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To Heck With Outlining — For Now

// Author: Jordan Locke // 10 Comments

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a bit of a pantster, meaning I usually have a rough idea of the plot when I start writing, but rather than planning everything out, I fly by the seat of my pants. This can be good for spontaneity. Not too great for keeping everything in line. To make matters worse, I’ll sometimes skip a chapter or merely write a quick summary and move on to the next scene. Oftentimes, the plot is disjointed. I’ll linger too long in one spot and only touch the surface of another. I’ll write the same basic scene more than once.

And I’ll realize—I should have written that outline.

It’s not too late. Even though the novel is done, outlining can help. The process can let you see the big picture and identify where the plot has gone awry. Outlining can show where the tension has evaporated and where there’s too much going on.

I’m going through this process with a book I’d shelved. It has been critiqued and much of the feedback incorporated, but I still feel it’s not quite ready for the world to see. So I’m summarizing each chapter with a few short sentences and looking for those low points and high points. I’m still not sure if I’ll keep working on this manuscript or start a new project, but it’s helping me flush out some of the issues, to figure out where the plot is lagging, identifying those chapters that can be cut and those that might be missing.

So, even if you’re finished with your novel, consider outlining. There’s no reason why it can’t be done after the fact.

Tell me in the comments section: Do you outline, and when.

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  1. Jordan Locke - October 1, 2013 11:31 pm

    Please post a comment.

    • D.B. Christopher - November 29, 2013 6:30 pm

      “The Long Way Home to Outlining My Books”

      For years I avoided outlining like it was a virus that ate away at my creative flow. Outlining just seemed to me to be something that countered all my creative energy. And it seemed to block what might be revealed to me by my characters as their voices, thoughts and desires hit the pages (and we all know how quickly a character can begin to unload story and dialogue in our moments of creative bliss).

      I also felt that by defining my story and its character’s journey with an outline somehow restricted their potential for growth and/or exploration. More simply, while using an outline I found myself forgetting that my characters were alive and needed a freedom to sometimes lead the story. Thus, by extension I thought the outline stole my character’s freedom, and growth and exploration opportunities because I felt boxed into the goal of doing what was necessary to get my characters to the next scene in the outline. And as a result I felt my story lost opportunity to exploit my character’s freewill.

      So, for years I wrote without an outline, giving my characters free reign and an iron fist, so to speak, to dictate to me their journey to my preconceived ending….


      It was a mistake because over time I discovered how GREEDY I had allowed my characters to become in my stories. And let me first tell you that this discovery didn’t come easily. When others read my stories; the comments were always the same, “D.B., the premise of the story is GREAT, I Love It, but why does the character do this, or why did she want that, why did he/she go here? I don’t see the relevance, etc.,” And of course I took the constructive criticism personally, which was another huge mistake (but that’s another topic).

      Anyway, what I learned was that without the discipline of having an outline, I had given my characters license to do anything and everything they wanted as long as i felt that it advanced the plot or subplot in some way. But what this ultimately did was allow me to create a premise for a GREAT Story, as my readers had said, but one that was covered in layers and layers of unnecessary “FAT INK” as I now call it… (story detail, scenes & dialogue that have to be carved away in order for the real story to be seen, read, heard, felt and enjoyed.)

      The lesson here? Without an outline, I wasted so much time obliging my characters with freedom to tell my wonderful story that the story became lost in too much FAT INK.

      So, what do I do now? Well, I still don’t completely outline my books, it just rubs me the wrong way, but I do something that really works for me… More often than not I know two things about my new book; the beginning I want to incorporate, and the ending I’d like to see emerge. And from this I DRAFT an outline including all the necessary stages of story as bullet points in between, (i.e. the rise and fall of conflict and plot points or reversals that create the story tension, etc.,). Sometimes these bullet points are short sentence (or sometimes their just a word or two), and then i STOP.

      I don’t add anymore to the outline because this is where my new process comes into play.

      I begin writing, and after each chapter I take a moment to critique the story direction, asking the question (does this chapter move my characters in a direction that can plausibly allow him or her to reach my preconceived ending?) If the answer is yes? In the next chapter i allow the character to continue to reveal more of his or her logic as to why the story is taking this shape or following this path. If the answer is no? I STOP. I copy and paste that chapter into another WORD file, and save it, then i start over fresh directing the character down another path to explore. This process allows the character to still have freedom but only enough to move his intentions one chapter at a time… because the next step in my process is to take the collection of chapters (however many i have written) and compare then then to the DRAFT outline… I need to do this to make sure i am staying on task with meeting the rise and fall of conflict and plot points or reversals that create the story tension from beginning to end. And if indeed the chapters fit the DRAFT outline, then i leave them be and continue with the story as its unfolding. If the chapters don’t appear to be staying on task with meeting the rise and fall of conflict and plot points or reversals that create the story tension from beginning to end. I STOP and rework those few chapters in order to groom them so that they comply with a sound story structure and so that they are Free of “FAT INK”.

      I suppose this process could be said to be one of outlining one’s book as one writes. For me it has been a great new way to approach my writing. I still don’t completely outline in great detail, ever chapter of the book, but rather simply highlight or bullet point, under the guise of sound story structure, all the things i know i want to be in it or to happen. And then, I begin writing and listening to my characters, and with each chapter or two or three, i compare them to the DRAFT outline to be sure I don’t deviate and add unnecessary “FAT INK”.

      Thanks for your article.
      Really enjoyed it,

  2. Erika Beebe - October 2, 2013 12:25 am

    I have found myself in the same place at times. Love this. Erika

  3. Sarah - October 18, 2013 8:11 pm

    I’ve made it a habit now to at least write a long summary of what exactly the plot is about, what each character’s struggle and goal is, and what the (general) outcome of the story will be. I too was getting lost as I was writing. I personally find it hard to follow an outline and feel freer to write if I don’t have one, however, having an outline of any sort can definitely be beneficial at times.

    • Jordan Locke - October 22, 2013 2:45 am

      It’s great to have an outline to start. I do usually have a rough outline in my head but don’t write it down. It’s often very high level, though, just the basic story.

  4. Jean Lewis - October 19, 2013 1:53 pm

    Interesting comments on outlining. I start on a plot and write whatever comes into my head and then I keep a note on my iPad of the characters. as the occur. I keep a list of places too so that if I want to check I can. After each chapter I get my husband to read it through after ai have checked it myself. It’s surprising how many mistakes he finds! I am getting better though. Last time he checked it was free of errors.

    • Jordan Locke - October 22, 2013 2:41 am

      I have a couple of friends who proofread my novel when ready. It’s impossible for me to catch everything myself.

  5. Jean Lewis - October 19, 2013 1:54 pm

    Oops I see I made a typing error above. Sorry.

  6. KC Herbel - October 20, 2013 7:53 pm

    I always start with an outline.
    After I’ve lived with the idea for a while, I take all the notes I’ve made – notes that come after thought and research, and notes that come from flashes of intuition and I combine these into a detailed outline (as detailed as I can), which I continuously update and expand as I write.
    Recently, I’ve begun the practice of taking the pertinent section of my master outline, and pasting it into the first blank page of the chapter I’m beginning. After reading it again, I begin to write, just above this, so that the outline is at the end of the chapter. If I forget where I’m going or loose focus, I just scroll down to the outline and check. Sometimes I realize in doing so that I need to adjust it and so I do – first to the outline section in the chapter and then to the master outline. I also will eliminate parts of the outline that are written. (BTW: this also gives a black eye to that nasty blank page as it tries to stare me down.)
    This might seem oppressive to some, but I find it freeing. Knowing where I’m going, what the characters need to convey, what my goals are with this current chapter, I can relax (mostly) and just write.
    Sorry to go long, but I hope this helps someone.
    Best wishes and better adventures,

    • Jordan Locke - October 22, 2013 2:51 am

      That’s great. I’m sure it saves time in the long run. I think some writers would find it restricting, but I can definitely see how you might find it freeing. Thanks for the view from the other side of the fence, and good luck with your writing.


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