Misconceptions About Outlining Your Novel

Today, we’re continuing with our series of video/audio trailers, offering a sneak peek into the first chapter of Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. We’re also continuing our month of prize giveaways, building up to the Grand Prize, worth over $400, on September 26th. Be sure to leave a comment on this post to register for today’s prize, a signed copy of my historical western novel A Man Called Outlaw. And now let’s talk outlines—specifically the misconceptions about outlining.

Video Transcription:

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. WeilandMany authors decide outlining is “not for them” after hearing the surface arguments. Before you make that decision, let’s take a look at some of the common misconceptions about outlining.

Misconception #1: Outlining Your Novel Requires Formal Formatting

Much of the avoidance of outlining comes down to nightmarish memories of the outlines we had to learn in high school. You know the type: Roman numerals, graduated indents, and perfectly parsed grammar. Just looking at one is enough to kill your creativity:

I. The Galactic Empire attempts to squelch the Rebel Alliance.

1. Big spaceship goes after little spaceship.

a. Big spaceship catches little spaceship.

i) Bad guy boards little spaceship; bad guy breathes heavily.

That’s just a whole barrel of fun, isn’t it? Even with an exciting story, you’re more likely to snap your pencil point in frustration than wear it down to a nub with a flood of enthusiastic ideas. Formal outlines such as we learned in school may suffice for recording the bare bones of our stories. But, let’s face it, they’re not exactly enjoyable. By the time you reach “II. Farm boy goes on mission to save beautiful princess,” you’re probably going to be yawning and checking Twitter.

Fortunately, outlines don’t have to look anything like this inverted staircase. In the next chapter, we’ll explore a variety of outline formats, but, for now, remember outlines don’t require the crossing of every T, the dotting of every I, and the buttoning of your top collar button. Rather, they should be opportunities for throwing caution to the wind, living on the edge, and breaking any rule silly enough to raise its head.

Misconception #2: Outlining Your Novel Limits Creativity

Authors sometimes feel writing an outline will box them into a rigid plan, which can be deviated from only under risk of death. As soon as they put an outline on paper, they fear they’ve locked their story into an immutable form that can never be changed, even if they come up with a better idea halfway through the first draft.

When I was a kid, I loved those connect-the-dots puzzles. The artists would remove the lines in their sketches and replace them with spaced-out dots, each of which was accompanied by a number. If I succeeded in connecting the dots in the correct order, I would magically end up with a kitten or a dolphin or a barn. It was fun, but it didn’t allow for much creativity. If I didn’t follow the dots exactly, I wouldn’t end up with a picture of anything recognizable. In other words, if I didn’t follow the predetermined outline, I was sunk.

Fortunately, however, this needn’t be the case with a novel’s outline. Like the pirate code in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, we should consider outlines to be “more like guidelines.” A good outline should be a spur for creativity, not a stumbling block. The author is the master of the outline, not its slave. If and when you come up with a better idea while in the midst of writing Chapter Seventeen, by all means take a good tight hold on the muse and let its wings bear you to new and exciting shores—even if those shores weren’t originally on your map.

Outlines should encourage wild creativity, daring experimentation, and focused inspiration. If you’re not encountering these elements in your own outline, you’re probably looking at the process in the wrong light.

Misconception #3: Outlining Your Novel Robs the Joy of Discovery

Some authors rebel against outlines because they believe creating one will sap the joy of discovery they find in writing a first draft. It’s true that for all the benefits outlining offers, it also requires a few sacrifices. The opportunity to write a first draft full of unexpected discoveries is one of those sacrifices. But it’s not as black as it sounds. You’re not losing the opportunity for unexpected discoveries. Not at all. What you’re doing is moving those discoveries from the first draft to the outline. All the fun’s still there; it just occupies a different place in your timeline. Thriller author and Edgar nominee Raymond Benson explains, “I figure out all the hard plot details in the outline, so you might say I really write the book when I do the outline.”

In many ways, an extensive outline is a first draft. The only difference is the outliner’s process takes maybe a quarter of the time. The outline, like the first draft, is the “mistake” draft, the dry-erase board where we unveil our ideas and see how they line up on the page. Outliners and pantsers alike go through this process.

Instead of stealing creative joy, the outline expands an author’s opportunities for exploring his story. He gets to experience the original act of creation in the outlining process, during which he comes up with the raw story idea, sorts out implausibilities, and fills in plot holes. In essence, he’s constructing the skeleton of his story. When he later begins the first draft, he isn’t retreading old ground. Instead, he’s digging deeper into his understanding of his story by fleshing out the skeleton: adding the new material that will become the inner organs, skin, hair, muscles, and cartilage. Using the outline to figure out the technicalities of your plot gives you the freedom to explore your characters, settings, and themes in intimate detail in your first draft. Prolific fantasy author Jeff VanderMeer explains:

Yes, I knew what I was going to write about in a chapter ahead of time, so there was less process of discovery in terms of what was going to happen. However, I found I could give more thought to how and why things happened because I already had this outline in place—on some level, I focused more on each scene, and how the scenes fit together…. I find that there’s relief and a great calming effect in knowing that I can extrapolate ahead of time on the macro level, fill in a certain level of detail, and still find the writing and the actual scene-writing vibrant and exciting.

Studies have proven most people are noticeably stronger in one hemisphere of the brain or the other, mostly due to their tendency to exercise one side more often. The left brain is analytical and logical, allowing us to plot our stories in a linear timeline and make rational decisions about our characters and their motives. The right side of our brains is where all the juicy creativity and raw inspiration takes place. The left brain thinks in facts; the right brain thinks in images and feelings. Neither side of the brain is better than the other. But, as writers, we can’t discount the value of figuring out which side we live in most—and then stretching ourselves to explore the uncharted territories on the other side.

Utilizing an outline allows us to take advantage of both sides of our brains by divvying up the necessary responsibilities of creating a story. When we outline, the creative process can be divided into four categories: conception, outlining, writing, revising.

  • Conception is a deeply right-brain activity. We can’t explain where the first spark of an idea comes from. It’s often nothing more than an image or a feeling welling up from our sub-conscious and demanding an explanation. My own period of conception can last several years. I allow the story to kick around in the back of my head, adding to it through subsequent flashes of inspiration, until I feel it’s grown into an idea large enough to explore with my left brain.
  • Outlining is where the left brain gets its first crack at the story. This is the phase in which I lay out all my touchy-feely ideas and analyze them with my left brain to make sure they all fit together. I identify the missing pieces and fill in the holes. Although outlines demand right-brain creativity as well, they are primarily a logical left-brain activity. I have to ask myself, Does this character’s motivation make sense? Does this event in the plot logically lead to this outcome? Does the story arc hold together? Getting the majority of the left-brain gruntwork out of the way in the outline allows me to once again turn my creativity loose in the writing stage.
  • Writing the story is an intensely right-brain experience. This goes against popular opinion, which believes the outline quashes any hope of creativity by imposing a predetermined plan onto the story. Just the opposite is true. Because I know where the story is going and because I’ve already put my left brain to work ensuring the story makes sense, I can surrender the discovery of the story details back into the capable care of my creative right brain.
  • Revising brings the process full circle by once again imposing left-brain rationality onto the creativity of the first draft. Where the right brain has charged ahead in all its sloppy, colorful wonder, the left brain now follows behind, mopping up the excess and straightening ideas so they achieve their maximum power through clarity and cause and effect.

Misconception #4: Outlining Your Novel Takes Too Much Time

One of Polly Pantser’s arguments against outlines is that they take “weeks, or even months” to write—and that’s absolutely true. On average, each of my outlines takes me three months from start to finish. Three months is a long time—but not so long as you’ll spend on the heavy-duty rewrites required to turn a rambling first draft into a tight, cohesive, salable novel.

Consider again my experience with my fantasy Dreamlander. Before writing my outline, I spent eight months writing fifty pages. That page count totals out at just over six pages a month. That’s a page and a half a week and less than a third of a page a day.

That’s pitiful.

It was also torturous. And, if that weren’t bad enough, I eventually had to go back and spend an additional three months rewriting those fifty pages to bring them up to speed with the outline’s improved and streamlined version of the story. I ended up spending nearly a year on a process that would probably have required only a few months had I taken the time to outline in the beginning.

Outlining requires an outlay of patience. We have to be willing to put off the actual writing in order to get our ducks in a row. But this preparation pays for itself in innumerable ways. A mountain climber would never consider tackling Mt. Everest without investing serious preparation time in planning his route, organizing his group, collecting and double-checking his gear, and training his body. Authors who dash off to write a 100,000-word novel are just as likely as hasty climbers to get themselves in trouble in the long run. Preparation takes time and effort, but it’s always worth it in the end.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have any of these misconceptions scared you away from trying outlining? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I think the idea of outlining robbing the joys of discovery is a big one for me. But you’re right — you are just transferring it to the outlining phase from the writing phase. And no matter how tight your outline is, when it comes to writing the actual story, things can change in an instant, and discoveries about your characters and your story happen all the time, outline or not. Great post!

  2. Until last year I used to be a pantser and as a result very few of my stories ever reached completion.
    Now I use some sort of outline for everything I write, even if it’s just a vague sentence for each part. Sometimes I go very in depth, knowing that it will be very easy to write that section when I come to the first draft.
    Outlining keeps me motivated as I know where all the best bits come in advance and I don’t have to risk getting stuck half way through a draft because I simply don’t know where the story is supposed to go next, even if I do wander off course from time to time.
    Thanks for the post.

  3. I used to completely ignore outlining and let the story do its own thing, which led to inevitable disaster. An outline is the bone structure of the book. It doesn’t need to be anything more; just a reminder of where you’re going.

  4. Outlining has improved my writing process more than I can express. Thank you so much for this well-explained post.

  5. @Bluestocking: Outlining has actually become one of my favorite parts of the process. In addition to being my first chance to explore my story in any depth, it also gives me the ability to write my story without my own words getting the way.

    @JM: Same here! I outline blog posts, letters, even my daily schedule to some extent! I like being able to see the big picture, so I can see how all the little pieces need to fit in there.

    @Fozzy: Exactly. I really like the analogy of an outline being a skeleton. It provides the structure, but still allows us to have all kinds of wild fun fleshing it out.

    @Lydia: I’d be a cooked goose without my outlines. Not only do they improve my storytelling, they also keep me from pulling out my hair!

  6. For me, there is a constant dialogue between the outline and the first draft.

    I start with a very skeletal outline, setting out the main things that have to happen or be revealed in each chapter. As a general rule the outlines for the first chapters are quite detailed and the outlines for the later chapters are increasingly less so.

    Once I begin writing the first draft, I use the outline as a guide but allow myself to stray from the outline if that seems right at the time. When I’ve finished a chapter, I revisit the outline and change the sections relating to the future chapters as necessary, given what’s actually happened. At this point, I also outline the events of the next few chapters in greater detail.

    This means I never feel trapped by the outline. It’s a rolling process. The main waypoints are there from the beginning, but the outline itself is a constantly evolving document.

  7. Thank you for sharing another chapter of your book! I can’t wait for it to come out. Outlining has been my saving grace since I heard about it. I never could finish a story until I had the end goal actually in sight, as long as I knew where it was going I could get through the difficult parts knowing what was waiting for me on the other side.
    Thank’s again for your marvelous advice!
    Jessica

  8. I often say I don’t outline, I’m just a dedicated pantser. But I’ve come to realize I do outline in a sense. I write down what I want to happen in the story, I come up with a great opening, and I go into it. It’s more a case of the outline being in my head, with occasional boosts from my written projections. Then when the inevitable changes occur within the story, it’s easy to go with the flow and alter the mental sequences.

    Great post, Katie. Very concise.

    ~ VT

  9. I never had anything against outlining, I just never did it that way. However, after reading this post I am considering outlining my next novel, which I suspect might benefit from this technique. Thanks for this post 🙂

  10. “In many ways, an extensive outline is a first draft. The only difference is the outliner’s process takes maybe a quarter of the time.”
    This makes so much sense! Coupled with the left-brain versus right-brain concept, it’s almost like outlining = writing a first draft from a more logical & analytical perspective.

    I’ve gone back & forth on outlining. I started out as an extensive outliner, then discovered that a more minimalist list of bullet points was all I needed for some stories. Now however, I’m writing a big complicated crime novel, and that small list of bullet points is nowhere near enough.

  11. @DAJB: Sounds like an excellent process. My vision of my story remains fluid, while my outline is a constant. If the fluidity of my imagination takes me somewhere better, I have no problem following it. But when that fluidity leads me astray, I can always return to the solidity of the outline.

    @Jessica: Outlining imparts all of kinds of confidence. Since you essentially already have a story on paper, it’s just one step up the ladder to fill it out into a full-fledged first draft.

    @Victor: I used to say that if I couldn’t remember something to do with a story, it probably wasn’t worth writing. But my memory isn’t what it used to be (thanks to head trauma in an ATV accident), so I wouldn’t dare carry my outline around in my head anymore!

    @Mshatch: I find it interesting that some people react so vehemently to outlining (or pantsing). My guess is that they feel pressured into it, which should never be the case. Our writing processes are our own beeswax, from start to finish.

    @Kam: The requirements of an outline vary from story to story. I’ve written some stories that only required a few pages of notes and others that filled up three or four notebooks.

  12. Great post! I’ve never liked outlining (and thus, never did it much) but then I’ve never thought about it like this either. 😉

  13. Give it a try. I bet if you fiddle around with it and find the method that works for you, you’ll love it!

  14. I used to be dead-set against outlines, mostly because I felt that they destroyed the process of discovery. Then I was introduced to analyzing my characters before the story (thanks to Brandilyn Collins) and slowly realized that, if writing eight pages about my characters was so much fun and made the writing process easier, maybe I could figure out a way to outline like that. Writing has become a much easier task since then! 🙂

  15. In the beginning I was in too big a hurry to outline. I used misconception three as my excuse, but I’ve since learned the fallacy of that. My outlining is now more of a huge brainstorming session where I sit and write down scene descriptions, goals for each chapter, and tons of questions about how or why they are doing what I need them to do. This really helps me get down to the motivations of my characters, and in the end, it makes the revision process so much easier.

    Great post!

  16. A good outline excites me and gives me the energy to write the book. An outline that excites me will also give me something to put my trust in, months later during those long dark nights of the soul I have while writing the middle of the novel.

    ~scott bailey

  17. I used to think that outlining *had* to take a long time — months and months. But through these posts I’m coming to realize that outlining can actually be a simple process. It’s all in how you approach it. Thanks for the awesome post!

  18. I’ve outlined the three books I have written thus far. Not a rigid outline but one with the main plot points and, of course, the ending. And the books have changed tremendously from that first outline until the finished product. The key is flexibility.

    Great advice!

  19. I completely agree on the connect the dots: I usually visualize my plot points like locations on a google map road trip. Outlining really quells the nerves when I feel like I’m being dragged forward by a single idea or scene, but have no idea if I’m getting there the right way, or if I’ll get lost!

    I’ve lately been trying to punch up the tension and conflict in my current WIP, and have found outlining to be invaluable in keeping track of the many more subplots and conflicts! It’s been painful at times, but steady.

    Thanks for the post; it’s reinvigorating! I’m really looking forward to the release of your book!

  20. @H.A.: Not every part of the writing process is fun, but it’s all rewarding once we get into it and learn its purpose. Interviewing my characters has always been one of my favorite bits.

    @Charity: Couldn’t have said it better myself! Sometimes you have to spend a little time to save a little time.

    @Scott: In my experience, the outline is almost always a smoother ride than the first draft. If I can get through the outline and give myself a lifeline to hang onto during the inevitable rough spots of actually writing the story, that’s one less thing to worry about on those days when nothing else seems to be going right.

    @Eldra: Your outline only has to take as long as you want it to. It’s true that I prefer to go very in-depth with my outlines, and I’ll often spend upwards of three months on one outline. But some authors only need a month, or a week, or even a day to get the outline they need. It’s just a matter of playing around, experimenting, and following your gut to discover what’s most intuitive and useful to you.

    @Sheila: Outlines are a strange balance between sticking with the plan and staying loose enough to improvise. It’s a balancing act – as is almost all of writing, one way or another – but it’s an important one.

  21. @Crystal: That “dragging” feeling when you have an idea for a story but don’t know the best way to get there is exactly why I got into outlining in the first place. I cannot even describe how much I hate that feeling. Outlines are the antidote!

  22. Hi,
    Great post and lots of info, thanks. I have always done a minimal outline, but after hearing you talk about more detailed outlines, I find they do help me. I always thought they would hold too much of my story and my details would be lost or told in the outline. Now, I find the outline guides me in the general direction I want to head and the details follow more easily. I never spent three months on an outline (you are patient) however, I did put in many hours being sure my outline made sense. It helped the story line makes sense. Thanks again.
    Marianne

  23. Slow and steady has always been what works best for me! But, really, all an outline needs to do is help the author see the big picture in his story. After that, it’s entirely up to the author whether or not he needs or wants to dig deeper into the details.

  24. I’m a die-hard Polly–maybe that was a bad choice of words–but I can see myself outlining if the outline is.
    A. Person rebels against parents
    B. People try to convince him to come back
    C. Time Passes
    D. He is dragged back…
    etc…

  25. If that’s what works for you, that’s all your outline has to be. But if you ever feel led to dig deeper, to explore your characters’ motivations and backstories, and chart the arc of the story, you might just find that you’re more of an Ollie than you think!

  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. I find the thought of writing an outline challenging. Once I get the form on paper, I feel trapped. However, while reading James Scott Bell’s ‘Plot and Structure,’ I found a happy compromise in the use of scene cards.

    Although I have always despised 3×5 cards when used for writing papers (in that case preferring an outline), I have found that they work perfectly for me in writing fiction novels. They give me a stash of fluid ideas that I can move around and switch out easily, but there is enough structure to give me a general idea of where I’m heading and to keep me from being blocked. I also have my family help me brainstorm while doing them, which is lots of fun. (You never know what kind of bizarre ideas your kids will come up with that might be just the thing you’ve been looking for.)

  28. My biggest problem with outlining is…you have to know *what* you intend to write in order to create an outline of it, and I rarely have any idea what I’m going to write until the first draft is finished. The times I’ve tried to “make up” a story so that I could outline it, I’ve sat staring at a blank Word screen, my mind equally blank. (I did try the Snowflake method once. It worked well as a “getting-to-know-you” session with my characters, but not necessarily as an outline for the story.)

    What works best for me is to just start typing and let a story reveal itself. Then, when I do the first read-through, I create a chapter/scene list (which could be considered an after-the-fact outline, I suppose) so that I can see what the story is. And then I make sure everything meshes and is chronological, and if there are themes, they become apparent, and I can enhance them in subsequent editing/rewriting.

  29. @Beth: Same here. I never liked using the note cards when required to in high school. But they’re amazingly handy (and freeing) in constructing an outlines, particularly when trying to figure out scene order.

    @Tommie: When I start an outline, I have a general feel for the story, and I usually know a handful of plot points. Other than that, I discover the story *in* the outline. My outlines are very stream-of-conscious, so they’re not just bulletted lists of “this happened, and then this happened.” They’re much like you would tell a story verbally to a listener, so they’re a rich and fun way to discover the story, before filling in all the details of dialogue and description.

  30. No Fun. Boring. Scary. The descriptor matters not. I’ve learned that outlining is simply important. You might think of it like the old saying that a man driving around lost won’t stop and ask for directions. When a writer doesn’t ask for directions, the story gets lost and that just wastes time. Thanks for the post.

  31. Every part of the writing process could be labeled “no fun,” “boring, and definitely “scary” at one point or another. But like all the other parts of the process, outlining has its purpose and offers far more good than bad.

  32. Wow. Very though provoking post. Having written one book and now being a good way into my second I can say that for now at least I am not an outliner. I think everyone comes to writing in their own way. Just as no painting is ever painted alike, nor is any book ever written the same way. I have learnt a lot about plot structure and I am still learning, but I like to keep that in mind as I write the first draft rather than map out a first draft before the writing. While it makes for a messy first draft it also and most importantly for me makes for words on the page. I found that I cannot write if I have outlined. I am that over the whole book after an outline that I change my mind and write a different story. I asked myself what was the point. While some might know where they want there books to head, what they think and how they feel, I use writing to discover these things. While some may come to a book knowing enough about their characters to know which way the story will go and how their character will react, I do not. I must write to meet these fictional people. I must write to discover what I am trying to say.
    Yes, it means a lot gets deleted, but that is how my brain works. I am accepting of it. 🙂

  33. In a sense, sloppy first drafts *are* outlines. I’d argue that almost all of us approach the writing process in the same way. We just go about it a little differently in the details. Pantsers’ “outlines” are just much more in-depth than those used by non-pantsers.

  34. Yes, yes! Im very intimidated by outlining, but you make is sound worth doing! I cant wait for the book to come out. I have always thought it made sense to outline non-fiction, but now I see the value in preparing fiction the same way. Im a panster at heart, but I really want to give outlining a try.
    thanks K.M.

  35. Outlining doesn’t have to be intimidating. In fact, it can be a lot of fun!

  36. An outline is not a bed of Procrustes.

    I started with an outline for my first novel. I then proceeded to write. I got into it so well that I forgot all about the outline. UNTIL I hit a brick wall. I couldn’t figure what comes next.

    At this point I returned to my outline, and updated it to reflect the parts I had written that deviated from the original plan. This left the outline with a gap or mismatch in the middle.

    I figured out how to munge the rest of the outline to fit. This put my head back in the game and I finished the novel.

    When I write without an outline, there’s always the risk that I’ll hit the brick wall and then the story will languish while I get distracted by something else.

  37. The willingness and ability to update the outline is important. As our vision of our story evolves as we write it (and it *will* evolve to some extent, large or small), we have to be able to edit the outline and conform it to the story’s needs as we go.

  38. I actually disagree with the second two as being misconceptions. It depends on the writer. Outlining is a left-brained activity, which is a big problem if the writer in question is right-brained. I’m a non-outliner. Yes, I’ve tried outlines. Quite a few, in an effort to solve a writing problem. I even tried a “pantster friendly” outline workshop and was the only one in the class who could not even comprehend the material. I plowed my way through it and a month later, I had no idea how I even did it. The lessons were completely Greek to me. That workshop also wrecked a story idea I had. Other outlines I’ve tried — well, they failed at the third chapter, every single time.

    I actually need to write the story to figure out what goes in it. Outlines simply don’t do that for me. For me, they DO limit my creativity. They also DO NOT give me any discovery.

  39. Every writer has to discover the method that works best for him, and it’s true that some authors simply never find an outlining methodology that fits their personality and writing style. For them, their rough drafts *are* they’re outlines, which they go back and refine in further revisions.

  40. All I can say is that my first draft is just a first draft of the story itself — not an “outline.” Since I’ve experimented with outlines, it’s obvious to me that it’s like cats and apples — two very different things. But I also get that outliners don’t understand the writing process for non-outliners.

  41. Actually, having pantsed many story in my early days as a writer, I do understand the mindset behind it – and I completely respect those who decide they would prefer write that way rather than outline. The idea I’m trying to convey here is that the creative process is much the same for all writers. Both pantsers and outliners alike have to go through a process in which they’re discovering their stories. For the panster, that process is the first draft; for the outliner, it’s the outline. But you’re right: it’s more accurate to say an outline is like a first draft than it is to say a first draft is like an outline

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