Where are we going again? (the sacrosanct story outline)

I recently attended a book signing by a celebrated local author. Once the business of the book signing had been completed, those lucky enough to stay squeezed into the shop engaged in a short Q&A session with the author. After some rather drab questions, a young novice writer asked if the author outlined their story before they wrote it. The author answered “Yes, I do write an outline, a very detailed one, chapter by chapter. Each character that will appear in the chapter is included, and what happens in the chapter is part of the outline.”

Outlining, to writers, is the process of setting out the main events of your book and working out the plot from beginning to end. It can be from a rough single page on how the plot works, or a series of post-it notes put it into order for writing. As the author above stated, outlining can be a meta-document that you refer to throughout the writing of your novel. It is a plan of your novel before you begin to write.

The author at the book signing when discussing outlining went on to say “But I abandon the outline around the third or fourth chapter because my characters take over the story. They write the rest of the story, sometimes saying and doing things I had not originally thought about.” If outlining is so important then why would the author abandon it? Her response: “I need the outline to get me started. I need to at least feel like I know where I am going with the plot. The characters often have different ideas, however.”

I personally take great care to outline the whole story before I even write the first word of a novel. It is a document that follows me throughout the entire process (it undergoes constants edits, shrinks in parts, toughens in others).
I firmly believe that we should all have some semblance of guideline when we start a story. The outline is like the skeleton of your manuscript, because:

  • You know what to write next. There is no starring at a blank screen wondering what to write. When you sit down to write, you know what to write about next. You won’t get so lost and end up down a blind alley with your plot. This is really important for those of us who struggle to find the time to write. If you only have a precious hour per day, make the best use of that time by knowing what you will write about.
  • Change plot or incorporate new ideas. If you plan it out, you can see ways to enhance the plot and add in new ideas. As you research, you will know where to put them in or what to change. These ideas could be lost with organic writing. A living novel outline document can be morphing all the time.
  • Find out the problems and holes in the plot or characters. Work out how things are meant to happen before time instead of as you write. This may enable you to see gaping holes in the plot or some problem with a character.

And lasts, and more importantly, if you’ve carefully outlined your story, it means that you know how the story ends.
I made the mistake, once, of starting out writing a story without having a clear idea of how it was going to end. Some 300 pages later, I ran out of ideas and now, several years later, that story still sits unfinished in one of my desk’s drawer.

Hope this can help you,