To Outline or Not to Outline

I just learned that the first book in my Red Sneaker Writers series, Story Structure, is highly recommended in another writing book (Structuring Your Novel, by KM Weiland). Praise from your peers is always pleasing…and causes me to think about structure. One of the biggest debates on the writing-conference circuit these days is whether to be a planner or a “pantser,” that is, someone who outlines or someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

Those who have read my books, especially Structure and the new one, Excellent Editing, know that I advocate planning, specifically pre-writing and outlining, if your goal is to produce something of publishable quality. (If you’re just writing for fun or therapy, I suppose you can do whatever you want). I think the reality is, many people are not outlining, not because they believe this will produce better work but because outlining is a lot of work and they’d rather start writing on this brilliant idea they’ve had. The problem is that the idea peters out in a hundred pages or so, and then they have no idea what to write next.

Outlining does take time, but it isn’t really that hard. Here’s a streamlined version of how to do it (the more detailed version is in Story Structure):

Purchase 60 index cards.  Break them up into (3) acts, approximately: Act 1 – 15 cards, Act 2 – 30 cards, Act 3 – 15 cards. Each card should contain one scene.  Each scene should contain 5-6 beats.

Notes about Act 1:  The inciting incident takes place early in Act 1.  The protagonist must be introduced.  The antagonist should probably be introduced.  All viewpoint characters typically will be introduced.  Perhaps a subplot or two will be introduced.  Supporting characters may be introduced.  The Act will end with the first major Turning Point, which sets the protagonist decisively on his or her journey.

Notes about Act 2:  A character turning point (a glimmer of an indication that the character might change) should appear mid-Act 2.  Plot twists are recommended to keep the story from losing energy and sagging in the middle.  The main plot and subplots should be advanced.  Viewpoint characters should be carried forward, as well as any other important supporting characters.  The protagonist should be faced with progressively more difficult obstacles or challenges.  Act 2 ends with the second major Turning Point, the ‘dark moment” or “crisis,” when the conflict has escalated to its highest point–often by becoming more personal to the protagonist.

Notes about Act 3:  The protagonist undertakes difficult steps to overcome the obstacles or challenges.  The climax is a large sequence, the largest and most dramatic in the book, and appears toward the end of Act 3.  Denouement follows to wrap up any loose ends or character business and give the book emotional resonance.

Finally: Once you have all the scenes mapped out and in the correct order, type up your outline from the cards, or pin them to a bulletin board.  Save it in a safe place. You will undoubtedly add to or subtract from it as you actually write the book.

Pretty simple, right? Give it a try next time you start a writing project. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Story Structure: http://www.amazon.com/Story-Structure-Successful-Fiction-Sneaker/dp/1484024893/

Excellent Editing: http://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker/dp/0692703225/