To Outline or Not to Outline Your Novel

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To outline or not to outline your novel. Advantages and disadvantages of outlines for writing novels. Outline methods with links.Common Outlining Methods

  • Summary: brief paragraphs giving basic detail about story structure and characters
  • Skeletal Outline (bullet points): Main headings are exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Brief details are given under each heading.
  • Chapter Outlining: Main headings are organized by chapters with short paragraphs providing the basic details of who, what, where, why, why, and how.
  • Free Writing: Considered to be a pantser-friendly outlining method, this is done in paragraph format with thoughts about what will happen, questions you have, and notes on goals.
  • Snowflake Method: A ten-step organizational method that isn’t pure outlining. Find out more about the Snowflake Method.
  • Visual Map: A type of flow chart or diagram. Information is generated around a central topic with with lines (or spokes) connecting key points to sub-topics and other details. Also referred to as a brainstorming cluster or mind mapping. Download FreeMind, a free mind mapping software by Source Forge.
  • Outlining Software: Gives you a specific format to follow and provides a variety of outline styles. Standard word processing software often includes templates for outlines. Software specifically developed for writers can also be used. A highly recommended writing software, which includes outlining capabilities, is Scrivener. Learn more about Scrivener and download a free trial or purchase the program.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you use outlines? Share your opinions and experiences in the comments below.

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4 comments

I can’t imagine writing without a plan in place! Based on your list above, my outlining process is a combination of summary, skeletal, chapter and free writing. It gives me a sense of structure as I start to write. I also find that by mapping out each character in detail, and listing their strengths and weakness, challenges, goals and motivations, I gain a clearer understanding of each character’s current situation. The same applies with world building – it allows me add some depth to what is going on ‘behind the scenes’ and to flesh out my world in more detail. When I sit down to write, I love how my story always takes off on a tangent I hadn’t expected or plotted and I follow the flow. So, generally once I start writing, the plot is organically developing and I’m adding to my outline. In that way, I suppose you could say I’m a bit of a hybrid. It works for me anyway 🙂

Kelly, I’m a Pantser for all the reasons you listed under the Disadvantages of Using an Outline. But to a certain extent, I’m outlining in my head. In my imagination, I’m coming up with an initial skeleton of the story, and then I build on the structure. Keeping it inside for a period is like an incubation where it takes hold and starts to mature. By the time I start writing, I’ve already thrown out plots that wouldn’t work so I can move forward with the ones that flow

I do write down the character traits in detail, even if I use a location as a character. That way I can refer back to eye colors and fine detail all while I’m developing the plot. Then when my story plays like a movie in my head, I begin to write, with plenty of room for adjusting, as I translate my movie to paper. It’s all fun. But my head is a pretty busy place for a period of time.

When I was younger an outline really felt like a vice but now I’m in my 30’s and it makes sure I don’t forget stuff!

I use the Snowflake method and find it’s a great way to outline while allowing midstream changes. My characters can still lead me in new directions — I just have to return to the Snowflake Pro file and revise the outline with the unexpected modifications. It’s much easier to revise an outline than it is a completed manuscript.

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