Generally speaking, writers fall into two different categories: outliners and non-outliners (or, as my friend Linda has dubbed them, “seat-of-the-pantsters”). I’m an outliner. Mostly, I outline because I’m lazy. I hate rewriting; I hate watching my burst of pride and relief at the end of a novel dissipate in a realization of a hole-riddled plot. I’d much rather know where I’m going from the beginning, rather than trying to force my foreshadowing and plot twists into the text somewhere in my second draft. It’s much easier to spend a few weeks rewriting an outline than it is to spend a few months to a year rewriting an entire draft.
Because I’m already familiar with each pit stop along the road of my novel—thanks to my road map—it’s much easier for me to visualize the big picture and to realize what each scene must do to play its part. It’s also a sure-fire antidote for writer’s block. When all I have to do to know where I’m going is look at my map, I rarely have to waste valuable time and brain cells staring slack-jawed at the blinking cursor.
Admittedly, as perfect as outlining is for me, it’s not perfect for everyone. Many writers feel that outlining stifles their creativity. They feel that if they already know what happens in the story, why should they bother writing that first draft? In a way, however, an extensive outline is a first draft. It’s the “mistake” draft, the dry-eraser board where we all throw out our ideas and see how they line up on the page. Outliners and seat-of-the-pantsters alike go through this process. The only difference is that the outliner’s process takes maybe a quarter of the time.
Outlines take many forms—some of them a few sentences scrawled on a Post-It Note, some of them notebooks full of ramblings. I’m probably one of the more in-depth outliners. I fill up at least a notebook or two up with my scrawlings, and over the years, I’ve developed a handful of steps.
By the time, I sit down to begin work on a story, it’s usually been chasing around in my head for at least a year or two. I almost always have ideas for several main characters, a handful scenes, a general conflict, and at least a sense of what the ending will be. My first goal is to hammer all this down into a premise: a single sentence that conveys the plot and the theme. This premise may actually change several times throughout the outlining and first-draft stages, but, to begin with, it helps me focus my thoughts.
This is probably the single most important stage. This is where I give myself leave to throw my every idea—no matter how ridiculous—onto the page. I write down what I already know about the story, crafting it into a synopsis of sorts and discovering the plot holes. I ask myself lots of “what if’s” and “why’s.” Why is the character behaving this way? Why is she bitter about her past? What is forcing him to make these particular decisions?
In essence, the few scenes already in my brain are like dots on a connect-the-dot puzzle. It’s my job to figure how and why the lines follow this pattern, and that job is much easier when I can concentrate merely on answering the questions, rather than also trying to construct full-blown scenes, with characters, dialogue, and a consistent plot.
Once I have a pretty good idea of the story arc, and once I’ve filled in all the plot holes I can spot, I go to work on character sketches. I use a lengthy “interview” process that forces me to learn my characters’ backstories (which tend to be vital) and gives me the opportunity to figure out their every little quirk. You can read my list of interview questions in the post “Character Interviews.”
Character interviews are a lengthy process, so I only focus on the POV characters, the antagonist, and maybe one or two important minor characters. This part of the outlining generally gets my brain juices foaming and brings up all kinds of interesting tangents and opportunities for deepening the plot.
This is where the plotting begins in earnest. Step by step, I plot out in as much detail as possible (though without dialogue or narrative) every road stop along my map. In places, this plotting goes pretty quickly; in other places, I have to stop to work my way through iffy plot points and implausible character motivations. This step, by itself, can take several months, but because of the active, full-throttle creativity demanded, it’s one of the most exciting and rewarding portions of my storytelling.
Finally, once I have my entire plot mapped out, I condense all the pertinent info into an abbreviated outline—which keeps me from having to read my entire extended outline every time I sit down to write. In the past, I’ve always just typed the abbreviated outline up in Word and printed a copy for easy reference. But during my last novel, I discovered the benefits of using outlining software.
In a nutshell, that’s my process. If you ever feel yourself mired in the hazy middle of a novel that doesn’t really seem to know either where it’s coming from or where it’s going, I would recommend giving outlining a shot. Even just the simple tactic of scribbling down a handful of scene ideas can go a long way toward pulling a story into an organized whole. Plus, it’s about the easiest way possible to complete a first draft and ensure a cohesive second draft.