The Benefits of Outlines


 SHOULD YOU OUTLINE YOUR STORY PLOTS?

The answer is: Maybe. Keep in mind that every writer is different. What works for Lynn Abbey, Diana Gabaldon, or Stephen King may not work for you. What works for me may not work for you.  That said, here's what I see as the benefits of creating a plot outline:

  • You'll have a framework on which to base your story, which gives you a strong sense of security and direction as you write.
     
  • If you're writing a "multi-threaded" plot, you'll find it easier to keep track of those threads.
     
  • You'll know--early on--if you need to shore up the middle of your story (thus avoiding 30,000-word, "middle-muddle" paralysis).
     
  • The outline itself can become a mechanism for creative plotting (I bury questions and thoughts right along with my plotline in the outline).
     
  • An outline provides an easy mechanism for tracking your progress--you'll know where you are and have a pretty good idea of  how much of your story has yet to be written.
     
  • You'll have the basis for the final outline which can be sent as part of a query package.
     
  • A story synopsis is much easier to write if you have a story outline in hand.

Now some writers declare that outlines torpedo their creativity; others love 'em and can't be creative without them. I'm one of the latter. They work for me because I don't let the outline "rule" my writing effort. An outline is a tool and nothing more. Flexibility is essential.

My outline changes as I write a story. When I start out, I have one version of a plot outline written from start to finish. When I'm done with my story, the outline's changed significantly, because I've let the story flow in the direction  my creativity has driven me. In other words, the outline is nothing more than a tool for focusing my thinking and recording the results. In its latter capacity, the outline becomes more detailed over time as I record how the plot actually evolved.

Since outlining works for me and others, I don't believe that anything inherent in outlining interferes with the creative process. I do believe that what the writer believes about outlining does. If you believe an outline will constrain, block, or destroy your creativity, it will.

Anyway, don't take my word for this.  The best course of action is to try outlining. If it helps your plotting, continue to do it. If not, don't.

By the way, the length and detail of your outline is totally arbitrary. Doing a short outline like mystery writer Alex Keegan does may be enough, or doing one that shows more detail like those fantasy writer Lynn Abbey creates may be what you want. I would advise against doing too detailed an outline (i.e., no 100+ page outlines), though. While detailed outlines might work for some, the majority of us find them a lot of work for minimum payback. The idea here is to maintain enough flexibility to be able to change things--in other words don't box yourself in with excessive details. Let the writing give rise to the detail.

You may be curious about what I outline when I outline.  Basically, I outline plot threads scene by scene. Each main point in my outline describes a scene in one sentence. Sub-points are usually the goals I have for the scene; what the scene question is, stated in one sentence; what the rough action sequence is; and any other items I need to ensure get into the scene. Over time, as I record what actually resulted in my writing, the rough action sequence becomes a more detailed action sequence; and, if the scene question or scene goals have changed, those changes are reflected in the outline too.  

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Sunday, January 20, 2008