April 18, 2016 | Posted in: April 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge, Writing & Grammar Tips, XterraWeb Book Blog

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O is For Outlines
To Outline or Not to Outline Your Novel

One of the biggest debates writers have is whether or not an outline should be created before writing a novel. Writers are divided into two camps—those who plan and outline (a.k.a. plotters) and those who don’t outline and choose to write by the “seat of their pants” (a.k.a. pantsers).

Is it better to outline or not to outline? There is no right answer. You must discover your right answer. Try writing with an outline and without an outline. Depending on how you look at it, there are both advantages and disadvantages to outlining. Find out which works best for you.

An outline is a big picture of your work before you begin to write your content. An outline provides a general framework or blueprint of all of your ideas put down on paper or in a computer file (created with standard word processing/spreadsheet software or specialized software) and arranged in a logical, well-organized fashion. There are various ways to create outlines and there is no set method. The important part is to choose an outlining method that works for you.

An outline for a novel is part of the pre-planning process and begins with brainstorming and making notes on the major elements of the story (plot, theme, setting, characters). Outlines can change. You aren’t committed to it and unable to deviate from it.

Common advantages and disadvantages to outlining are listed below followed by a list of different outlining methods.

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

Advantages of Using an Outline

  • Less chance of writer’s block and/or writing yourself into a corner
  • Number of rewrites and edits is often reduced
  • Can increase spontaneity
  • Writing with a sense of flow, which helps with natural pacing
  • Not getting lost with where the story is going
  • Might stimulate creativity as you are thinking everything through
  • Can help you focus on your writing
  • No need to think about what happens next even if things change with the story because you already have a general idea in place
  • Easy to edit story structure
  • Can help with tracking characters, character arcs, and backstory and identifying plot holes and/or inconsistencies
  • Can save time as an outline can often let you know if a story will work before you begin writing
  • Allows for experimentation—trying different conflicts, crises, resolutions, and endings—within a few paragraphs
  • Gives a sense of direction

Disadvantages of Using an Outline

  • Forces you to use the linear and logical part of your brain more than the creative part
  • Might not be compatible with your writing style
  • Might feel unnatural, especially if your natural writing style is no planning and just writing
  • Unhelpful if you feel you don’t know your characters well enough until you’ve written about them at some length
  • Removes the opportunity for characters to surprise you
  • Can spoil the mystery
  • Might feel as though it is dampening creativity as the characters and the story are put into a set sequence
  • You lose the joy of discovering what happens along the way
  • Might feel as though you are stuck with the outline and can’t deviate from it
  • Can turn writing into a duty or chore
  • Creating an outline might feel exhausting, energy-draining, and tedious
  • Might cause you to stop taking risks

Some 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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3 Comments

  1. Siobhan Davis
    April 19, 2016

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    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 🙂

  2. Pam Kesterson
    April 19, 2016

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    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.

  3. porcheberry
    February 25, 2017

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    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!

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