a five page essay in your 100-300 level classes is fine. Then, you get to your 400 and 500 level classes with 15 pages papers and, eventually, that fantastic dissertation. I've forced myself to start researching before, scribbling down a skeleton, and writing it in pieces. And I've definitely learned to apply it to my writing. I don't usually get sagging in the middle, so much as it gets all confused because my ideas are changing as I'm writing it. It's always stuff I could have fleshed out in the beginning with an outline too.
    Thanks for this!!

  8. Yeah, totally. Like I used to have this problem back when i didnt outline, and id be writing my book and this idea of a scene would pop in. I'd tell myself, "Yeah, dont worry you'll remember it when you get there." And when I got to that point i wouldnt remember it. Sucked bad. Now, I get to put stuff down, which helps plotting my WIP so much easier

  9. I gave you an award on my blog. :)

  10. I don't - can't - outline. For essays, I definitely write a planning page just to get my ideas down, but when I write, it's all in my head. I find that when I outline, the parts of the story that aren't already there just get made up to fill in the outline. I kind of see my first draft as an outline, as getting the story out there, and then the rewrite as the part where I know everything that will happen. It sounds like a long process, but it really works for me. By the second draft, I know the characters and I know better what they would do and how they would feel than if I wrote and outline and one draft, you know?

  11. Lol Sam, I'm very much with you on first draft = outline. One thing you should know is that outlines can take any form you want them to. People automatically assume that outlines should be like a bunch of bullet points, but it doesn't have to be that way. My outline is so detailed they're pretty much the first draft. They're not well written or ready for publication, but they've got a lot in them. The 2nd draft is where I start writing properly and adding or taking stuff I don't like ;)


Keep it clean and constructive. Thanks.