Monday, November 12, 2012

How to use an outline

November is NaNoWriMo which is all about writing a rough (rough) draft as fast as you can. For me, this means following an outline. So I thought I would share my process since I'm also sharing my draft as it develops. Everyone has their own technique, but this is what works for me. Maybe it can work for you.

My outline is my story. When I come up with an idea that interests me, that's an outline. When I work it out in my head, that's the story. That's the most exciting part for me. I have dozens of stories outlined in my head that will never be more than that. The stories are there, they're complete, and I can enjoy them whenever I want.

The writing is just the telling of the story. It's for others. It's how I share those stories, how I make them interesting to the reader. It's a very different challenge from creating the story itself. I'm learning to enjoy it, but the truth is that it's a lot more hard work to tell a good story than to think of one.

To make the writing easier I try to come up with a detailed outline. That means chapter by chapter. I've found that the more detailed my chapter description the faster the writing of that chapter will go. Here's a couple of examples.

One chapter was outlined like this:  
Tarya works at the Inn and learns about the Master.

I  also had some notes: Nathon helps Tarya get a job at inn. Tarya overhears two guardsmen talking about swordmaster. Flirts with noble to get details on master.

The scene lays out pretty clearly and was easy to write. But one of my later chapters was less developed in my head:
Tarya meets Charles, a young castle guard who likes her

I know why she needs to meet him - it's crucial for the plot to advance. But how, exactly, does she meet him? In a good way or bad? Do they like each other right away? Where does all this happen?. I didn't know these things so when I sat down to write nothing came. I had to stop and just think about it for a while. I needed that meeting to work a certain way to set up a whole series of events. If I just dive in and start writing, something will come out but it might not work for the story which exists already in my head.

But wait! I hear you pantsers shout. What about letting the characters develop? What about the magic of letting them lead you where they want to go? What about the joy of discovering the story as you write it? Fair enough. I've tried that, and it does create a different story. But that's not my story, the story in my head. I had to create the meeting - the characters weren't going to lead me there. If I follow them around they might never meet and that would miss out on all the other great things I had planned.

That doesn't mean that I don't let things change and grow naturally. One of my characters showed up two chapters before he was outlined to, and two of my characters switched places in a crucial scene (one of them died instead of the other). I let those changes happen because they grew organically and also because they worked into the outline of the rest of the story. For me, staying with that big picture is key.

You see, I already have a story I want to tell. This writing business is just the means to do it.


  1. The worst for me is having characters do their own thing during the rewrite. This is the sole reason that it's taken me so long to get through the second draft of my novel. Once you've written the first draft, it becomes even more stamped in your mind, if that makes sense, and when a characters throws a monkey wrench into things during the rewrite, it's difficult to step back and try to redirect the story.

    I consider myself more of a pantster, but sometimes I do outline certain scenes like you described, only I'm not sure if it helps me with the writing process. Sometimes the words don't want to come no matter what I do.

    1. By the way, is it pantser or pantster? I've seen it both ways. Pantser seems technically correct but pantster sounds better.